These are the oldest standing lava tubes on earth
If you’re looking for something off the beaten track for your next long weekend road trip, I know just the place. How does exploring caves carved out by volcanic lava over 190,000 years ago sound?
A destination in and of itself, you can easily tackle the 3.5hour drive to Undara Volcanic National Park in one day from Cairns. But what makes this road trip so awesome are all the other natural attractions en route. Where else can you see lava tubes, dormant volcanic craters, and waterfalls all in one weekend?
That’s why I recommend giving yourself a bit more time and use this 4-day itinerary to get down like a geologist and marvel at some of Tropical North Queensland’s lesser-known natural assets.
DAY ONE: CAIRNS TO THE ATHERTON TABLELANDS (75KM)
Your north Queensland adventure begins with a day of crater chasing. Head south-west out of Cairns towards the Atherton Tablelands, winding your way up the Gillies Highway, before arriving at Lake Eacham in Crater Lakes National Park.
This beautiful freak of nature was formed 12,000 years ago when molten magma rose to the earth’s surface, shaping a crater. Water has since filled it in, creating the tranquil lake with an easy perimetre walk.
Stroll through shaded rainforest as you glimpse flashes of brilliant blue water and then cool off with a swim or enjoy a picnic by the lake (BYO snacks as there are no shops here). As you laze on the grassy area, you’ll appreciate why locals love this place.
Shake off the waters of Lake Eacham and jump back in the car for your next stop – the Curtain Fig Tree.
Easily accessible from the car park, just head along a wooden walkway through the rainforest to come face to face with this enormous strangler fig tree – one of the largest in Tropical North Queensland.
It’s not just the size that will have you shaking your head in wonder; it’s also how it dominates and yet perfectly weaves itself into the rainforest that creates a lasting impression.
Perched on the slopes of an extinct volcano, Mt Quincan Crater Retreat offers a selection of six perfectly appointed tree houses, where tree kangaroos are regularly spotted.
Arrive in the afternoon and head out on one of the many hiking trails on the property to make the most of the incredible views of the crater and the sun setting over the hills of the Atherton Tablelands.
What I liked most about my stay at Mount Quincan was soaking in the luxurious hot tub at the end of the day, with the wood fireplace burning, listening to nature. That’s my kinda night in.
DAY TWO: ATHERTON TABLELANDS TO UNDARA (197KM)
If you like natural oddities, start your morning by heading to Mount Hypipamee National Park.
Home to both Mt Hypipamee Crater and Dinner Falls, walk 400m along a smooth rainforest path and you’ll find yourself at a viewing platform peering down into a volcanic crater. Steep granite walls plummet 70m down to a deep hole of water covered in green waterweed. It’s a wonderfully weird sight.
Loop back along the walking track and you’ll come to Dinner Falls. Another fantastic spot for a swim, this cascading waterfall leads to the mighty Barron River.
From here, drive south-west into the Undara Volcanic National Park. Charge down the Kennedy Highway and watch the scenery dramatically change from lush green to Outback Savannah, with impressive termite mounds peppering the landscape.
Arrive at Undara Experience in time for the Sunset Wildlife tour where you’ll sip champagne and nibble on cheese as the sun sets across the land, before heading underground into the caves.
If you’ve always wondered what it would be like to star in a real-life David Attenborough documentary, stand at the cave entrance as hundreds of thousands of micro bats fly out around you to feast on insects, as snakes lurch out of the trees to catch the bats.
If the thought of standing in the flight path of hungry bats gives you the heebie-jeebies, I recommend wearing a hat to give yourself a bit of protection. But it’s definitely worth pushing through any apprehension you might have, as this is most incredible nature experience I’ve ever had.
There are a number of accommodation options at Undara Experience, including recently-renovated converted train carriages, camping options and well-appointed huts.
DAY THREE: A DAY TO EXPLORE UNDARA VOLCANIC NATIONAL PARK
Set your alarm nice and early this morning – the Bush Breakfast at Undara Experience is one meal you won’t want to miss. Learn how to make toast by an open fire pit (hot tip for fellow city clickers: nestle your bread up against a piping hot coal and avoid direct contact with flame).
Choose your stump, take a seat and tuck into a feast of bacon, eggs and sausages, while sipping a cup of steaming Billy tea.
You can only visit the Undara Lava Tubes with a Savannah Guide, who will take you underground to describe its formation. Hear from Bram, one of the amazing Savannah Guides before you go. Warning: This might cause goosebumps.
For your weekend volcano finale, drive 9km back towards the Kennedy Highway to explore Kalkani volcano. Walk around the crater rim, taking in 360-degree bush views in the company of shy wallabies.
DAY FOUR: UNDARA TO CAIRNS (312KM)
Wave goodbye to the Outback and start your four-hour drive back to Cairns. Stop in at Millstream Falls National Park to check out Australia’s widest single-drop waterfall – Big Millstream Falls.
From the car park, a short path leads you to a viewing platform to appreciate the plunging falls formed from an ancient lava flow.
Back on the Kennedy Highway, head towards the town of Millaa Millaa and turn right onto the Palmerston Highway. The Palmerston cuts through Wooroonooran National Park, which is home to some of the best waterfalls in Queensland.
The trailhead to Wallicher and Tchupala Falls is easy to miss, so keep your eyes peeled on the left side of the highway and pull over about 2kms after Crawfords Lookout.
You’ll need your camera and about 45 minutes to see both falls – Wallicher being the more impressive of the two on this Y-shaped trail.
Exploring the Atherton Tablelands isn’t complete without stopping for a photo of the verdant green tea fields. The Nucifora Tea Fields are on the right-hand side of the Palmerston just before you come into the town of Pin Gin Hill.
Finish your journey by recharging with a quick coffee in Cairns at Blackbird Espresso (my personal fave), before continuing onto Cairns airport to return your car.
That’s one lava tube system, four volcanic craters and four waterfalls in four days… phew!
Follow this map for all the locations mentioned.