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On our recent trip to Far North Queensland we spent five days exploring the magical and mystical Atherton Tablelands. In vast contrast to the tropical cities of Cairns and Port Douglas, the Atherton Tablelands unearthed a diversity of terrain from savannah grasslands; to green rolling hills; to vast fruit orchards and coffee plantations; to dairy farms; to pockets of rainforest; to tumbling waterfalls; to crater lakes; and to historic villages. There was simply too much to experience in just a few days!
Starting just south-west of Cairns and rising more than 700 metres above sea level, the Atherton Tablelands cover an area of 64,768 square kilometres. The tablelands take in Mareeba to the north, Chillagoe to the west and Ravenshoe to the south. Atherton is the main town in the tablelands and is an 80 kilometre drive from Cairns.
The best part about it is that because of its altitude, the region does not suffer from temperature extremes or the high humidity experienced in coastal areas. We found the temperature in late winter to be rather cool being in the low twenties most days.
Initially we spent a few days at Ellis Beach and Port Douglas, before connecting to the Mulligan Highway and driving through the ranges at Mt Molloy. Arriving in Mareeba mid morning, we decided to take a look around this vastly agricultural town.
The terrain around Mareeba consists of sprawling landscapes of mango, paw paw/papaya orchards, cashew and macadamia nut, banana, pineapple and coffee plantations, as well as sugar canefields.
Our first stop was to Skybury Cafe & Roastery just outside Mareeba, the oldest commercial coffee plantation. Here we saw firsthand how the coffee is roasted according to darkness and flavour, then bagged and shipped off. We were able to taste some of the flavoursome coffees, before heading into the cafe to enjoy a frothy cappuccino and freshly baked scone with paw paw jam and cream.
The views across the valley from Skybury Cafe are extraordinary and the property is surrounded by more orchards and coffee plantations. If time had permitted a visit to Golden Drop Winery to taste some of the sweet mango wines would have been a treat.
However, we decided to head to Granite Gorge so we could set up our motorhome at the camping ground here and get going on some of the hikes before we ran out of daylight. In complete contrast to the greenery of the cane fields and banana plantations, we drove into densely vegetated savannah wilderness to Granite Gorge Nature Park, only 12 kilometres outside of Mareeba.
After stopping by the office and paying for a bush campsite for the night, the park ranger gave us a map and instructions on where to hike through and over the granite boulders in the gorge. Once we set off into the gorge we immediately encountered cute rock wallabies on a large flat granite rock. We stopped and fed them out of our hands for a while before setting off over a small creek deeper into the rocky gorge.
Afterwards we ended up at the Granite Creek Weir where it is safe to swim to cool off after a lot of rock scrambling and hiking. Here we saw a number of small turtles in the shallow waters of the creek that were obviously also used to being hand fed.
The nature park not only has the cutest and tamest rock wallabies, but there are a host of other friendly farm animals that roam around the campground. These included an extremely friendly pig, a goat, horses, peacocks, turkeys and chickens. Additionally there are some other animals in cages, including cockatoos, goannas, snakes and guinea pigs.
Regrettably we left Granite Gorge the next morning to make our way to Walkamin and then onto Atherton. En route we passed the Mt Uncle Distillery, that is open for liqueurs and spirits tastings from 10am daily. Unfortunately, it was a little too early in the day for us! In the distance we saw the Mt Emerald Wind Farm with its 53 huge wind turbines dotted along the mountainside.
Atherton is located roughly in the centre of the tablelands and is a great spot to base yourself if you want to spend a few days exploring the area. Believe me, there are plenty of things to do and see within half an hour drive of this town.
The surrounding area is a giant food bowl with crops of vegetables such as lettuce, maize, corn, potatoes and pumpkin; fruit orchards offering avocados, mangoes, bananas, lychees, paw paws; and fields of strawberries, blueberries, pineapples, table grapes and melons. Some of these are available direct from the farmer at roadside stalls.
We decided to stop at one of the dairies outside of Atherton, the famous Gallo Dairyland where they make their own cheeses and chocolates. After a quick tour around the dairy farm we saw how the cheeses and chocolates were made and then partook in a tasty cheese and fruit platter.
A short drive through Atherton we ended up in the quaint village of Yungaburra, that we were told by several people not to miss. We strolled around the streets of the village that has still retained the original facades on many of the colourful shops and businesses. The timber Yungaburra Hotel stands proudly on the corner and is an impressive building.
