As much as I love driving along the many winding coastal roads in Australia, enjoying infinite ocean views and stopping for a swim on white sandy beaches, taking the inland route towards Cooktown from Innisfail was a welcome change (plus, you actually can’t swim at a lot of the beaches in northern Queensland because of marine stingers and crocodiles – eek!) We discovered a whole new side to Australia on this drive – from ancient Aboriginal rock art to secret camping spots. Read on to find out the things that make the Atherton Tablelands a very worthy detour.
Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls…
Now is the time to ignore the advice of one-hit wonder TLC and chase those waterfalls until you can’t chase them anymore. From Innisfail, turn left and head towards Wooroonooran National Park to begin this dreamy waterfall circuit.
- Josephine Falls – a short walk through the rainforest takes you to a tiered cascade waterfall and a few different viewing platforms. There’s also a little sandy area with a lovely swimming hole – like I said, make the most of it as you can’t swim everywhere around here!
- Mungalli Falls – situated down a narrow road (and quite badly signposted!) but certainly worth a visit. There was a huge school trip when we visited but the friendly guy directed us to the viewing platform while attempting to multitask and entertain the kids. Some nice rapids as well and a great view from the top (at least I imagine so when the fog isn’t as thick as this!)
- Ellinjaa Falls – this marks the beginning of a short waterfall circuit of 3 different waterfalls, all located close to one another and near the town of Millaa Millaa (pop. 400). Ellinjaa Falls require a short, (slightly steep) walk down to the base of the falls from the car park. Really beautiful and peaceful at the bottom and you can get a fantastic view right up close.
- Zillie Falls – beautiful falls with a (slightly restricted) view of the top of the falls from the platform. Apparently one of the trees in the car park is home to a colony of Flying Foxes – we didn’t spot the tree but I did see a lonely bat fly over my head!
- Millaa Millaa Falls – last but not least, these are the most dramatic looking falls with a fantastic head-on view and an excellent swimming/photo opportunity. But beware… the tourist buses like to pull up here and it removes the aura of the thing itself (for me!) It would be worthwhile if you can go really early in the morning, so you can avoid the crowds. It’s also worth popping in to the town of Millaa Millaa itself, just to have a walk down the main street (a few cafes and tourist shops). There’s a significant Aboriginal heritage (as with many Australian towns in this area) and you can read a bit about it in the local park, although the information is limited.
If you haven’t quite satisfied your waterfall cravings yet, it could be worth venturing further afield to Ravenshoe (Queensland’s highest town) where they have even more waterfalls, an array of wildlife (including tree kangaroos!) and the Innot Hot Springs. Unfortunately we were a bit pushed for time so we didn’t make it there, but here is a link for more information on the area.
Gallo Cheese and Chocolate – yummm!
The Tablelands region is renowned for its dairy farming, so it would be rude not to try some of the excellent produce on offer! If you’re a cheese and/or chocolate fan, Gallo is definitely worth a visit when you’re in Atherton. Take a wonder around the lively animal nursery (lots of free-range chickens, calves, goats etc.) try a free + extensive cheese tasting, and check out the cheese and chocolate factories. We came away with some camembert and macadamia cheese – both absolutely delicious and really good value! The customer service was great too 🙂
If you’re interested in trying some of the region’s unique, exotic fruit wine, then Golden Drop Winery is also located near Atherton. We didn’t make it there but apparently the mango wine is the standout flavour!
Coffee Addicts: Pay Attention!
Keep driving north and you’ll soon stumble upon Mareeba, which will be the largest town until you eventually reach Cooktown! Head there early for your morning caffeine fix – Mareeba grows over 70% of Australia’s coffee crop! We visited Coffee Works, where I finally discovered what a “Piccolo latte” is (short latte, equal parts milk and espresso) Aussies do love their coffee! For the diehard caffeine fans, you can pay for the full experience and get unlimited coffee/chocolate/liquor tastings while learning about the entire production process from plant to cup. But, if you don’t fancy spending $19 pp for this, then just order a delicious cup of coffee and a slice of cake at the café and enjoy inhaling the smell of freshly roasted coffee.
Mareeba also has a strong outback culture, hosting one of the biggest rodeos in Australia every July. With over 14000 attendees last year, the rodeo sounds like the place to be! If country isn’t your thing though, then there’s also the Mareeba Multicultural Festival in August, with a variety of food/craft stalls, a parade, and “non-stop entertainment” including Aboriginal, Torres Strait, PNG, Filipino, Italian, Spanish and Polynesian performers – sounds fantastic!
Another quirky little thing that Mareeba has to offer is its very own drive in movie theatre. Every weekend, you can watch 2 movies for $14 from your car. You can even stay the night if you like! We were so disappointed that it was pouring with rain when we passed through so decided to give it a miss 😦 let me know if any of you make it here!
Keep driving past little Mount Molloy, and persevere with the long drive north, which suddenly starts to feel very remote – you’ll lose all phone service for the foreseeable future from here! Plus, you stop passing through small towns and start driving through little more than drab green bushland for the next 200 km or so. Take an essential detour off the highway after you pass Lakeland to visit the Spit Rock Art Gallery ($5pp honesty box). This is the only self-guided tour available in the area and I would thoroughly recommend taking the time to visit the site. It was quite a humbling experience walking up the steep hill leading to the rock art: it is dry, isolated and ancient. Some of the rock art here is well preserved, but some of it has (understandably) eroded over the past 14,000 years (!!!) Just being there and looking at the paintings gives you a greater sense of time and place, especially since you will most likely be one of the only visitors there. The closest town from here is Laura, with nothing more than a couple of buildings, a roadhouse and an ever essential pub.
Near Cooktown lies the iconic Lion’s Den Pub; the kind of place where you have to buy an expensive bottle of beer in exchange for a true “Aussie experience”. Despite the touristy image, the atmosphere is fun, and you could spend hours admiring the memorabilia and laughing at the old stories written on the wall. It’s definitely worth stopping in for a cold one to break up the journey! You can also camp here but it was a little pricey for us so we kept driving to Archer Point, which was free, very windy, but utterly beautiful. Waking up to the sound of waves crashing against the shore and the sun rising over the ocean – what more could you ask for?
Next time, we start heading south, driving from Cooktown to Cairns before embarking on the epic journey back to Perth via Alice Springs.