The Great Tropical Way - encompassing the magnificent Daintree, the lush Atherton Tableland and the tropical beachside town of Mission Beach - makes a fascinating road trip to take with kids, says Sheriden Rhodes.
We arrive at the friendly sugar-growing town of Mossman in the Daintree. Our clothes are damp from humidity and it’s nigh on dusk. A chorus of what sounds like a thousand cicadas fills the air, which is sultry and smells fresh and alive. We discard our clothes and wash off the grime of the day’s travelling in a cool, green billabong where it’s believed several families of turtles live. A tiny red kingfisher skims the surface to take a drink and within seconds my four-year-old daughter Ella is tugging at my arm. Right in front of us is a tiny fresh water turtle. We stay as motionless as possible and watch as it is joined by its extended family. Eventually Ella can bear it no longer and jumps in and chases her new reptile friends who quickly retreat in the opposite direction. It’s a magnificent start to our visit to the Daintree and by the time we wrap ourselves in towels on the sandy bank we’re grinning from ear to ear.
Our journey starts a few hours earlier in Cairns, heading north to Port Douglas on the Captain Cook Highway along one of Australia’s most beautiful coastal stretches. The 70-kilometre tract takes you alongside the postcard-perfect Northern Beaches; complete with palm fringed, white sand inlets and turquoise colored water stretching to the horizon. Beyond is the town of Mossman, where we’ve come to see the World-Heritage listed Daintree. Over the next few days we swim many more times with the family of fresh water turtles in our own private billabong, tuck into crocodile cheese cake at the magnificent Silky Oaks Resort, and take a Ngadiku Dreamtime Gorge walk at the new $20 million Mossman Gorge Centre.
While on the one hand it’s disappointing that you can no longer drive yourself into Mossman Gorge, the new eco-friendly centre, which serves up excellent café fare and is almost entirely staffed by indigenous locals, ensures man’s footprint on this ancient rainforest is minimised.
Ella and I join Cameron Buchannan, a local indigenous guide, on a Dreamtime walk through the world’s oldest living rainforest - the inspiration for the movie Avatar. It’s another steamy hot day and in anticipation Ella and I wear swimming costumes underneath our cotton summer dresses. Cameron points out trees, plants, bush tucker sources and culturally significant sites, including traditional bark shelters, before we arrive at a glorious water hole fed by a gushing waterfall and surrounded by granite boulders. Here we enjoy an invigorating swim. As we dry ourselves on a rock, Cameron mixes up red and orange clay from river water and dot paints both his and my daughter’s arm.
On the return journey Cameron points out the large purple plum that the cassowary bird likes to eat, and explains more about the unique flora and fauna of this ancient rainforest. At the walk’s end, we tuck into freshly baked damper and steaming billy tea, prepared on an outdoor oven, and reluctantly depart what must be one of Australia’s greatest natural treasures.
It's where the rainforest meets the reef, where jungle clad mountains tumble down to the sea
In Mossman, there are a couple of other terrific things to try: coffee at the funky 50’s style Junction Café, contemporary fare at local prices at Mojo’s Bar and Grill and, with spear in hand, you can hunt for mud crabs, mussels and fish with the Walker brothers at nearby Cooya Beach. If you’re fortunate enough to stay at Silky Oaks Lodge (for families with children 12 and over), you may never venture further than its acclaimed in-house restaurant led by French-born executive chef Laurent Pedemay and its sublime water holes fed by the Daintree River. Another recommended place to stay is the Red Mill B&B, which has a family unit, which sleeps four comfortably.
The Atherton Tableland
It’s a sticky afternoon as we spiral up from the magnificent Daintree to the Atherton Tableland – the shimmering Coral Sea on one side, and the rich, red volcanic soil that makes it "the food bowl" of Tropical North Queensland on the other. We drive through a tropical thunderstorm with rain drops the size of saucers splattering the windscreen, lightening bolts striking the bush plains on either side of the highway and the temperature plummeting 15 degrees – Ella in the back sleeps through the whole thing.
The 2079 kilometre Great Tropical Way takes you from the magnificent Cape Tribulation and Daintree to the north, across the lush Atherton Tablelands, through the sugar cane and banana fields of Innisfail to the beachside resort town of Mission Beach and beyond. It’s where the rainforest meets the reef, where jungle clad mountains tumble down to the sea.
Up in the cooler air of the tableland, there are plenty of attractions and an abundance of locally grown produce and products, including coffee, tea, macadamia nuts, cheese, chocolates, and ice cream, to sample. At Mareeba you can take a tour of Skybury Plantation or hear the story of one immigrant family’s struggle to develop Australia's first commercial coffee plantation at Jaques Coffee Plantation and Café. Nearby is the Granite Gorge, where you can scramble over huge boulders teeming with rock wallabies.
Enroute to the historic and charming township of Yungaburra, we make a slight diversion to admire a magnificent, 500-year-old strangler fig called the Curtain Fig Tree. A circular boardwalk surrounds this magical tree, which provides great fun for kids who are dwarfed by the sapling towering overhead. It’s another hot day, so afterwards we escape the heat with a refreshing dip with the locals at Lake Eacham - an extinct volcanic crater lake filled with cool, clean, water. We spread out a towel under a shady Eucalypt tree and tuck into just-picked papaya as a brush turkey roots around in the nearby scrub.
