How to discover the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics with kids
What if we told you the second most irreplaceable World Heritage-listed site in the world is found here in Queensland? Would you believe us?
Don’t worry if you said no, I shook my head at first too. That was until I was schooled in the global significance of the Wet Tropics, a rainforest I’d always thought was exclusively about the Daintree.
Instead, the Wet Tropics is a rainforest made up of six different precincts, with six different postcodes, and more than six different rainforest types. But the mind blowing doesn’t stop there. It’s a rainforest that boasts more environmental significance than the Great Barrier Reef and is so big in size it actually makes up 0.12% of Australia.
It’s also the wettest place in Australia (which explains its name), home to more than 10 mountains (including Queensland’s tallest), the largest number of primitive flowering plants in the world – and that’s before we get to any of the prehistoric animals who’ve survived glaciation (yep, we’re talking ice ages) by taking refuge on its mountaintops.
Oh, and did we mention its habitat to a white possum (lemuroid possum) that’s more endangered than the panda bear? Let us scrape that jaw off the floor for you.
If you’re looking to find out what makes the Wet Tropics so full of superlative natural phenomena, the kind that grabs the attention of UNESCO World Heritage listers, get to know the Southern Atherton precinct of the Wet Tropics rainforest – equally the most accessible part of this wet wonderland and “most Biodiverse location in Australia,” according to leading forest expert, Professor Stephen Williams.
AM: Pick up supplies in Cairns before hitting the road
While real estate agents spruik the recipe for success “position, position, position”, every mum and dad who’s travelled with kids knows the secret to smiles is “preparation, preparation, preparation”.
Arm your day pack with enough arsenal to strike down hunger meltdowns to ensure all four days spent on the Atherton Tablelands are pleasant ones. Even though the Tablelands is well known for its paddock-to-plate offering (seriously, check out this post here), unless your skilled at identifying bush tucker in an ancient rainforest filled with poisonous fruit, this itinerary will require snacks for little people and/or bigger people who get hungry quickly.
If you’re departing from Cairns, Rusty’s Market (open Friday – Sunday) has all kinds of healthy snacks to fuel a family adventure. However, for serious snack supplies, Woolworths on Abbott Street should be the first port of call to stock up on essentials.
In case you’ve forgotten anything, here’s a quick packing checklist for the rainforest before you ascend to Atherton altitude: tropical strength mosquito repellent (mainly for mozzies), sunscreen, tea tree oil or paw paw ointment (to treat bites), and salt (to shrivel leeches in wet season).
Morning: Take the Gillies Highway up the range
Put 70km between the concrete jungle and the real one, as you make your way from Cairns to Yungaburra.
This is the kind of drive that will require the windows down for two reasons. Firstly, to breathe the clean mountain air you’ll find at 700m above sea level and secondly, to purify the air if you have any car sickness sufferers in the backseat. The climb to the tablelands is as short as it is winding and involves putting tyre treads on the fabled Gillies Highway tarmac.
The Gillies Highway is known to car enthusiasts as the windiest road in Queensland, famous for packing 263 corners, and 800m elevation change in only 19km of road. It’s so famous in fact, it has its own biography, which you can pick up in town if you left your holiday reading at home.
With windows down, games like I-spy are well rewarded here – along with a crash course in geography to spot basket ferns, king ferns and kauri trees from the car. As you rise above the Cairns CBD, watch as the environment changes as the forest moves from tropical to subtropical with every metre you climb.
As far as forest genealogy goes, the rainforest gets older with altitude and the oldest parts of the forest are found on the highest peaks. Keep an eye out to notice any significant changes with the height and density of the forest on this drive.
To make things more interesting, we recommend setting some friendly competition up within the family, where the first person to spot a cassowary on this itinerary scores the front seat for the rest of the trip.
Want to know what to look for? Check this post out.
Check in: Yungaburra
Make Yungaburra your base for this four-day adventure on Atherton to ensure you’re within walking distance to restaurants at night, at the epicentre of the big nature by day, and most importantly, only required to unpack once.
