Tropical North Queensland
This area marks the Northern tip of Australia's sunshine state. Here you can expect luscious greenery, peculiar creatures, palm-fringed beaches, and the wonder of the Great Barrier Reef.
In May 2019, I spent 2 weeks travelling by car from Townsville to the Daintree Rainforest with my friend, Rebekah.
Currency: Australian Dollar
State Capital: Brisbane
Plug Sockets: Type I.
Ease of travel: 5/5 with car 4/5 without
Ease of communication: 5/5
Ease of meeting others: 5/5
General Costs: ££££
Tucked away between the Whitsundays and Cairns, Townsville wasn’t a city previously on my radar to visit. Magnetic Island, however, was; and with Townsville as the obvious point of entry, we flew direct here from Melbourne and began our tour of Tropical North Queensland.
My first glimpse of Townsville had actually been a news story a friend had shared with me the year before I came to Australia, entitled ‘Crocodiles Roam Around Townsville City Centre As Floods Hit’. Needless to say I was VERY on edge as we were walking around. Although you’ll be glad to hear (though probably not surprised) that we didn’t encounter any crocodiles in the streets during our trip.
Things to do:
1. Castle Hill
Hands down the best thing to do in Townsville. The peak of this giant red hill can be reached on foot or by car, and is the perfect spot to admire the view of the city and out towards the coast and islands.
Castle Hill from street view
The view from the top
2. The Strand
The foreshore, or ‘The Strand’, should be your next stop. With a 2km walkway along the coast, surrounded by perfectly positioned restaurants and bars, this is a great place to stroll and start an ice-cream shop crawl.
There’s definitely a lot more to Townsville than this, but we were eager to get to Magnetic Island, and so departed the next day. We did however have time to squeeze in some brunch at Hoi Polloi Café beforehand (highly recommended!).
Magnetic island (or ‘Maggie’, as the locals call it) is a magical place; a laid back, tropical island home to koalas, rock wallabies, rainforest and beaches.
We stayed for 2 nights in an airbnb.
Getting to the island is easy - a mere 20 minute and $27 return ferry ride away, and you'll arrive in Nelly bay.
The island is fairly small, and easy to get around. Cars can be brought over for a moderate fee, alternatively you can hire the famous 'barbie cars' or choose to take public transport.
We chose the latter, and- so long as you keep an eye on the timetables- it’s pretty easy to navigate.
Things to do/see:
1.Tour the bays
The island is lined by golden sand beaches and lush greenery, so there is no excuse not to spend a day exploring the beautiful bays.
Some of my favourites:
Nelly bay – An easy starting point as this is where the ferry comes in. Here you’ll find a pretty quiet beach all things considered, but it’s definitely not the prettiest on the island.
Florence bay – one of the few beaches with plenty of trees projecting through the sand – perfect for some shade!
Radical bay – easily my favourite beach thanks to the tropical backdrop and large rocks waiting to be scrambled over.
Horseshoe bay – This beach is close to cafes and toilets, and also has a protected swimming area.
2. Explore the Forts
This complex is a heritage-listed structure, originally built during WW2 to protect the island from naval attack. Nowadays it serves as the endpoint of the scenic ‘Forts’ walk’, rewarding walkers with a 360 degree panoramic view of the island and out towards the Coral Sea.
The walk takes you through eucalyptus trees, so it’s prime koala territory. Sadly, we didn’t actually see any here, thanks to the sudden torrential downpour during our walk. Our heads stayed firmly pointing towards the ground under the mish mash of waterproof jackets and plastic bags we had covered ourselves and our belongings with.
As it turns out, I couldn't snap any photos of the forts themselves, for fear of destroying my camera.
The start of the Forts Walk
You can tell which of us had been living in Australia for the past year
Our warning sign that rain was approaching
3. Koala Sanctuary
We were obviously a little disappointed at not being able to spot any wild koalas, so after spotting some adverts for the ‘Bungalow Bay Koala Village’, we immediately bought two tickets to ‘Breakfast with the Koalas’.
