Tropical Heights

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by MagdaDH_AlexH on October 3, 2010

Atherton Tablelands or Cairns Highlands is the name given to an upland area west of Cairns, a popular destination for a day or weekend trip and one of the many reasons why Cairns is such an attractive base for touring the local area. On a hot day, the cooler and drier uplands (the tablelands are at an altitude of 400 – 1100 metres) provide a welcome respite.

The area easily affords a few days of leisurely exploration, especially if you are into bush-walking, but at the minimum there are two circuits around them, each taking a whole day. The northern part covers Kuranda, Atherton and Yungaburra, while the southern part is the so-called waterfall circuit, with Millaa Millaa being the most famous one.

We do the Kuranda/Atherton loop on a day that's pleasantly warm but not hot (it's July, meaning Australian winter, and in the tropics, the dry season). The road from Cairns passes the lower station of the Skyrail (a cable car gondola that travels above the treetops to the village of Kuranda) and then climbs quickly and steeply along a series of hairpin bends. We stop at a lookout for a great view of the coastal plain, Cairns and surrounding hills and the continue up to Kuranda.

The road takes us through a wooded area of what I suppose is still a rainforest, but a slightly drier one that the sea-level areas. There are signs warning of cassowaries and other wildlife, but we don't see any: no wonder, as the road is rather busy with campervans and tourbuses.

Kuranda (a small detour from the main road through the tablelands) is one of the most popular destinations in the Cairns region, partially because it's the terminus to the aforementioned Skyrail and also the Kuranda Scenic Railway, but also because originally it was known for "alternative" arts and crafts community that developed here a while ago as well as it's wonderful setting in the upland rainforest.

Nowadays, it's a utterly dreadful tourist trap, entirely manufactured and artificial place consisting mostly of shops (some do sell reasonable crafts and artwork) and several slapdash, purpose-built "attractions" in addition to the Skyrail and the train.

We have an ice cream, a play in the play park and escape as soon as possible. A couple of miles from the village lie the Barron Falls, a picturesque cascade via which the Barron River reaches the Cairns coastal plain. The falls are 260m high and can be seen from a board walk lookout, accessible from a car park as well as from a station of the Scenic Railway and the gondolas of the Skyrail.

In the wet season the falls are magnificent (or so say people who have seen and photos). Now in July the roaring cascade has turned into more of a trickle, but the rocky gorge itself is pretty impressive, and it's fun to see tiny figures of people climbing the rockside and diving into the waterholes near the base. On the way back, we spot a huge (but apparently harmless), black and yellow spider spinning its web between posts of the boardwalk railing.

We then drive through the tablelands proper. The landscape changes from rainforest to that typical Australian semi-arid, scrubby bush over read-brown earth dotted with eucalyptus. It's not an objectively beautiful scenery, but has that unmistakable, iconic almost otherness about it that is so characteristic of Australia. Added attraction here is the appearance of large, irregular, brown blobs of termite mounds – not as big as the ones found in the Northern Territory, but for somebody who has never seen one, pretty impressive.

We stop at the roadside store for some fruit and local coffee (a lot of things grows on the tablelands) and then drive on towards and Atherton. There is more farmland, and distant mountains appear in the blueish mist on the horizon. Past Atherton the landscape morphs into a green, rolling hills, fields and pastures eerily reminiscent of English countryside.

The day is drawing to a close and we skip some possibly attractive detours and some dubious attractions, but we make a small detour at Yungaburra to see the magnificent Curtain Fig: a five-hundred years old strangler fig, which, through a fluke of fate, grew through two other trees (instead of usual one) and in the process created a surreal and rather scary-looking triangular, living wall of air-roots and branches of immense proportions. A short boardwalk takes visitors through an usual forest surrounding the tree and the around the fig itself.

Further along the Gillies highway lie two crater lakes, Eacham and Barrine. We detour to the first of them, and are rewarded by a lovely, crystal clear and mirror-like lake surrounded by rainforest. Too late for swimming, but still well worth for the views and a little walk.

Further one, it's just a quick drive down the Gillies Highway back to the main Cook's Highway and Cairns, via a rather hair-raising series of bends.

Atherton tablelands are not as amazingly special as they are made out to be (but then, not that many things in Australia seem to be) but they make for a nice day trip from Cairns and particularly in the wet season will offer a nice respite from the sea-level heat. The waterfalls, the termite mounds and the curtain fig are particularly good and if you even have a chance of seeing a cassowary.
Atherton Tableland

Cairns, Queensland

© LP 2000-2009