Relax into a warm and welcoming tropical road trip in and around the rainforest paradise of Cairns.
Words and Images by Jan Hawkins
Cairns means many things to many people, including the international tourists who fly in looking for Aussie sun, sand and rainforests. My family have been going to Cairns for decades now and we still find plenty to do each time we stay. When planning an out-of-town adventure, we knit together some of our favourite routes to take in the huge variety of things you can do in this region.
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CAPTAIN COOK HIGHWAY
The first of these favoured routes is the Captain Cook Highway north of Cairns. It is one of the most stunning runs that will take you into a world filled with beautiful forests, crocodiles, golden beaches and adventure. If you have kids in tow, make sure you call into Hartley’s Crocodile Farm… if nothing else, this will satisfy their curiosities about our big lizards. Slow down at Mowbray’s Bridge on the way to Port Douglas; it is a favoured spot-the-croc bridge for the touring busses and you might get lucky and see one.
It is some 140km along the coast north of Cairns to Cape Tribulation, which will take roughly three hours. It is also recommended that this is as far along the coast road that you take a conventional car, though the road is open beyond the Daintree River Ferry. You can get beyond Cape Trib’ and into the Daintree Rainforest with a 4X4 and then onto Cooktown, but I definitely wouldn’t be towing a caravan any further beyond the Daintree River crossing. Bends are tight and road surfaces are often a slick, if not muddied track. Turning a caravan around on the road north of the crossing is not an option.
Driving with care is necessary as cattle, cassowaries and the occasional tree use the roads as sleeping pads and all vehicles must give way to the logging trucks. It’s an interesting alternative to the Cook Highway though when you’re heading north from Cairns.
The most famous 4X4 track in the region is the Bloomfield Track, and though it’s now something of a highway, it’s still a bit of fun. I love the ride across on the Daintree Ferry and on up to Cape Tribulation. The Daintree Rainforest is spectacular and you’ll find public boardwalks along the roadway that you’d be crazy not to take advantage of. However, if you’re towing a van and looking to reach Cooktown, I would recommend you go the tar way on the Mulligan Highway. You save little-to-no time between the Bloomfield Track and the Mulligan Highway to get to Cooktown, despite the track being considerably shorter in distance.
The northern end of the Bloomfield Track is the iconic Lions Den, where you can park your van up and enjoy the delights of this wonderful place. We generally prefer to camp closer to nature, but this is one spot we always make a beeline for.
You can find a few small bush camps further along Shipton Flats Road with the help of the local ranger whose outpost is along this road.
Cooktown is a great little coastal port where you can spend time fishing, exploring or calling into local pubs and wandering the attractions of the coastal town park. If you’re looking for a place to stop for lunch or coffee, head to Coffee Works: a boutique roaster and chocolaterie that have over 43 types of coffee, liqueurs, and hand-crafted chocolates.
FROM THE TABLELANDS
There are three main roads down from the tablelands above Cairns and each has its merits and costs. The first ‘road’ forged up onto the tablelands was the Douglas Track and is now closed to vehicles. This was an old native trail and later a bullocky track; one much-loved and hated for its challenges but is now open to bikes and walkers only. It runs off the Speewah Road, branching from the Kennedy Highway that travels between Mareeba on the tablelands, and Smithfield on the coastal fringe north of Cairns.
There is a great deal to attract walkers, birdwatchers and mountain bikers in the Cairns and tableland region. Back in 1877, bushmen blazed the historic Bump Track, widening ancient Aboriginal walking tracks for horse-drawn vehicles and bullocks.
When the Kennedy Highway was built, which replaced the Douglas Track up onto the tablelands, they built one of the busiest hinterland routes in use today. It runs parallel to the mighty Barron Gorge, which is where you can take in the spectacular sights in the wet and dry season. The road is windy and steep but well used, particularly by traffic looking for the easiest road up onto the tablelands and into Kuranda.
Cairns is not only an international destination, but a local playground as well. The seaside esplanade, including the free public pool is a true gift to families and a credit to the city. From the reef to the ridges or the forests to the firmament, Cairns CBD is a place to enjoy.
You’d be a fool to pass up the public promenade of Cairns with all its delights and entertainments. It is truly a place built for families.
Rusty’s Markets operate Friday to Sunday on Grafton Street and offers over 180 stalls of wonderful fruits and other delights to tempt you – miss it at your own cost. The night markets are also a good spot to shop, but Rusty’s is a must.
Just north of Cairns the popular Skyrail gondolas travel over the rainforest canopy between Kuranda and Smithfield. Here you’re riding overhead of 7.5km of spectacular rainforest in sheltered safety. A popular choice is to head up to Kuranda, which sits high in the tableland’s edge overlooking Cairns region. You can travel on the iconic rail trip in the Kuranda Scenic Rail and return via the Skyrail gondolas. The scenery is breathtaking.
The old beloved rattler delivers you to Kuranda and a wonderful rail station that lives happily in a tropical yesteryear. Don’t miss out on the famous mango smoothies, served locally and originally served on the rail platform itself as a special feature of the journey. The pub by the railhead serves up a great feed and it too has a wonderful rustic history. The historic markets are what people go for and it is an afternoon of enjoyment to leisurely meander through the menagerie.
The one place I would not miss is Tjapukai. Seated at the bottom, adjacent to the Skyrail station, Tjapukai is the best of the many Aboriginal cultural centres that I have experienced. A half day will give you enough time to explore what Tjapukai has to offer, showcasing Australian Aboriginal Culture at its best. They also offer night-time shows and dining, and their buffet is to die for.
In this part of the country, there’s plenty to see, so plan your trip in advance and you’ll get more out of your time. It’s worth it.