There aren’t many places in the world where you can walk out of one World Heritage Area and straight into another one. There’s nowhere else you can step out of the world’s oldest forest and on to the planet’s largest living thing. But then there really is nowhere else like Queensland’s wet tropics and Great Barrier Reef. This encompasses a huge area; the starting point for most visitors is the tropical city of Cairns. There are waterfalls within easy reach of the city and you can catch a boat here to Fitzroy Island or the outer reef, which stretches 2300km from Bundaberg in the south to Cape York at the far northern tip of Queensland. Seeing some of the wilder on-land sights requires hitting the road – Mount Bartle Frere, the state’s highest peak, is 75km to the south. The same distance north is the town of Mossman – gateway to Mossman Gorge – and it’s another 30km to the ferry across the Daintree River to enter the magical Daintree rainforest, a 180-million-year-old botanical wonder. It’s well worth the effort to travel, though, as these sites are some of the most beautiful to be found anywhere in Australia (and that is saying a lot).
Mossman Gorge (3.3km, 1.5 hours)
Start/Finish: Mossman Gorge car park
Turn left off the Cook Highway just south of the Mossman town centre on to Johnstone Road and follow it for 2km to the Mossman Gorge Centre. Shuttle buses operate from here to the car park where the walk begins. There are toilets and picnic tables here. From the car park follow the elevated walkway to a suspension bridge that crosses adjoining Rex Creek. On the far side of the bridge the track splits – head left to complete a wonderful 2km circuit through the rainforest that includes a visit to the tranquil Wurrmbu Creek. After the circuit is complete cross the bridge and return to the car park.
Re-cross the suspension bridge at the end of the rainforest circuit and head back towards the start of the walk, then take the track to the left which is signposted ‘car park 500m’. This avoids most of the crowds and winds its way along the river, stopping at three viewpoints over the Mossman River – the last of which allows you to descend to the banks of a large waterhole – before ascending a short set of stairs back to the car park.
Emmagen Creek (800 metres, 30 minutes)
Start/Finish: Emmagen Creek crossing
Emmagen Creek is one of the most picturesque waterways in north Queensland, flowing through a series of waterholes surrounded by tropical rainforest in Daintree National Park. To reach the creek follow the unsealed Cape Tribulation-Bloomfield Road north from Cape Tribulation for about 5km; you can’t miss the stopping point, as it is marked by the creek flowing over the road!
There is space for a couple of cars on the left just before the creek (if this is taken there is a another pull-over area about 50m back up the road). There are two tracks leading from this point – take the one that leaves the road about 10 metres from the creek, which winds its way through the forest before returning to the creek where it splits in two, each of which leads to a waterhole.
Take care if you decide to go swimming in these, as there are hidden rocks close to the surface and there’s no barrier to crocodiles who decide to venture up the creek from the sea. Head back the way you came, and when you get back to the road don’t forget to take the other track, which leads for about 20 metres along the shore of another pretty waterhole.
Mount Sorrow (7km, 6 hours)
Start/Finish: Kulki day use area
This is a steep and strenuous walk in thick rainforest and should not be attempted by inexperienced walkers. The reward is immersion in the wild Daintree jungle and views of the Cape Tribulation coast from the top on a clear day. Take plenty of water and start early to avoid walking in the heat of the day and to allow enough time to return in daylight. Park at the day use area just north of Cape Tribulation and walk another 150 metres up the road to where the track begins opposite a gravel pull-off area. The spot is marked by a small sign. The climb begins immediately through lowland rainforest and gets steeper after passing the 2km marker with tree roots covering the track in places, making for a tough scramble. After the 3km mark the track enters open forest for the last 500 metres to a lookout platform. Take care retuning via the same route.
Manjal Jimalji Trail (10.6km, 8 hours)
Start/Finish: Little Falls Creek
Another very challenging rainforest hike only for experienced walkers. Rangers also recommend only attempting this trail during the dry season. The trailhead is 17km north of Mossman via Miallo and Whyanbeel Roads – pass the Karnak Playhouse and park beside the road after crossing the cattle grid. From here it’s 700 metres on foot, following markers through private farmland to the start of the Manjal Jimalji Trail at Little Falls Creek. Take care crossing the creek then enter the forest on a rough track that climbs steeply. After 3.3km, and 900 metres of climbing, there is a large clearing with views back to the coast. From here it’s 2km to the top – only continue if you have plenty of daylight for the return trip. About 400 metres after re-entering the rainforest pass a giant boulder known as Split Rock. On the final section of the climb boulders are scattered across the path and some serious scrambling is needed to reach the Manjal Jimalji lookout, which offers views of the Main Coast Range, the Daintree Valley and the coast – when it isn’t encompassed on low cloud. Retrace your steps to return to the walk start.
Nudey Beach (1.2km, 45 minutes)
Start/finish: Fitzroy Island resort
Fitzroy Island offers a taste of the Great Barrier Reef a 40-minute ferry ride from Cairns – there is a campground on the island or you can book a room at the resort (prices are at the moderate end for reef resorts) or visit as a day trip. Nudey Beach is the island’s jewel with its pristine white sands flanked by turquoise water on one side and tropical forest on the other. The beach is reached via a good walking track from the resort that winds through the bush and rock-hops over some large boulders before emerging on he sand. Take your bathers (this is no longer the nude beach that led to its name) and a snorkel to take advantage of the fringing reef.