The next day we arrived bright and early, and were greeted with a pretty impressive breakfast of yoghurt, cooked food, poached eggs, pancakes, coffee, smoothies and juices. After filling our stomachs we joined a tour of the centre, meeting several koalas, Harry the wombat, and various species of lizard.
Look at that face!
Lastly, we all lined up and had a chance to cuddle a koala and snap that typical tourist photo of us clutching our new furry friends.
I wanted to take him home!
4. Sailing trip
There are lots of outdoor activities to do on Magnetic Island - we chose a lunchtime luxury sailing cruise with ‘Pilgrim Sailing’, a small sailing company run by a lovely couple, Clare and Paul.
Starting in Nelly bay we boarded and set sail around the island, tucking into premium snacks and delicious wine whilst drifting over tranquil turquoise waters.
Suddenly the wind changed and it wasn’t quite so tranquil. Disaster (almost) struck when I keeled over, overcome with motion sickness, however Clare was quick to the rescue with a ‘Kwell’s’ tablet, and before I knew it we had moored near a beautiful secret cove, and I was happily diving through the waves to shore for some beachy time.
Before the storm hit
Stinger suits are a must if you plan on swimming. Also while we're on the topic, sunscreen is also a must - take note, Rebekah!
5. Catch a glimpse of a Rock wallaby
Rock wallabies were significantly easier to spot than koalas. This peculiar species of wallaby are most commonly seen along Arcadia Jetty road, near Geoffrey bay.
They are adorable and surprisingly fearless of humans.
After our short stint on the island, it was time to head back to the mainland and start making our way up to Mission Beach, via a couple of not-so-secret watering holes.
Nestled on the outskirts of Paluma Range National Park are two crystal creeks for the price of one: not-so-creatively named 'Big Crystal Creek' and ‘Little Crystal Creek’.
The creek is at the end of a winding rocky road that’s only mildly terrifying to drive along, but you’ll be glad you made the trip when you see the beautiful waterfalls, inviting teal pools and plentiful picnic spots on offer.
Our Lady of the Rocks
Cardwell Spa Pool
Another magical place is the Cardwell Spa Pool. This geological wonder changes colour depending on the time of day – blue when we visited! If you’re wondering why it’s called a ‘spa’ pool, one glimpse of the swirling, bubbling stream and you’ll soon understand.
Don’t expect jacuzzi-like temperatures however. ‘Refreshing’ is the best way to describe the experience.
Our next overnight stop was Mission Beach, a laid-back, beachside town with a distinct yoga/hippie/healthy/eco-vibe that I predictably loved.
This is an idyllic spot to drop everything and relax for a few days.
It was here that I first learnt about the extraordinary cassowary. The cassowary is a huge bird hailing from the dinosaur era. Weighing up to 85kg and growing to 2m tall, you wouldn’t want to meet one of these in a darkened alley. Driving here we saw lots of seemingly comical road signs warning drivers to watch out for these enormous birds. Although, having learnt more about how dangerous they can be, perhaps they weren’t that comical after all.
Beautiful Mission Beach
From Mission Beach, we headed north to Cairns.
We hadn’t heard of this park before setting off, but after driving through sugar cane country and seeing several signs we decided to stop and check it out.
Best described as a piece of 1920s Spain in Australia, this castle is fascinating. Built by Jose Paronella, a Spanish migrant in the early 1900s, this park and castle provided entertainment for the public in the form of cinemas, ballrooms, live bands and gardens. After lying untouched for many years following Jose’s death and taking its fair share of hits from cyclones and fires, the park was refurbished in the 90s and is now open again to visitors.
Cairns, our next stop, is the biggest city in Tropical North Queensland, and a key gateway to one of the seven natural wonders of the world (you’ve guessed it, the Great Barrier Reef).
Cairns itself is quite small, but being a major tourist hub has ample waterfront restaurants, bars and brunch spots alongside crocodile-free, man-made lagoons.
