Travel expert and Sunshine Coast News writer Shirley Sinclair continues a series on Queensland experiences not to be missed
There’s no wall, no line in the sand and no official boundary sign.
But any Queenslander knows when they’ve arrived in the Tropical North.
The skies appear clearer. The air seems fresher. The natural aromatherapy scents of the bush, sea and rainforest float on the breeze.
And only the Tropical North offers the fluffed-up blanket of dark green pulled tightly over the mountains of the Great Dividing Range as a backdrop to an authentic old Queenslander home on stilts, stumps or blockwork in the middle of cane fields.
The great stands of palms and banana plantations either side of the roadways are never too far from the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea to the east.
Along with the train network usually running parallel, the Bruce Highway that snakes its way north from the state capital in Brisbane to Cairns is a lifeblood bringing freight and roadtripping tourists to the string of towns and cities in between.
We had not been on this part of the highway for more than 20 years but on one of those rare, carefree days on holiday in Cairns, we had a burning desire to just drive.
We left as soon as we woke, packing plenty of water bottles, hats, sunscreen, our togs and boardies, and good walking shoes.
Port Douglas, Mossman Gorge, and Daintree National Park to the north usually beckon us. But this time, we decided to head south to more seldomly-explored wonders.
Hitting the bitumen is the ideal way to immerse yourself in nature and life in the north.
And it’s amazing what sights and adventures you can fit in one day.
Our loose itinerary took us 150km as the crow flies to South Mission Beach.
First stop was a given: Babinda Bakery, 60km south of Cairns in the small sugar town in the shadow of Queensland’s two highest mountains: Mt Bartle Frere at 1622m and Mt Bellenden Ker at 1593m, part of World Heritage-Listed Wooroonooran National Park.
This business is an institution in the Far North – one serving lashings of country hospitality with its legendary pies, real coffee, light meals, breads, biscuits and pastries in a town that boasts art deco Heritage-Listed buildings in Munro St.
So, we were all fuelled up for our visit to Babinda Boulders, only 6km away from the town, and a cool dip in the popular swimming hole in the foothills of Mt Bartle Frere.
The Boulders area typifies the wild landscape but it’s not just the dramatic scenery that embraces you.
With an average annual rainfall of 4614mm (600mm falls have been known in 24 hours), visitors are surrounded by the thundering sound of surging water after a good drenching.
The flora and fauna in the area are the most complex and diverse that occur in north-east Queensland including every type of bird found in the rainforests.
Aboriginal legend says that The Boulders came about because of Oolana: a young beautiful woman married to a much older, respected tribal elder.
She ran away with her forbidden love from a visiting tribe and when found, the two were torn from each other.
Oolana flung herself into the waters, creating a great upheaval.
She disappeared into the boulders as her anguished cries forced rushing water to cascade over the entire area. It is said that her spirit still searches for her lost lover.
Such a Romeo and Juliet-style tragedy – one which perhaps explains why so many young men have lost their lives at the waterhole over the years through misadventure.
Many day-trippers and tour buses pop in to take advantage of the sheltered picnic tables, gas barbecues, children’s playground, grassy areas and public amenities.
But anyone can escape the crowds by taking the 2km walk through the lush rainforest along Babinda Creek for a closer look at the huge granite boulder formations and cascading mountain waterfalls from the three lookouts.
Stay on the track and pay heed to signs warning of the dangers, especially in the wet season and after heavy rain, so as not to tempt facing the same fate as Oolana.
One of the most beautiful waterfalls in the north lies just to the south near a little town called Mirriwinni.
Josephine Falls is a tiered cascade waterfall on Josephine Creek that is as pretty as it is tranquil. The blue-green and white of the tumbling waters contrast with the surrounding lush rainforest that mottles the smooth white lichen-speckled, beige and tan granite rocks and boulders with its shadows.
It’s popular for the cool swimming areas at various levels of the waterfalls that often demonstrate their powerful force, fed by rains falling on Bartle Frere.
The safe viewing decks are ideal for landscape photography and the beautiful 700m rainforest walk on a bitumen paved track is pram- and wheelchair-friendly.
The falls are accessed about 8km from the turn-off to Mount Bartle Frere, just south of Babinda.
Head on to Mission Beach early if you want to play Robinson Crusoe on Dunk Island, only 4km off the mainland, for the day.
Mission Beach Dunk Island Water Taxi offers transfers daily to one of Australia’s most beautiful tropical rainforest island destinations.
A 10-minute ride in the fully enclosed 10m vessel brings day visitors to numerous walking tracks, breathtaking scenery and views, as well as great snorkelling off the beach.
We had lingered a little too long at our favourite new waterholes, however, because when we arrived to inquire about the water taxi, we had missed the last one by about two hours.
But we were more than compensated by enjoying part of the 1.5km Ulysses Link walking track along the foreshore from Mission Beach Village.
The track meanders north to Clump Point where it meets up with The Cutten Brothers’ Walking Track.
Mission Beach is the closest access along the east coast to the Great Barrier Reef and if you don’t feel like a walk, Alexander Drive from Bingil Bay to Clump Point Rd hugs the coastline for spectacular sea views by road.
The flightless cassowaries that grow to 1m tall – sometimes with chicks – can be seen along Mission Beach streets, while the distinctive brilliant blue Ulysses butterfly and green tree frog also call the area home.
Bingil Bay, Mission Beach, Wongaling Beach and South Mission Beach form 14km of palm-fringed coastline looking out towards 20 tropical islands offshore and often you’ll have the glorious blues, greens and golds all to yourself.
After such a spectacular day, we toasted our efforts on the Mission Beach Tavern front veranda with uninterrupted views of the passing village life before making the two-hour trip back to Cairns.
NORTHERN SAFARI FAST FACTS
MISSION BEACH DUNK ISLAND WATER TAXI
Address: 71 Banfield Parade, Wongaling Beach
Phone: (07) 4068 8310
MISSION BEACH TAVERN
Address: 52 Porter Promenade, Mission Beach
Phone: (07) 4088 6688
Address: 137 The Esplanade, Cairns
Phone: (07) 4252 7700
Address: 35 Munro Street, Babinda
Phone: (07) 4067 1244