Yungaburra Visitor Information Centre is a great place to start to find out what there is to see and do in town and in the surrounding area. There is a 3 kilometre self-guided walking map available from the centre where you will get to see 18 heritage-listed buildings in town.
Just outside of town is the Curtain Fig National Park, where you will discover one of the largest curtain fig trees in North Queensland. It is massive! A short boardwalk takes you right around the base of the huge tree.
We set off to see the three lakes not far out of Yungaburra. Lake Barrine, 10 kilometres away, was our first stop. This scenic crater lake, fringed by lush rainforest is the deepest blue colour, and can be explored by a 5 kilometre walk around the lake. Sitting lakeside is the charming Heritage Teahouse Cafe and there are boat tours on the lake on weekends.
Lake Eacham, a mere 11 kilometres away in the other direction to Yungaburra, is also located within the Crater Lakes National Park. Here there are plenty of opportunities for swimming, canoeing and picknicking. Several platforms adjoin the lake from where you can access the clear blue/green water and there is a boardwalk around a section of the lake.
Our last stop for the day was at Lake Tinaroo, which is actually a manmade dam built in the late 1950s. All kinds of water activities happen on this large lake, including fishing, sailing, canoeing, water skiing and swimming.
One of the highlights of Lake Tinaroo is the Afghanistan Avenue of Honour that sits adjacent to the lake. This memorial walk is dedicated to the memory of all who served in the Afghanistan campaign and provides a lot of useful information about Australia’s involvement in the war.
Lake Tinaroo accommodation for the night was at Lakeside Caravan Park located right on the lake and near the boat ramp. Various accommodation options here include powered and unpowered caravan sites, motel units and self-contained cabins.
We headed 18 kilometres west of Atherton to the historic mining town of Herberton where we spent an interesting day learning about the mining boom that took place here in the late 1880s. Our first stop was at the Herberton Mining Museum and Information Centre. Here we were greeted by the most knowledgable and enthusiastic local who gave us a detailed rundown on the mining history of the area. The museum is loaded with information, interactive displays, old mining equipment and mineral collections.
You may also walk around the exterior of the museum which was once the site of the the first big discovery of the Great Northern Mine.
Afterwards we had a stroll down the main street, enjoyed a coffee at one of the local cafes and then visited the Railway Museum. The old railway station still stands with some interesting memorabilia, there is a men’s shed restoring an old steam engine, and you can even take a train ride on the restored train line each Sunday.
However, the biggest drawcard to Herberton is the Historic Village on the outskirts of town. The village occupies 6.5 hectares and is laid out to resemble a tin mining town with original buildings lining the main street. We spent the remainder of the day here, but could have easily spent an entire day browsing all the exhibits here.
Although the historic village centres on the tin mining past of the area, it also features antiques, vintage cars, a working blacksmith shop, World War II memorabilia, the old Herberton State School, Tin Can Pannikin Hotel, Bakerville Tearooms and Elderslie House – built for John Newell, the father of Herberton.
Our Herberton accommodation for the night was at Wild River Caravan Park , set amongst natural bushland with grassy caravan sites. The caravan park features an amenities block housed within a ‘donger’ building made up of individual bathrooms. Plus there was camp kitchen/bar set up within a tin shed that looked very rustic and welcoming.
We took our time driving the 38 kilometres to Ravenshoe via Malanda. Stopping at the Malanda Falls for a quick look and then took a stroll around the pretty town, that is very much dairy-focused. There is an interesting art trail in the town showcasing a series of mosaics depicting the town’s history. Also standing large on the corner in the main street of Malanda, is the Big Pub with wide verandahs encircling the timber building.
It was a very scenic drive into the Misty Mountains and to the highest town in Queensland – Ravenshoe. We stopped briefly to check out Windy Hill wind farm set high on the extinct volcano of Windy Hill. After a short visit to the Ravenshoe Visitor Centre, we took a quick look through town to learn about its timber felling history, and then set off to the Millstream Falls.
There are two waterfalls – Little Millstream and Big Millstream Falls. The closest one to town, Little Millstream Falls is 3 kilometres away and is accessible down a short walking trail. These pretty falls split into three as they spill over granite rock into a pool below. Apparently, if you’re lucky enough you may spot a platypus in the waters here.