If you’re here for a romantic holiday for two you might like to dial up the privacy factor at Mt Quincan Crater Retreat or Rose Gums Estate, but when it comes to managing your brood en tour – the Curtain Tree Fig Motel or Kookaburra Lodge Motel are ideal for mums, dads and kids who need to share a room.
The accommodating hosts at Curtain Tree Fig Motel offer scones with jam and cream on your arrival and their Friday night tapas menu, featuring Barcelona’s own patatas bravas, makes choosing where to go for dinner even easier when the troupe is tired.
If following this itinerary to a tee, use this time to drop off the bags, execute an outfit change and prepare for your first walk of the trip. It’s also a good time to put little ones down if they didn’t nod off in the car getting here.
Being at the gateway to the Misty Mountains section of the Wet Tropics Rainforest isn’t Ravenshoe’s only claim to fame. Ravenshoe (pronounced Ravens-hoe not Raven-shoe), is Queensland’s tallest town standing at 920m above sea level.
Before discovering why they call it the Misty Mountains, stop in at the aptly named Popular Spot Cafe for booth seats and a comprehensive menu to satisfy even fussy eaters. From fish and chips to warm lamb salads and a cabinet full of cakes, this little coffee shop on the main drag is the perfect spot to refuel before you become absorbed in this region’s history.
Before the rainforest earned its World Heritage-listed status, this was a timber town, known for its beautiful furniture made of local timbers and veneers. It’s no surprise the furniture was so beautiful when loggers had such ancient plantations to pilfer.
Today, the town still has two timber mills, however, they operate using both plantation pine and hardwoods rather than forest giants. A quick stop into the Ravenshoe Visitors Information Centre will give you a lesson in logging along with the evolution and how the 140 million-year-old forest grew up.
Evolution timelines chart how cassowaries are just the babies of the forest at a mere 50-60 million years old, compared to the velvet worm (still found here!), which outstrips it in age nearly three times over.
PM: Get acquainted with Tully Gorge
It’s time to leave footprints in the Wet Tropics and there’s no better place to get a lay of the land than Tully Falls and Tully Gorge, which you’ll find in Tully Gorge National Park, one of the 24 national parks that make up the Wet Tropics World Heritage-listed area.
With little legs in tow, we suggest the Butterfly Walk (375m return), which meanders along a boardwalk to a lookout to see the majestic falls cascading over former volcanic rock. The clue is in the name, and between September and February you’ll see the forest light up like it’s draped in blue fairy lights as the bright blue Ulysses butterfly dance around the green rainforest.
If you’re still playing I-spy, we guarantee you’ll run out of stamina before things to spot – there are over 4000 species of plants in this Wet Tropics wonderland, 715 of which are endemic to this area.
If the little ones have more energy, push on a little further than the Butterfly walk, another 800m, to the top of the Gorge to see the rock formations that drop suddenly to give the Gorge its geological formation.
Keep kids well away from the edges and follow all signage, because the gorge drops 300m to the Tully River below and there are no safety barriers here.
In wet season, Tully Falls thunders down this gorge, however for the rest of the year, it’s a much tamer site and perfect for photographers in the early or late afternoon sun.
On your drive back to Yungaburra, keep your eye out for the Ravenshoe Windy Hill Wind Farm, which powers enough energy for 3500 homes in this region. Did we mention it makes for stunning sunset photographs too?
Dinner: Nick’s Swiss Italian Restaurant
There’s something about hinterland towns in Queensland – no matter where you are, you can always find some sort of European Alpine influence. In Yungaburra, Nick’s Swiss Italian Restaurant is it – a chalet plonked on the main street.
Nick and his team have been serving a taste of Switzerland from the Yungaburra base since 1986, with a pizza cafe out the front and a la carte restaurant out the back. With a revolving specials menu, which includes a changing meat dish, fish special, pasta and ‘reef and beef’ on top of the elaborate menu, which has a section dedicated to Swiss, German and Italian fare – it’s hard to find something you don’t like.