Things to do:
1. Esplanade Lagoon
You can’t swim in the sea in Cairns- not due to sharks, as I initially thought- but thanks to the saltwater crocodiles that inhabit the waters. Yes, just when you think the Australian seas couldn’t get any more deathly, what with sharks, stingers and jellyfish, here come the crocs.
Never fear however, the esplanade lagoon is a croc/shark/jelly/stinger-free salt water swimming pool right on the coast. Perfect!
2. Cairns Aquarium
We had initially planned one day in the reef and one day in Fitzroy Island, but thanks to an ENORMOUS amount of rainfall that suddenly descended (in what was supposed to be the dry season!), we had to skip Fitzroy Island, instead heading for shelter in Cairns Aquarium.
It was definitely one of the best aquariums I’ve visited.
We found Nemo!
... and Dory!
3. Visit the Great Barrier Reef
The main reason people flock to Cairns is to visit the Great Barrier Reef.
There are HEAPS of tour companies offering day and overnight trips to the reef, so there are plenty to choose from. That being said, it’s a good idea to book early, which is not something we did.
We started looking at specific tours about two days before and found that most of the top-rated companies on tripadvisor were sold out. We ended up taking a tour with Tusa dive, who were awesome.
On-board there were a mix of different water competencies – from non-swimmers to advanced PADI divers: they cater to everyone.
I spent the day snorkelling only, thanks to some horrific motion sickness on the catamaran over (I had learnt my lesson from Magnetic Island and had taken a travel sickness pill, but this proved no match for the bumpy ride!).
I had initially signed up to a beginners SCUBA dive, but unfortunately had to bow out last minute. I’d essentially been semi-conscious for the entire safety briefing and once we’d arrived at the reef I was still feeling dizzy, nauseous and sleepy (thanks to the tablets!), so it probably would have been a poor decision to dive.
It was no great loss however: the snorkelling was incredible. I saw beautiful coral, colourful fish and a turtle!
The good thing about snorkelling is that no matter how grey, and wet the weather is, under the water everything is still bright and blue!
4. Cairns Night market
The night market is the perfect place to grab some last-minute souvenirs and gifts, there’s also a lot of Asian food and some good massage stalls!
5. Cairns Botanical Gardens
The botanical gardens are pretty nice, and there's a lovely little cafe outside too. We made friends with lots of butterflies - one even clung to my back in an attempt to hitch a ride up to Daintree, I can only assume.
6. Take a day trip to Mossman Gorge
Mossman Gorge is more than just a pretty river: here is home to a crystal-clear cascade right in the famous Daintree Rainforest, and marks an incredibly important, spiritual space for local indigenous Australians.
Here we joined a guided dreamtime walk led by local indigenous people to gain a deeper understanding of the history, and their connection to the land here. You’ll also take part in a smoking ceremony and drink some bush tea.
We didn’t have time (or the weather) to visit Fitzroy island, Green island or Kuranda, but these are places I would love to have visited!
The next day we headed up to the Daintree rainforest.
Driving through the tropics and beautiful coastal scenery, the first stop is Port Douglas: a beautiful beachside town, and a worthy stop to explore.
The Daintree River is pretty long, so to cross you’ll need to go by ferry.
It’s pretty simple to get across – pay on your way out, drive onto the platform and the cable ferry will whisk you across in under 10 minutes.
Parked up near the ferry are a good selection of crocodile cruise companies offering hour-long cruises along the river.
The cruise takes you a short distance across this 140km river, home to over 70 saltwater crocodiles. It was a great way to spend an hour, and we were pretty pleased to see four adult crocs and a baby! (it turns out I’m not so scared of crocodiles from the safety of a boat..)
Never smile at a crocodile!
Next, it was across the ferry and on to our B&B.
At over 13 million years old, the Daintree Rainforest is one of the oldest tropical rainforests in the world, and the largest in Australia. Home to more than 3000 species of plant, and over 13,000 species of animal, this is not a destination to be missed.
As such, there are countless accommodation options. We chose to stay in a beautiful and eco-friendly B&B; Daintree Manor.
