Sprawled across the tropical highlands above Cairns lies a volcanically-carved haven of tumbling waterfalls, lush rainforest, unique wildlife, charming towns and historic culture. The Atherton Tableland is certainly a place worth devoting a few days to.
It was a refreshing change, after having spent months travelling through Australia’s outback, across dry savannah and the dull palette of arid wilderness, to finally drive up into the lush, rolling green hills of the Tablelands – to suddenly remember that not everywhere in Australia is so unfortunately drought-stricken. It really takes you by surprise, and the change from drab grasslands to lush tropics is quite sudden and remarkable.
The mist-shrouded ranges and dense rainforest of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area are some of Australia’s most spectacular natural wonders, and up here they’re bordered by lush green pastures and a tangled network of small towns bustling with character and charm.
Craters, Lakes and Fig Trees
While it’s often done as a day trip or a weekend from Cairns, the area warrants at least a week to properly explore. If you are pressed for time, there’s still plenty of stand-out attractions that can be seen in a day.
The beautifully still Lakes Barrine and Eacham, lying within volcanically-carved depressions surrounded by dense rainforest highlands, aren’t a bad first stop. They make for some great swimming, especially if the weather’s warm. If not, you can go kayaking, take one of the circuit walks around the lakes, or kick back on the fringing lawns and watch honeyeaters feed and turtles lazing beneath the clear water.
Curtain Fig Tree National Park is barely ten minutes away, and the unique and impressively strange root formations of its 500-year-old namesake make for another worthwhile stop.
From there, you can continue on to Mount Hypipamee, and check out the remarkable crater and the tranquil Dinner Falls on a short loop walk. There’s walking trails scattered all across the tableland, with a vast network of tracks delving into the pockets of labyrinthine forest, showcasing this vibrant world of strangling figs, creeping vines, delicate ferns and shrouding canopy.
The drip of rain and the earthy scent of decomposing vegetation are staples within the rainforest, where hooked tendrils cling to slick palms and vibrant fungi sprout from mossy trunks. Great vines and gnarled root-systems snake their way over a carpet of half-eaten fruits dropped by colourful fruit-doves and secretive cassowaries. It pays to keep an eye out for flashes of colour amidst the dark forest, whether it’s the electric blue of a Ulysses butterfly, or one of the many species of birds that call the forest home.
Brilliant golden bowerbirds, elusive parrotfinches and the spectacular Victoria’s riflebird can be found across the tableland, while pademelons and strangely adorable musky rat-kangaroos frequent the forest-floor. For nature-lovers, it’s worth going spotlighting in one of the many national parks, where there’s half a dozen possum species to be found, as well as bandicoots, giant tree-rats and the often-cryptic tree kangaroos.
History, Culture and Markets
For those that prefer the appeal of boutique shops, local foods, rainforest cafés and bustling markets, the Tableland has you covered. From the main population centres of Atherton and Mareeba, we found that each small town scattered around the area had its own unique personality and attractions. Herberton is the place to delve into some history, as it was once the richest tin mining field in Australia, and the Herberton Historic Village is a beautifully restored slice of this bygone era.
The mountain towns are all linked by a tangle of windy roads, and as we drifted between them, between the swathes of encroaching forest and views of sprawling green fields, we passed farms, fruit stalls, tea rooms, coffee plantations and small establishments offering cheese, chocolates and ice creams.
If that’s not enough, head over to Kuranda. The rainforest town, just half an hour from Cairns, is known predominantly for its daily markets and wide selection of food stalls, as well as it’s scenic railway, butterfly sanctuary and numerous other attractions.
At the end of the day, I reckon the abundant waterfalls were the highlight of our visit. While perhaps none were the biggest or most spectacular I’ve ever seen, there is something to be said about the sheer quantity of them, as well as the remarkable variation. From delicately trickling cascades to thundering torrential drops and misty rainforest pools; there were very few walks that didn’t seem to end up at a waterfall, and some of the best barely required a walk at all.
The Tablelands are split by the Barron River, its headwaters gurgling down from small streams in Mount Hypipamee all the way to the grandly thundering Barron Falls near Kuranda. There’s too many to name, but Millaa Millaa Falls and the waterfall circuit drive are a good place to start. From there, on the southern fringes of the Tableland, Millstream Falls are the widest single-drop falls in Australia, while Davies and Emerald Creek Falls to the north tumble over granite slopes congested with huge boulders, and have great rockpools for swimming.
Picking a favourite certainly isn’t an easy task. While the huge pool and quiet solitude of Nandroya Falls in Wooroonooran National Park might be a close second, Josephine falls, on the eastern edge of the tableland, is hard to beat in my mind. It’s a classic postcard sight, with emerald-turquoise water frothing white as it flows amidst boulders and colourful river-stones.
Where to Stay
There’s good camping in most of the national parks. Henrietta Creek in Wooroonooran is tucked just off the road within the wet forest, while Davies Creek has private stream-side bush campsites hidden up in the hills. Goldsborough Valley is another great option, by a large river in a lush valley at the base of the Tableland, not far from Cairns.
As for caravan parks and other accommodation, there’s great options at Lake Eacham, and just about every one of the charming mountain towns. While I can personally recommend Herberton and Millaa Millaa, there’s plenty of great choices to base an adventure in the Tablelands.