Trust the Swiss to know how to feed hungry hikers. In winter, tuck into hearty dishes like lamb shanks in a port red wine sauce with sweet potato mash or bratwurst on a Swiss rosti – Switzerland’s take on the heart-warming bangers and mash.
Children are most welcome at this Yungaburra institution – and the knick-knacks adorning the walls and common areas will give mum and dad some peace and quiet with their dinner too because the kids are encouraged to get hands-on.
Breakfast: Whistle Stop Cafe
Opposite the iconic Yungaburra Hotel, you’ll find the Whistle Stop Cafe, which has the perfect eastern-facing coordinates to enjoy breakfast in the sun. Breakfasts like eggs benny, big breakfast and a healthy breakfast, which ironically isn’t that healthy (fry up of veggies in butter), will start your day on the right note.
Serving the best coffee of the trip, we guarantee you’ll be making more than one whistle stop at this Yungaburra breakfast hotspot. Be sure to have a cup of tea too, which comes from local plantation Nerada (pictured), a short drive from neighbouring town Malanda.
9:30am: Dreamtime Walk, Malanda
There are no better people to tell the Wet Tropics story than the Ngadjon community who walked, named and used in this rainforest long before the first Australian explorers ever did.
From Yungaburra, take a short 15-minute drive to Malanda to discover the Indigenous history of the rainforest with a Rainforest Dreaming Guided Walk, which takes off from the Malanda Visitor Information Centre.
On this 45-minute tour, hosted by local, Drew Morta, you’ll learn how his nomadic community hunted and gathered in the rainforest, used cooking techniques to remove toxins from rainforest plants and made huts and canoes from the different plants, by logging them sustainably.
The Malanda Falls Conservation Park was Drew’s playground growing up and anecdotes about him hiding from his grandparents in basket ferns, racing black bean pods down the Johnstone River and climbing trees faster than his friends, give this history tour a personal touch.
Just like the natural environment up here which has adapted and evolved over time, so too did the Ngadjon people. Drew explains, his community are small, wirey and of agile build – aka natural born climbers – built to survive in rainforest conditions. As Drew demonstrates how his community would hunt in the sky, armed only the super strong and flexible lawyer cane for climbing, you start to understand why you need a nimble body shape to be part of the Ngadjon tribe.
Even though these tours run for 45 minutes, you’ll only cover 300m on a graded track, making this one of the most accessible ways to see the rainforest, and perfect for little legs.
Keep your eyes airborne on this short walk. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see the rare mupee, or tree kangaroo, the famous species only found up here on the Tablelands and in New Guinea.
In the Malanda Forest, a community of dedicated locals watch and protect the mupee, which is why a tour with Drew is the best shortcut to see one because he’s one of their protectors and knows their habitat and usual tree stomping grounds.
PM: Visit Mamu Tropical Skywalk
Swap the forest-floor view for new heights with Mamu Tropical Skywalk, whose steel structures elevate you to canopy level, giving a whole new perspective of this ancient wonder. An elevated walkway stands 15m out of the ground, allowing you to go eye-to-eye with lush tropical rainforest.
From up here, you’re eye height with the mammoth ferns, which are worthy of their own blog posts because the Southern Atherton is the centre of fern diversity in Australia.
In case it’s been a while between brushing up on fern facts, did you know ferns belong to families? Picture them as the Montagues and Capulets of the forest, marking out diverse territory and keeping their lineage alive.
At Mamu, you’ll come face-to-face with primitive fern families. What’s more, you’ll be able to find 16 of the world’s 28 primitive flowering plant families in this wilderness environment. You’ll generally find them occupying the lower branches of the flowering plant trees, but your aerial view will help identify them faster.
Play ‘spotto’ the species, locating bull oak, yellow walnut, rose walnut and milky pines (which happen to be the tree kangaroos favourite playground).
If you think you’ve seen rainforest already, you’ve seen nothing yet. Wait till you climb the 37m-high observation tower, complete with two viewing decks, which provide spectacular views over the North Johnstone River gorge and Misty Mountain peaks, which no surprise, are shrouded in mist.
