Tropical Treasures of Cairns, QLD
There’s plenty to see and do around Cairns, including these lesser-known destinations.
Abundant natural beauty has made Cairns a launching pad for a plethora of tours, from island cruises to white-water rafting, Indigenous cultural experiences and even a historic railway. While it may not be the traditionally preferred time to take a tropical trip, as QLD's borders open up, we've no doubt the southern states will be willing to brave the heat for a long-awaited tropical sojourn.
(Image: Granite Gorge- hand feeding the wallabies is a highlight.)
An hour and 15-minute drive inland to Granite Gorge sees a shift from lush rainforest to dry savannah. A maze of enormous boulders cut by Granite Creek, Granite Gorge’s terrain makes a fantastic playground for hiking and swimming. But its most famous attraction is a colony of sociable Mareeba rock wallabies that not only feed right from your hand but will likely sit in your lap too. The gorge is on private property and though these pint-size furry creatures are entirely wild and free to wander, they have become accustomed to humans and hand-feeding them the approved pellets provided is a real treat.
Several short hiking trails wind between and over the boulders, offering some striking views across the Atherton Tablelands. A side trip to Whale Rock is quite a scramble, marked by painted red dots that guide walkers past a wonderland of palms, streams and a string of well-defined dinosaur footprints embedded in the rock. There are also dozens of turtles to be found loitering at the weir, hoping to score a few wallaby pellets.
Expansive shaded campgrounds are onsite and just a short walk from crocodile-free swimming and canoeing.
(Image: Etty Bay, a cassowary on the beach at dusk.)
There is something magical about a bird that stands up to two metres tall, has a horn on its head, flouncy black plumage and a bright blue and red neck. The southern cassowary is Australia’s heaviest bird, weighing up to 76kg, yet despite its size and bright colouring, it’s often difficult to spot.
Mission Beach and the Daintree are popular locations to try and see one of these birds but at Etty Bay you’re almost guaranteed. Situated at the end of a dead-end road a 90-minute drive south of Cairns, Etty Bay is enclosed by the rainforested Moresby Range that cascades steeply to a 700m sweep of white sand. It’s perhaps this relative isolation and reduced traffic that has allowed the cassowary population here to flourish.
Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to spot these impressive birds as they forage for food on the beach or between tents and vans at the waterfront caravan park. This lack of shyness often makes for some pretty special encounters but it’s best to give the birds their space. Each of their three-toed feet bears a dagger-shaped claw up to 12cm in length that can inflict serious injuries if they feel threatened.
Apart from wildlife spotting, a stinger net and surf lifesavers make the bay relatively safe for swimming. Fishing is best at high tide from the rocks at either end of the beach.
(Image: Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park.)
Chillagoe was once a thriving base for mining, but its main draw now is the 600 odd caves scattered throughout the karst system of Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park.
The spectacular caves are abundant with stalactites, stalagmites and flowstones, and provide a home to colonies of bats, swiftlets (similar to swallows), insects and the odd spotted python. You’ll need a head torch for some of the self-guided caves, but the sense of discovery will leave you feeling like a real explorer. Alternatively, ranger-guided tours navigate have walkways and lighting to make movement a little easier, but there are still plenty of steps, ladders and tight squeezes to negotiate.
A 15km drive west of Chillagoe leads to Mungana and the Archways cave system where delicate ripples of limestone are interspersed with treeroots from above. The occasional collapsed ceiling shines light into cavernous rooms.
Above ground there are numerous excellent walks in the park, from short strolls to 9km hikes, taking in some spectacular features. Balancing Rock teeters around eight metres over any walkers skirting beneath it, the Wullumba Aboriginal rock art site can be found on the Royal Arch track and Royal Arch Bluff is a striking thrust of jagged limestone rising from the surrounding woodland.
(Image: Chillagoe- Balancing Rock found at the Wullumba Aboriginal rock art site.)
There are few swimming holes around the Cairns region more idyllic than Babinda Boulders. The Babinda Creek cascades into crystal clear emerald pools overhung with rainforest and vines. The flow comes from Mt Bartle Frere, Queensland’s highest mountain, a mere seven kilometres away, so there’s not much to taint its purity.
Annual rainfall here is some of the highest in the country and over aeons, water has worn the surrounding rock into beautifully sculpted curves and holes best viewed from the walking track to Boulders Gorge lookout. This sealed path is 600m long and goes via the Devil’s Pool Lookout.
Those wanting to stretch their legs can embark on the 19km Goldfields Trail that starts at the Boulders. This rough track, which slides between Mt Bartle Frere and Bellenden Ker, is a hotspot for the strikingly large king fern. Even if you only venture 100m up this track, you’ll find a beautiful and far less visited swimming hole with huge rounded boulders to enjoy.
With no crocodiles to worry about, and gas BBQs and picnic tables provided, this is a popular hangout with the locals.
(Image: Cattana Wetlands just north of Cairns.)
What were once cane fields and a sand quarry has been restored into a thriving wetland area, providing habitat for abundant birds and animals.
Despite being just a 20-minute drive north of Cairns, the reserve, which opened to the public in 2009, has largely escaped tourism’s attention. A network of trails wind through the wetlands, dotted with park benches that invite wildlife-watching or quiet contemplation. Birders will have a field day spotting the abundant species, including kingfishers, black-necked storks (Jabiru), jacanas, crimson finches and dozens more, that call it home.
Butterflies are a real treat here and you’re bound to spot plenty of the dazzling electric blue Ulysses. It’s estimated that around 40 species of butterfly live in these wetlands, along with dragonflies and cicadas.
If you follow the boardwalks through the Feather Palm forest, you’ll cross some streams where fish and eels linger in the shadows.
Despite its tamed past, Cattana is now a rich nature immersion experience with life at every level. Those that linger and observe will be rewarded with some excellent sightings.