At night near our home at Rose Gums Wilderness Retreat we spot bandicoot and owls and watch yet another magnificent sunset over the green rolling hills.
Head for the coast
From here drivers have a choice: head back to the coast or inland to the Queensland outback. We decide to head south where our journey comes to an end after a pretty drive from Mandala to Mission Beach, through rolling green countryside and lush sugar and banana plantations. We stop off for a sensational egg and bacon roll at De Milla’s Café and stock up on Bowen mangoes from a roadside stall, before arriving at the coast.
Mission Beach sits at the heart of two World Heritage areas, the Great Barrier Reef and the rainforests of the Wet Tropics. Just before you hit town, is the little unknown gem Bingal Bay, a picturesque rainforest-fringed inlet. There’s nothing there apart from an amenities block, and a lovely curve of sand lined by swaying coconut palms. Little crabs scatter about the rocks and Ella and I found ourselves completely alone. This is where Prime Minister Harold Holt had a holiday home in the sixties and each winter spent his birthday at their private Bingal Bay retreat.
After soaking up the afternoon rays, we make the short drive to Mission Beach and check in to Castaway’s Resort and Spa at Mission Beach. Here our contemporary two-bedroom apartment looks though coconut palms across the calm Coral Sea to Dunk Island. This beachside town is how Port Douglas must have been twenty years ago. It’s one of the most popular beach destinations in far north Queensland, but retains an uncommercial feel. Surrounded by rain forests inhabited by the rare cassowary, the beaches here are recognised the world over for their environmental importance. It’s also the jumping off point for island resorts such as Dunk and Bedarra Island Resorts, both of which are being rebuilt following cyclone Yasi.
Castaway’s proves the ideal family friendly place to stay. There’s a fabulous kid’s menu (the fish and chips with peas was a hit) at the alfresco dining area, two terrific pools and it’s just a stroll through the palm trees across to the 14 kilometre stretch of beach. During stinger season there is an enclosed netted swimming area providing a safe spot for a dip. That night, Ella and I drift off to sleep with the sounds of the sea lapping the shore.
From Castaway’s you can take a kayak tour down Babinda Creek teeming with fish, turtles and platypus, swim underneath Josephine or Murray Falls, or board an 18 metre ketch for a sunset cruise with Big Mama Sailing. We opt for a private picnic on Dunk’s pristine Naturalist Beach, spotting green sea turtles along the way and seeing the ongoing recovery work from the 2011 cyclone.
Castaway’s general manager William Neville is a father of two and somehow manages to steer the boat, carry his son in a baby carrier on his chest, lug an esky filled with cold drinks, biscuits and fruit, and pass me a takeaway coffee served up from the resort bar (the best coffee I’d had since the Junction Café in Mossman).
William has a theory that when people spend time here in the Family Group of Islands ailments, like sore backs and other disorders or worries, tend to disappear. His hypothesis is based on the experience of many of his guests and Dunk Island’s most famous resident Edmund Banfield who wrote, Confessions of a Beachcomber. Banfield had tuberculosis and was going to die, but came to Dunk in 1897 and miraculously lived another 30 years. “People tend to disconnect from the mainland and their worries when they come out here,” Neville explains. Taking in our idyllic surroundings, as William’s daughter Emily and Ella dig in the pure white sand under a shady gum with the pristine Coral Sea lapping the shore, I couldn’t agree more.
Silky Oaks Lodge offers 43 standalone Deluxe Treehouses and Riverhouses and two new Billabong Suites made from local timbers with private verandas, hammocks, day beds and more.
The resort caters for children 12 and over. Prices start from $327 per night in a Studio Room, including breakfast, yoga and a guided walk.
Red Mill House offers a two bedroom family unit priced from $250 per night including breakfast.
Rose Gums Wilderness Retreat offers self-contained standalone treehouses that are geared for families in the Cairns Highlands, priced from $297 per night. There is an onsite restaurant, but it’s quite pricey so be prepared to self cater.
Castaways’ at Mission Beach offers rooms from $AU165 per night, but also offers terrific value packages such as the ‘Five Nights Family Beach Escape’ including Family Resort Room, two cocktail and two kids’ drinks on arrival, continental breakfast daily, a Family Activities Pass, Calypso Reef Trip, plus a Family Beach Picnic Hamper, priced from $1800.
Virgin Australia, Qantas, Jetstar and Tiger Airways all fly to Cairns from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. You can rent a 4WD from Avis at Cairns International Airport however a normal on-road vehicle would suffice.
Sheriden Rhodes drove The Great Tropical Way as a guest of Tourism Tropical North Queensland.
Sheriden Rhodes is a travel writer and photographer who travels the globe with her ‘frequent small flyer’, Ella. You can follow their adventures and pick up family travel tips on the Frequent Small Flyer Facebook page.