Fitzroy Island summit and lighthouse (4.4km, 3.5 hours)
Start/finish: Fitzroy Island resort
Fitzroy Island was part of the mainland before being cut off by rising sea levels and its rugged interior separates it from most of the other reef islands. There are wonderful views from the 269-metre summit which is reached on a track that starts next to the island campground – look for the sign. The path climbs steadily initially through forest before emerging from the trees and crossing open heathland where the steep climb is compensated by expansive views over the island and back to the mainland – remember to look behind you! The summit is marked by a wooden viewing platform. To complete the circuit continue over the summit, descending for 600 metres to hit Lighthouse Road. Turn right and walk 400 metres the lighthouse, built in 1970 but no longer in use (there is a working lighthouse on Little Fitzroy Island). There are more good views from this spot. Retrace your steps to the summit track junction and continue straight ahead on Lighthouse Road to return to the campground via a steep concrete ramp.
Nandroya Falls (6km, 3.5 hours)
Start/finish: Henrietta Creek campground
Wooroonooran National Park is home to numerous waterfalls in the rainforest of the Atherton Tableland which rises behind Cairns, and Nandroya Falls is the pick of them. The track immediately enters thick forest; at a junction take the left fork to reach the falls via the “short track” which climbs a ridge before descending to the pretty Silver Creek Falls (about 10 metres high) then hitting another junction just before Nandroya Falls, 2.2km from the walk start. The main drop plunges through a cleft in the cliffs 40 metres into a dark pool at the base of a rainforest gorge, and the beauty of the area is enhanced by the lower falls, where Douglas Creek splits into four as it tumbles over a 6-metre high rocky ledge. Explore this magical spot then return to the junction and turn left to return to the campground on the “long track” which passes some good swimming holes then climbs to rejoin the main track 1km from the camping area.
Dinner Falls and Mount Hypipamee Crater (1.1km, 30 min)
Start/finish: Mount Hypipamee car park
Dinner Falls is one of a long series of waterfalls and cascades on the upper reaches of the Barron River, in Mount Hypipamee National Park on the Atherton Tablelands. To view the falls take the well-formed track from the car park for ten minutes until you reach a lookout on the rim of the Crater, a sheer-sided chasm almost 70 metres wide formed by the explosive eruption of volcanic gas millions of years ago. Today the view is much more peaceful, with a 58-metre drop from the viewpoint to the lake below.
From the lookout take the signposted (and much rougher) track to Dinner Falls, which descends through rainforest to the Barron River, then follows the river past a series of rapids and waterholes to the plunge pool at the base of the falls. These cascade in three streams over a dark rock face about 20 metres high, before tumbling over a further drop a few tens of metres downstream – make sure you watch your step! The track then climbs back up through the rainforest to return to the car park.
Ellinjaa Falls (400 metres return, 10 minutes)
Start/Finish: Ellinjaa Falls car park
One of the most impressive waterfalls in the Atherton Tablelands, Ellinjaa Falls are one of three falls on the ‘Waterfall Circuit’. To reach the falls follow the Palmerston Highway east from Millaa Millaa to the signposted turnoff to Theresa Creek Road, then follow this for about 3 and a half kilometres to the signposted car park.
From the car park follow the track steeply downhill through dense rainforest, ignoring the rough (and erosion inducing) shortcuts made by previous visitors cutting corners between the switchbacks. The track shortly emerges onto the creek beneath the falls, which drop over columns of solidified lava for about 15 metres into a wide plunge pool. Follow the track back to the car park – if you have time you can continue on the circuit to see Zillie Falls and Millaa Millaa Falls, both of which are right next to the road and well worth a look.
Mungalli Falls (2km, 45 minutes)
Start/Finish: Mungalli Falls Outdoor Education Centre and Waterfall Cafe
Mungalli Falls are the highest waterfall on the Atherton Tablelands, falling in three closely spaced tiers for a total of 75 metres. To reach the falls follow the Palmerston Highway east from Millaa Millaa for 13km to Junction Road, then follow this to the education centre and cafe.
The top tier of the falls are right next to the car park, and cascade in multiple streams over an angled rock slab about 15 metres high. To view the middle and largest tier walk through the cafe then across a bridge that crosses the creek below the upper falls, then turn right immediately to follow a four wheel drive track downhill through regenerating rainforest. About half way to the bottom you will pass a rope and obstacle course – resist the urge to test it out as it is reserved for groups staying at the outdoor education centre. At the bottom of the hill follow the signposted track through more mature forest to an observation platform where you can view the impressive middle tier of the falls, which is about 50-60 metres high, as well as the much smaller but picturesque lower tier. Return back up the track to the car park.
