To the locals, along with holidaymakers who regularly visit here, Far North Queensland is the perfect picture of a tropical paradise – palm trees wafting in a balmy breeze above endless clean white beaches. Why go overseas when paradise is right here on your doorstep, they say, and after spending some time exploring the region, you can’t help agreeing with them. After all, Cairns & The Great Barrier Reef Region is the only place on earth where rainforests meet the reef.
Providing an inspiring visual backdrop to this magical tropical coastline are majestic mountains and tablelands containing tropical rainforests, waterfalls, crater lakes and ancient lava tubes, the remnants of long extinct volcanoes. For visitors, the Tablelands and the Outback beyond present opportunities for bush walking, bird watching, limestone cave tours, a wildlife cruise, wildlife spotting, hot air ballooning and water sports as diverse as fishing, water skiing and white water rafting.
The twice weekly Spirit of Queensland train passes through all the well known Queensland coastal destinations between Brisbane and Rockhampton, and between Brisbane and Cairns. If coming by car, it’s a long drive (1,682 km/23 hours) but travelling the length of Bruce Highway (Brisbane to Cairns) takes you to just about every coastal Queensland location worth seeing north of Brisbane. If you don’t have the time or inclination to make the drive, Cairns has an international airport that is connected by air to all of Australia’s capital cities. Townsville is also has a major domestic airport.
North Queensland is a tropical region, so there are two very distinct seasons – Wet and Dry. The Wet season (January to April) brings steaming hot temperatures, high rainfall and high levels of humidity. The up-side of the wet season is that the rainforest is amazing, everything is so Green. The bird life is spectacular and the waterfalls are stunning – more often than not they are raging torrents.
The dry season, which is at its mildest from July to September, sees little or no rain, low humidity, pleasant days with equally comfortable, balmy nights. April to September offers the clearest skies, while November and December are the hottest time of the year.
July to September is the peak tourist season; if you are planning to visit then, you are advised to book your travel arrangements in advance, especially during school holidays when the best accommodation gets booked up anything up to six months in advance.
Truly the last frontier in Australia, a trek to the northernmost tip of Australia is the ultimate journey for 4-wheel drive enthusiasts and it isn’t difficult to see why. Cape York Peninsula is a wild and sparsely populated wilderness area that is only accessible during the dry months from April to December, and only then by 4WD vehicle. Extending from the Great Dividing Range in the east, to the Northern Territory border in the west, the Gulf Savannah region covers an area of 186,000 square kilometres – true safari country featuring golden savannah grasslands abounding with wildlife. The Gulf Savannah, renowned for its distinctive coastline and wild and sparsely populated wilderness, is rich with history of gold rushes, bushrangers and wandering Aboriginal tribes.
Visitors can explore deserted ghost towns and small isolated communities that serve the mining, pastoral and fishing industries. As one travels further west, lush tropical rainforests give way to an ever-changing landscape of open woodlands and savannah grasslands, dramatic volcanic landforms, rugged escarpments and cool, fresh-water gorges.
The journey, with its unexpected pleasures, friends and difficulties, lures trekkers back time and time again, so much so that for many it has become an annual ritual. There’s always bulldust, corrugations, deep river crossings and saltwater crocodiles in among the pristine tropical rainforests, savannahs, shrublands, tropical and subtropical grasslands, wetlands, wild rivers, tropical savannahs, heath lands and dense mangrove swamps. The road conditions are always unpredictable, even though travel is restricted to the dry season, because of the cape’s extreme conditions.
If attempting the drive here outside of the months of August and September, don’t even think about driving up the Cape unless you intend coming in a 4-wheel drive vehicle, and have some experience in fording flooded rivers and beating your own path through the bush. After rain the roads are generally impassible, so check road conditions before starting your journey. You will also need to get permits to camp in certain areas around the Cape York Peninsula, which can be purchased at both the EPA and RACQ in Cairns.
If you are driving up from Cairns, and not detouring to Cooktown, Lakeland will be your last major chance to top up your food and grocery supplies. Lakeland to the tip is about 750 km on unsealed roads.
Reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria by road is a different kettle of fish. It’s bitumen all the way to Karumba from Bourke, NSW (1,948km via Mitchell and Landsborough Hwys.), Cairns (752km via Gulf Development Rd) or Brisbane (2,156km via Warrego and Landsborough Hwys. and Burke Development Rd.
The best time to visit the region is between May and November in the dry season. Even then, August and September are the only months to tackle the Cape on your own if you are not an experienced 4-wheel driver. No matter what time of the year, after rain the roads are generally impassible, so check road conditions before starting your journey. You will also need to get permits to camp in certain areas around the Cape York Peninsula, which can be purchased at both the EPA and RACQ in Cairns.