PM: Hike Nandroya Falls Circuit
When it comes to natural beauty and raw appeal, it’s hard to compete with the Wet Tropics, which ranks:
- Sixth overall in global irreplaceability;
- Eighth on the basis of IUCN Red Listed Threatened Socies; and
- Second most irreplaceable natural World Heritage-listed site.
The best way to get among all this is a waterfall hike, and we recommend Nandroya Falls Circuit Track as one of the best.
The Nandroya circuit is 2.2km and takes approximately 1-1.5 hours return. The walk is a moderate grade, but one we’d recommend for children once they’re comfortable on their own two feet.
Even though by kilometres it’s a relatively short walk, Nandroya Circuit is steep, which makes it a strenuous hike if it ends up being mum or dad to the rescue with a piggy back.
Keep your eyes peeled for animals who are well camouflaged against the scrub. Even though they’re hard to spot, there’s no shortage of wildlife up here – and we guarantee they’ve seen you even if you missed them. In fact 36% of Australia’s mammal species are found up here, including 58% of the bat species and 25% of the rodent species.
Closer to the base of the waterfall, you’ll find satin ash trees, which are recognisable by the white apple-shaped fruit that dangles like Christmas baubles off its lower trunk.
Going by the amount of fruit nibbled on the ground, it’s clear Nandroya Falls becomes a buffet for the marsupials and rodents after dark.
Dinner: Obi’s in Yungaburra
A word of warning for first timers to Yungaburra – you’d have more luck getting into a restaurant on the Champs Elysees than Obi’s without a booking. This place books out, and for good reason once you see the menu.
Set inside a buttercream-coloured Queenslander with wrap-around verandahs, Obi’s is Yungaburra’s answer to fine dining with the likes of spanner crab spring rolls, confit duck, a smoked lamb nest filled with eggplant and ricotta, and deserts like the house-made Midori illusion cheesecake, which is as wicked as its namesake.
Book early, or follow their Facebook page to see if any tables free up to secure your place at their dinner table. Don’t worry, it’s safe to take kids for dinner here and every child receives a free ice-cream and show bag with every meal, which should hold their attention to sit quietly through the main event.
Breakfast: Yungaburra Markets
The last Saturday of the month transforms Railway Reserve into a rainforest market, which is 40 years young this year.
Expect rows and rows of stalls stocking fresh fruit and veggies, woodworks and handicrafts – a market substantial enough that it’s worth the effort coinciding your trip with it.
For adults, there’s silky oak cheeseboards and outdoor sculpture art, while for little ones there’s no end of delight with a petting zoo packed with calves, kids, lambs and chickens, offering the most fun you can have with $4. That is until the kids see the jumping castle and face painting stand, which afford parents plenty of markets fossicking time among the 250+ vendors here.
Use this morning to replenish your snack stocks with local handmade goods like biscuits, dried fruit and macadamia nuts grown locally. Street food stalls serving Greek lamb wraps, Polish crepes and local yogurts and muesli allow breakfast to become progressive from cold to hot options.
Two coffee vendors have lines 10 deep, but there’s no shortage of cappuccinos flying into thirsty hands.
Morning: Discover the volcanic lakes by kayak
Join Tableland Adventure Guides to discover one of the crater lakes, Lake Barrine, by kayak.
The drive between Yungaburra and Lake Barrine, like most drives on the Tablelands, is the realisation of how many trees must have been felled in order to open up this space for pastoral land. The odd fern dotted along the roadside is the only indication left of the endless rainforest which would have once stood here.
How crater lakes are formed starts to make sense when you see the inky blue colour of Lake Barrine, surrounded by rainforest that slopes upwards and away from the water’s edge – 17,000 years ago, Lake Barrine would have been the core of an active volcano. However, years laying dormant has filled its volcanic crater with water – dead still on the surface but alive with marine life beneath it.
It’s not uncommon to find scuba divers in the lake who explore its deepest parts, disappearing well under the surface to depths of 65m. Packed with creatures of the deep, scientists come from all over the word to study some of the more unusual species, like the eel who spends 10-15 years in the lake before crossing the land to get to the ocean to procreate, only for their offspring to come back to Lake Barrine and repeat the cycle.