Getting over the river was definitely the easy part - once you’re over the other side, you’re on your own.
Looking back, my sage piece of advice is try to arrive before sunset. There are very few road signs and virtually no lights, so it does make finding your accommodation a bit of a challenge.
After catching a pretty late ferry over, darkness quickly descended over us, and we were desperately following a combination of google maps offline, and a screenshot of directions, with no mobile signal to call anyone and explain we were lost.
Adding the fact I hadn’t yet figured out how to put on the full beam headlights (I can feel by boyfriend’s exasperated looks as he reads this – I hadn’t needed to use them yet!). Instead, the only way I could keep the headlights on was to hold the button in, which proved tricky when also trying to steer, and so I kept accidentally hitting the indicator lights button. Instead of a constant beam of light, I started to create a sort of nightclub light strobe scene.
It was an understatement to say that we made quite the entrance – a large SUV driving up a vertical winding gravel-lined hill, full beam headlights strobing alongside alternating left and right indicators, flashes and beeps. The entire B&B came out to see what the fuss was about and they were all standing, gaping at us as we finally parked up and turned off the engine.
It was moderately embarrassing, especially when the B&B owner came out and in one quick flick had the full beam headlights switched on properly (how did he know?). But we made it, and that’s the important thing.
The view from our B&B balcony!
Drive through the rainforest
You’d be a fool if you didn’t spend a day driving through the rainforest and up to Cape Tribulation. You can go further still if you have a 4x4 and are happy driving along dirt roads, but given my established inability to turn on headlights, it’s not surprising that we opted to end our journey at the cape.
If you didn’t catch sight of a cassowary in Mission Beach, fear not – you might get your chance here!
After shouting ‘CASSOWARY’ every time either of us saw anything remotely cassowary-shaped (mainly hedges, and one human), we finally saw one crossing the road ahead of us, and even managed to snatch a cheeky photo before it scarpered!
There are lots of stops along the way:
1. Daintree Rainforest Discovery Centre
Here you can walk along boardwalks and up canopy towers with an audio guide in hand detailing all the different flora, fauna and animals you might encounter in the forest.
2. Wala Wugirriga lookout
A quick stop here to look at the beautiful views is a must.
3. Daintree Ice Cream Company
Here you can sample exotic ice cream flavours – the day we visited they were offering wattle seed, banana, mango and carob. Yum! (Apart from the wattle seed, I wasn’t a fan of that).
Cape tribulation is the end point for most people’s day tours. Here, dense jungle meets white sand and turquoise waters. The beach is stunning, and there is a short boardwalk you can walk along with spectacular views to really take in the beauty of the cape.
The beaches are clean and prettily palm-fringed, but you do need to watch out for crocodiles. If you need any reminder, just take a look at the nearby memorial bench, remembering a 47 year old woman who was killed by a crocodile on this beach in 2016.
However, so long as you stay a good few metres away from the water, and don’t go in (no matter how tempting), you will be fine.
This marked the end of our trip, and so we headed back to Cairns for our flight out.
Top tips for North Queensland:
This part of Australia is very very humid!
With high temperatures and high humidity, it's probably quite hard not to find an air-conditioned car, but even so, it's someting to check!
A lot of the roads out of the cities can get quite muddy in this weather, so having a decent sized car helps. Better still, with a 4x4 you can go onto dirt roads and see even more of the area!
Watch out for signs at beaches and water holes - they'll let you know if the area is safe to swim in or not (crocodile and shark-free areas!)
For areas of the sea that you can swim in (for example, on the reef) - during stinger season (October-May), you should wear a stinger suit for protection.
Don't forget the insect repellant!
There's no daylight saving here, so no matter the time of year, the sun sets quite early!
Even outside of rainy season, there's a high chance of rain - so make sure to pack a waterproof jacket!
Even on rainy and cloudy days, the sun is pretty strong here, so sunscreen is still needed (ahem - Rebekah)
Kwells, or some other sort of travel sickness medication is a must!