Further out of Ravenshoe are the astonishing Big Millstream Falls – the widest single drop falls in Australia that spill over old basalt lava flow. I must say that these waterfalls are spectacular and are easily accessible down a 400 metre sealed path. However if you’re brave enough to get off the main path you can view the falls down a series of narrow dirt paths and even scramble over the rocks to access the top of the falls.
Returning to Ravenshoe we found somewhere to park our motorhome for the night on the vacant block next to the historic Ravenshoe Pub. For $15 we were able to use the hotel’s modern amenities and enjoyed a hearty meal in the pub’s restaurant beside a welcoming open fire. It was a coolish night, being at 920 metres above sea, and we certainly embraced the cosy fire and old-fashioned country hospitality.
Our last day in the Atherton Tablelands took us on what was one of the most incredible adventures to the picturesque waterfalls in the Misty Mountains. Once we left Ravenshoe we took the scenic drive on Old Palmerston Highway and immediately experienced “the mist” blanketing the mountains and valleys. It was possibly one of the prettiest drives that I’ve undertaken with scenery that took my breath away at every curve in the winding road.
It had started to rain, but it added to the mystical “mood” of the day. We were chasing waterfalls, so it seemed befitting! Out first one of the day was called Pepina Falls, located about 10 kilometres outside of Millaa Millaa. This small 5 metre waterfall is located on Middlebrook Creek just off the roadside on the Old Palmerston Highway. It’s only a short walk down to the bottom of the falls or you can view the top of the falls from the carpark.
We arrived in Millaa Millaa for a morning coffee and a brief look around the town, then continued to Waterfall Way circuit. Visiting the three waterfalls that make up this pretty drive through green hilly farmlands, broken up with pockets of rainforest.
After our morning of chasing waterfalls we stopped for a late lunch at Mungalli Farmhouse Cafe, an organic farm-to-plate experience located just off the Palmerston Highway in Brooks Road. The cafe offers free cheese and ice cream tastings daily, but also has a great lunch menu.
One of the most scenic and breathtaking drives is from the Atherton Tablelands through the Misty Mountains to Innisfail. These mountains are often blanketed in mist and are densely covered in rainforest that form part of the Wet Tropics area of Far North Queensland.
There are a 130 kilometre network of short and long wilderness tracks throughout the Misty Mountains that take bushwalkers through pristine, high-altitude rainforest with crystal clear creeks, waterfalls and panoramic views. They comprise four long tracks: the Koolmoon Creek, Cannabullen Creek, Cardwell Range and Gorrell tracks.
We stopped at a couple places to admire the views along the drive, one being at Crawford’s Lookout that offers a glimpse of the North Johnston River horseshoe bend between the rainforest trees. We also stopped at Henrietta Creek Camping Area, that is the access point to the 6.6 kilometres walk to Nandroya Falls in Wooroonooran National Park.
At the end of this fabulous day, we wound up at Paronella Park in Mena Creek where we camped for the night in the adjoining caravan park. Our admission to Paronella Park gave us a free night’s accommodation so that we could experience this magical “castle in the rainforest” by evening, and then by daylight the next morning.
This 13 acre property on the banks of Mena Creek was the dream of Spaniard, Jose Paronella in 1929, to build a castle in the rainforest. He based the design of the castle on his childhood memories of Catalonian castles. The former cane-cutter also created exquisite surroundings with an avenue of large kauri trees, bamboo walk, a fountain, tennis courts, and a suspension bridge across the creek at the top of Mena Falls.
There are guided tours through the property that gives you the whole story of Jose Paronella’s dream. The evening tour culminates in a splendid light and sound show choreographed to music. Otherwise take a self-guided walk through the extensive gardens.
Paronella Park was the perfect conclusion to our five day itinerary in the Atherton Tablelands. It was undeniably one of the most amazing experiences that I’ve had. It offered everything, from tumbling waterfalls, scenic vistas at every turn, beautiful lakes, lush rainforest and was a gourmet foodie’s delight.
Kathy was a 50 something year old when she started up this blog 6 years ago, but has since turned over another decade and is now in her early 60s. She is married with two adult children and lives on the Tweed Coast of New South Wales, Australia. Kathy enjoys living life to the fullest and loves to keep fit and active by maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly. Some of her interests include reading, photography, travelling, cooking and blogging! Kathy works part-time as a freelance writer but her real passion is travelling and photographing brilliant destinations both within Australia and overseas and writing about it.
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