The Jurassic landscape that grows into this eerily deep blue lake is evidence that this part of the world is so different to anywhere else in Queensland – and discovering Lake Barrine by kayak allows you to get right underneath giant figs, so full of life you’ll be begging to run a heat lamp over them to see just how many animals call each one home.
Once back on dry land, fuel up with a bite to eat at the lake house which serves scones over the water. With the energy of a morning tea, you’ll be in prime position to take the 6km circuit walk around the lake to see the twin kauri pines, which are over 1100 years old.
If you keep your voice down, you may spot the musky rat kangaroos, bird life, butterflies and lizards from this boardwalk style track around the lake’s circumference.
PM: Discover the Curtain Tree Fig
Tired from a morning of kayaking and hiking, spend the afternoon closer to home, with Yungaburra’s oldest resident, the Curtain Tree Fig.
There’s something strangely Avatar-esq about the Curtain Tree Fig, which is so close to the outskirts of Yungaburra CBD that you’ll be able to see the brown tourist sign from your front door. The Curtain Tree Fig is the kind of tree that gets adults’ imaginations running wild, let alone the kids’, with its hundreds of roots that cascade from the top to the forest floor below.
In a stunning study of evolution – read the signage around the flat, pram-friendly boardwalk to see how strangler figs start growing from the top. If you’re lucky, you’ll see bush turkeys scratch around the complex root system that’s like a city of spindly towers that connect to the top.
If you and the kids have more energy to drive further afield, don’t forget to check out the waterfall circuit and these waterfalls on the Atherton Tablelands.
Fun fact: Curtain Tree Fig is one of the best spots for night spotting wild animals. It also happens to be a prime habitat for the famous tree kangaroo.
Dinner: Yungaburra Pub
To come to Yungaburra and miss the Yungaburra Hotel, formerly known as the Lake Eacham Hotel, would be like going to Paris and missing the Louvre. It’s packed full of all sorts of local history and in the same way that you go just to see the Mona Lisa but end up staying hours, this hotel has a similar gravitational pull.
It’s been serving steaks since 1910 from within its Federation architecture walls – and just happens to be the second-largest timber hotel in the southern hemisphere.
Photographs of the town’s milling history adorn the walls and are the perfect way to fill the time while your crumbed steak is cooking.
The cedar and oak bar is the perfect spot to pull up a stool, but if you’re travelling with kids, take a spot in the grand dining room, which is completely family friendly.
Breakfast: Enjoy one last breakfast at altitude
You’ve got to love a place where you can enjoy breakfast and a barista-made coffee and still walk away with change from a $10 note.
Start your day with a light breakfast of muesli and yoghurt or porridge with cinnamon and apple, before packing your bags and preparing to make the 750m descent to sea level.
AM: Make tracks to Cairns with one last stop at a waterhole
When there are waterfalls at the foothold of Mt Bartle Frere, Queensland’s tallest mountain, you know they’re going to be good.
Needless to say, the Babinda Boulders do not disappoint, with a cauldron of silvery rocks, gemstone green water and a cultural significance that’s positively palpable on the air.
On weekends the flat picnic areas are pumping with people who choose to throw down a blanket and bask in the reflection of its green waters.
Further downstream, you’ll find no one swimming though – local legend has it that a woman (Oolana) haunts the Devils Pool and lures young men into her midst to drown them.
As the story goes, Oolana, a very beautiful young woman, fell in love with Dyga, a handsome young man from another tribe. Their romance was forbidden and when Dyga was taken away, Oolana threw herself to the water, where huge boulders were thrown up and she disappeared into them.
It’s said that Oolana is still trapped in the boulders and calls for her lover to come back. It’s well documented that 17 people have died in these pools, most of them men, which makes this legend arguably more fact than fiction. The result is chilling, and you’ll find National Parks warnings are here, and even the toughest of men can be seen standing shyly back from the balustrade when looking into the swirling waters of the Devils Pools, lest Oolana calls for them next.