Australia’s fabulous Atherton Tablelands lie in the beautiful rolling hills behind Cairns, the main city in tropical north Queensland. My initial feel as we reached the top of the range was that I could have quite easily been driving through the countryside in the UK. As we started to explore we realised that the rolling green hills are just a snippet of what The Atherton Tablelands has to offer. Full of stunning waterfalls, rainforest drives, local food factories, fruit farms, country markets and fascinating heritage, there’s a mass of adventure to tackle no matter what your idea of fun is.
The weather is slightly cooler in The Tablelands than in Cairns so there is an abundance of fruit and vegetable farms, making it an absolute haven for overseas travellers on a working holiday visa. If you are considering working on a farm in Far North Queensland then the Tolga Country Lodge is a good starting place to get your foot in the door.
- Bananas and Pawpaw (papaya): All year.
- Avocados: February to May
- Custard apples: March to July
- Potatoes: September to December
- Sugar cane planting: June – November
- Watermelons, pumpkins: October-December
- Mangoes: November-March
For more information on Working Holiday visas, including online application go to Australian Government Department Of Immigration.
For locals or travellers this is an ideal side trip from Cairns, Port Douglas or the Daintree, or a great stopover if you’re heading west along the Savannah Way, you can cram lots into a solid three days of exploring.
Most people approach the Tablelands from Cairns, as it’s the closet city and is conveniently positioned on the main coastal highway. From Cairns, you need to follow the Captain Cook Highway, turning onto the Kennedy Highway, which will take you up towards Kuranda. This is an incredibly twisty-turny road so for those of you with a weak stomach I would definitely recommend some travel sickness tablets! The range climbs through the mountain, which has breathtaking views over Cairns. Stop at the lookouts and take in the scenery, notice the instant change of climate. You will feel like you are in the thick of the rainforest, with lush green foliage and the sound of the native wildlife.
Things to do- Day 1
At the top of the range keep an eye out for signposts to the delightful village of Kuranda. This small, alternative community is famous for its hippie markets, so definitely make a stop to see all the fantastic local arts and food on offer. The Kuranda Koala Gardens have a great 3 in 1 pass giving you access to The Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, Bird World and the Koala Garden, which is absolutely worth a visit. I’m not usually into this kind of thing but it really is a truly authentic Australian experience. Have your picture taken with a Koala, meet some wombats and get up close and personal with the freshwater crocodiles. If you decide on the multi pass then please remove all jewellery before entering the bird sanctuary, as they absolutely love anything shiny! My dad nearly lost his best platinum chain!
Be sure to head to Barron Gorge National Park, where Barron Falls, a 260m granite-faced waterfall is one of the most spectacular in the whole area. Enjoy the falls from the boardwalk or take a ride on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, to experience the sensation of gliding just metres above the rainforest canopy! You can take a return trip from Cairns to Kuranda on the Kuranda Sky rail, which also gives you the option to go by train. This is great for a day trip to Kuranda but while exploring more of The Tablelands you absolutely need a car.
After a jam-packed morning in Kuranda and a delicious lunch in one of the quirky cafes, jump back in your vehicle and continue on to the town of Mareeba. The largest town in the Tablelands, Mareeba has an awesome Heritage Museum, which is free to enter and certainly worth checking out to learn more about the area’s aboriginal and colonial history. One of my favourite attractions here is Granite Gorge. It is full of amazing species including some super friendly rock wallabies, which are tame enough to feed. Another option is the Mareeba Wetlands, a protected area of natural beauty home to many bird species, which you’ll easily spot one or two from the boardwalk.
Things to do- Day 2
There really isn’t a better way to start your day than by gliding over the Atherton Tablelands in a hot air balloon. This is definitely one of the top ways to see this amazingly diverse area! The incredible bird-like feeling as you float through the sky is well worth the early 5am start. The lovely Kerry at Raging Thunder booked my ride in advance to secure my desired date. I believe they get booked up quite quickly so I would advise contacting them as soon as you know what dates you are in the area.
After all that early adventure, you’re likely to need a caffeine hit to get you going for the rest of the day and Coffee Works provides the perfect cappuccino delight. Mareeba’s very own coffee roastery is the ideal place to sample some of the Tableland’s home grown beans- and they can even serve you up an exquisite breakfast too. If that’s not a big enough caffeine hit, then a journey through Coffee World may be the perfect pit stop for you! It has UNLIMITED tastings and the largest collection of coffee and tea treasures in the world, you will be sure to get a decent high out of your time there! Now you are full of energy and excitement, I suggest finishing your morning off by heading to Atherton, the second largest town in the Tablelands, where a visit to the stunning Crystal Caves is something that shouldn’t be missed on your trip.
Spend your afternoon doing one of my favourite things to do on holiday and go bike riding! Hiring a bike is easy to do here and with plenty of trails to enjoy it’s just a case of choosing which one. Highly recommended are The Rail Trails, which provide 6km of track between Atherton and Tolga, or the Atherton Forest Mountain Bike Park, which has steep tracks that will take you through forests and mountains if you’re up for a challenge. If bike riding isn’t your thing, then there’s also horse riding opportunities or plenty of walking trails too. A stroll up to take in the view from Halloran’s Hill is a great option and isn’t of great difficulty.
Things to do: Day 3
Make it an early start and head south from Atherton along the Kennedy Highway to reach Ravenshoe – Queensland highest town. Stop by the gorgeous Dinner Falls and Hypipamee Crater on the way there and look out for the Cassowaries! These beautiful birds can be quite vicious though so please don’t approach them. Grab yourself some breakfast in Ravenshoe then have a ponder around the local art gallery. Millstream Falls is fairly close which is Queensland’s widest waterfall! Millaa Millaa should be your next destination as this sleepy town lies at the heart of the Atherton Tablelands Waterfall Circuit. This place feels like a ghost town and with an imagination like mine I felt like I was in a movie- making all sorts of scenarios up in my head! It really is the perfect place to tick more of the fabulous fresh falls off your list. My favourites include the Zilliie Falls, Papina Falls and the Millaa Millaa Falls itself. If you are pushed for time, then out of the three, Millaa Millaa is my favourite. Morning is the best time to visit Millaa Millaa Falls as the sun tends to shine directly on the water, which will make the initial plunge of your refreshing dip a lot more bearable.
As a swim makes most of us pretty hungry you can enjoy a homemade lunch at Mungalli Creek Dairy – a biodynamic dairy farm located just outside of Millaa Millaa. The conscious food market is huge and Mungalli Creek is a leading force around Australia. A great place to relax and re-energise, their cafe boasts an epic view over Queensland’s highest mountain- Mt Bartle Frere.
Replenished and revived, jump back in your vehicle and take the scenic drive from Millaa Millaa to Malanda (Via Tarzali). Stop for a cool down at the Malanda Falls if the humidity is high. Then make your way up to the town of Yungaburra to enjoy the last of your Tablelands trip. This town has a few points of interest including the Avenue of Honour, which is a fitting veteran memorial dedicated to the Australians that lost their lives in the Afghanistan conflict. There is Lake Tineroo, which is a popular spot for water sports and the Curtain Fig Tree to stop and have a look at. This huge natural beauty really was is quite impressive.
Finally, Lake Eacham is a real treasure. This impressive lake crater is set in the beautiful tropical rainforest and is the perfect spot for a picnic or a BBQ. You may choose to walk the 3 km track around the lake and enjoy spotting some of the 180 resident bird species. If you have a snorkel then be sure to take it in the lake, as there are plenty of new friends to be made under the water. There are a couple of accommodation options at the lake too, so why not savour the tranquillity and spend the night relaxing in nature.