Babinda boulders (2km, 45 minutes)
Start/finish: The boulders camping area
The boulders are named for huge outcrops of granite in Babinda Creek, south of Cairns (access is off the Bruce Highway; Munro Street runs through the centre of the township of Babinda then turns into Boulder Road which leads all the way to the camping area). Erosion has carved the boulders into unusual shapes and the creek thunders over them in a series of cascades and rockpools, surrounded by tropical rainforest. The Boulders are also the site of an Aboriginal legend – detailed on signs along the route – that evokes a haunting atmosphere as the well-maintained walking track follows the creek, ending at a viewing platform. Follow the same path back to the car park.
Josephine Falls (1.2km, 30 minutes)
Start/finish: Josephine Falls car park
Turn off the Bruce Highway 75km south of Cairns to reach Josephine Falls, where Josephine Creek tumbles over a series of granite boulders, fed by extreme rainfall on Mount Bartle Frere. The walking track is well graded and wheelchair-accessible and leads through lush rainforest to two excellent viewing platforms.
Mount Bartle Frere (15km, 2 days)
Start/Finish: Josephine Falls
A track from Josephine Falls climbs all the way to the top of Queensland’s highest peak (1622 metres) via campsites high on the mountain. The summit can also be approached from the west via Junction Camp. The hike is exhilarating but extremely arduous and potentially dangerous – walkers have been lost for days in the dense jungle. For more information on this walk visit http://www.nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/bartle-frere/about.html.
OTHER THINGS TO SEE AND DO
The reef is one of the natural wonders of the world and a visit should be on everyone’s bucket list. Imminent threats posed by global warming and coastal development mean it tragically might not be around forever (go to www.savethereef.org.au to find out more). You can snorkel off the beach in places like Cape Tribulation and Fitzroy Island, or jump on a tour (more than 50 operators depart daily from Cairns, Port Douglas, Mission Beach and Cape Tribulation) to head to the spectacular outer reef which is teeming with tropical fish. A scenic flight is also a great way to appreciate the majesty of the reef or you can hire a kayak or stand-up paddle board for a more intimate experience possibly including a close encounter with turtles or whales. On the mainland can raft through the Barron and Tully Gorges, hop on a four-wheel drive tour to visit more remote parts of the wet tropics, zip-line through the forest or ride the cable car or scenic railway to Kuranda.
You will never have trouble finding somewhere to stay; tourism is the No.1 industry here and there are innumerable options in Cairns and Port Douglas. You can book a room in the Mossman Hotel and the luxurious Silky Oaks Lodge is just up the road, overlooking the Mossman River. North of the Daintree River there are a string of lodges, Cape Tribulation Beach House has budget backpacker rooms (and some fancier cabins) right on the beach. If you’d rather pitch a tent there are powered and non-powered sites at Noah Beach and Camp Tribulation Camp Ground (visit capetribcamping.com.au) and you can also camp at PK’s Jungle Village or Lync Haven Rainforest Retreat. There is also a campground on Fitzroy Island and on three islands in he Whitsundays including a secluded campsite at the southern end of Whitehaven Beach – click here for more info. On the Atherton Tableland there is a large campsite at Goldsborough Valley and a wide a range of accommodation in and around Atherton.
Cairns is located in the tropics and has a warm, humid climate. There are two distinct seasons – the dry season from April to November (when conditions are generally warm and stable) and the wet season from November to March (when it’s seriously hot and wet – more than 2000mm of rain falls a year). At this time of year tropical cyclones are another occasional hazard.
FLORA AND FAUNA
The Daintree is home to a huge variety of animals from nocturnal marsupials to frogs, bats, butterflies and saltwater crocodiles (observe the warning signs!). More than half of Australia’s bird species have been recorded here so you’re bound to see something interesting.
One unlikely forest hazard is the cassowary, flightless birds that grow to 2 metres tall and can be very aggressive towards humans. If you are lucky enough to spot one of these beautiful and rare birds on a forest trail, tread warily and do not approach it. On the reef it goes without saying there are a lot of fish (more than 1500 species) and hundreds of types of other marine creatures including turtles, rays and whales. The reef itself is also considered a living structure made up of millions of tiny coral polips.
Cairns is 1680km north of Brisbane. It has a large airport that is serviced by all Australian capital cities and some international destinations including Japan and New Zealand. The airport is just off the Cook Highway which runs through the centre of town and runs north-south up the coast providing easy access to the Daintree. The last section to Cape Tribulation requires crossing the Daintree River on a ferry (a return ticket is $24) and snaking up the coast on a narrow winding (sealed) road.
November to May is stinger season when swimming at beaches along the coast is not recommended due to the presence of venomous box jellyfish. Swimming and diving are potentially dangerous activities, tour operators will give strict safety instructions. Walkers have become seriously lost in the rainforest so take a map, compass and don’t take these trips lightly.
There is a variety of standards across this huge area from paved walkways to rough tracks through the forest. Most of the popular areas are well sign-posted and easy to follow.
Visit the official Cairns and Great Barrier Reef tourism website, the Queensland national parks website or phone 1800 093 300.
These descriptions are a guide only. While we have made every effort to make them accurate, we accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained while using them. Make sure you use an up-to-date map and consult rangers before heading out.