How to experience Indigenous culture from Cairns to Cooktown in 7 days
Taking you from the laidback tropical city of Cairns and along the rugged Cape Tribulation coast all the way up to the northern outpost of Cooktown by way of the famous Bloomfield Track, this is one road trip you need to add to your bucket-list – stat.
Think offroading adventures, cultural discoveries and in-the-wild animal encounters by the bucketload. It’s time to switch off your devices, wind down the windows and take the road less travelled as you explore Tropical North Queensland’s Aboriginal roots.
Calling all intrepid explorers and off-the-beaten trackers, this itinerary is for you.
Day One – get hands-on in Kuranda
AM: Kick-start your day in Cairns with breakfast at local haunt Mama Coco. For a meal worth writing home about, try their dosa with roast pumpkin, tamarind chutney and cucumber salsa. Then it’s time to pick up your rented wheels (4WD of course) and hit the open road.
Just a 20-minute drive northwest of Cairns is where you’ll find the charming rainforest town of Kuranda, home to the Rainforestation Nature Park and Pamagirri Aboriginal Experience. Take a Dreamtime Walk with a local guide, learn how to throw a boomerang or spear and get an insight into the ancient customs of Kuranda’s Traditional Owners, the Djabugay.
PM: Is it lunch-time yet? Oui oui! If you’ve ever wondered what French-Aussie fusion tastes like, make The Petit Cafe, hidden down a leafy, sunlight-dappled laneway in Kuranda Village, your next stop. Grab a table on the verandah and tuck into a kangaroo prosciutto crepe (yes, really) and a locally-sourced coffee before getting back behind the wheel.
You can’t visit Kuranda without ticking the mighty Barron Falls off your bucket-list, so take a detour to Wright’s Lookout for the best vantage point from which to admire this natural wonder (Inside tip: the falls are at their most spectacular in the wet season). Then it’s on to your digs for the night, the Thala Beach Reserve. Situated just south of Port Douglas, this super luxe, eco-certified retreat is set among 58 hectares of native forest overlooking the Coral Sea and comes complete with its own private beach (naturally).
Local tip: time your visit to coincide with Thala’s Monday night cultural evenings in which Kuku Yalanji locals share ancient stories and traditions with guests.
Day Two – hit the high seas
AM: Leave the car keys at home, because today it’s time to find your sea legs. But first, breakfast. The Little Larder in Port Douglas will serve you well, pairing your morning eggs with delicious flavours like creole pulled pork or mushroom ragu.
Next, make your way to the wharf to join the crew of Calypso Reef Cruises for a full day of marine-biologist guided snorkelling in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef. Discover the extraordinary marine life of Agincourt Reef, Low Isles and Opal Reef in between whale and dolphin-spotting from the top deck.
PM: Back on dry land, make treks for The Tin Shed for sunset drinks and a slap up meal. The heritage-listed watering hole is favoured by Port Douglas locals for its views over Dickson’s Inlet and inland to the mountain ranges, as well as their signature chicken parmigiana.
Day Three – soak up the laidback vibes of Port Douglas
AM: Feast on a breakfast buffet with a few feathered friends at the Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat Sanctuary’s Breakfast with the Birds experience. Keep your eyes peeled for the spectacular crested cassowary – Tropical North Queensland’s unofficial mascot.
PM: Spend your final day in Port Douglas soaking up the town’s laid-back beachy vibes. Meander along the endless sands of 4 Mile Beach, watch the luxury yachts come and go over a late lunch and a cold beer at the marina, or find your new homeware obsession exploring the countless interior design boutiques that pepper the main street.
Round off the day with a sunset picnic and uninterrupted ocean views under the majestic fig trees at Rex Smeal Park. Not ready to call it a night? Then make your way to nearby Cooya Beach where the Kubirri Warra brothers from Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tours will take you on an immersive night fishing experience in which you’ll learn ancient Kuku Yalanji fishing techniques.
Day Four – reconnect with nature in the rainforest
AM: Sleep in and get breakfast at your own pace this morning before making way to your next destination, Mossman Gorge.
Here, your local Aboriginal guide will take you on a ‘Ngadiku’ Dreamtime Walk (meaning stories and legends from a long time ago) through the heart of the Daintree Rainforest. On your journey along private Indigenous tracks you’ll visit sacred places and culturally significant sites while learning about the Kuku Yalanji people’s powerful connection to the rainforest.
PM: Before you leave, grab lunch at the Mayi Cafe in the Mossman Gorge Centre – their famous, made-fresh-daily pies are a must. Then it’s on to the Janbal Art Gallery in Mossman where local artist and gallery owner Binna Swindley will help you channel your inner artist in a hands-on Indigenous painting class.
Check waking up in one of the world’s oldest rainforests off your must-do list when you check in to your digs for the night: the Daintree Ecolodge and Spa. Dine on seasonal produce under the forest canopy at the Lodge’s Julaymba restaurant before you settle in to your eco-friendly, technology-free abode (who needs wi-fi when you have a natural masterpiece on your doorstep?).
Day Five – go croc-spotting on the Daintree River
AM: After all that adventuring, it’s time to rest and restore. Take a late breakfast on your private balcony before treating yourself to a ‘wawu-karrba’ (healing of the spirit) experience at the lodge’s Daintree Wellness Day Spa. Rejuvenate mind, body and spirit with an Aboriginal-inspired treatment menu that combines ancient bush medicine with modern-day spa therapies.
PM: Today is all about keeping the vibe cruisey – quite literally. After a light lunch at the Daintree Tea House, it’s time for a tranquil afternoon of nature-spotting aboard the Daintree River Cruise. (While your heart may skip a beat at the sight of a saltwater croc lurking in the shallows, a river tour is the safest way to see these prehistoric predators in-the-wild).
After (reluctantly) checking out of your rainforest retreat, get ready to hit the road once more,. Your destination? The wild and rugged coastline of Cape Tribulation. On arrival, check in to your private cabin at Heritage Lodge & Spa and fall asleep to the soothing sounds of the rainforest.
Psst! If you’re keen to experience the best of Mossman and the Daintree Rainforest but would rather someone else did the hard work for you, check out Adventure North’s two day Daintree Dreaming – Cape Tribulation tour.
Day Six – hit the Bloomfield Track
AM: Rise early and pile your breakfast plate high: today you’ll be covering some serious ground as you tackle The Bloomfield Track, one of the most scenic and iconic 4WD drives in Queensland. Fasten your seatbelts and flick your settings to all-wheel-drive – you’re in for a bumpy ride!
Follow the track north to Wujal Wujal and take the easy 30 minute return trek to Wujal Wujal Falls Falls – a sacred site of the Kuku Yalanji people. Find a scenic spot for a picnic lunch – but avoid the temptation to take a dip: these waters are known to be home to a croc or two!
PM: Before jumping back behind the wheel, spend some time exploring the Wujal Wujal Art Centre which showcases work by local artists inspired by the rainforest, waterfalls and ocean.
And as the sun sets on another day, pull up in your final destination – Cooktown – and check into the centrally-located Cooktown Holiday Park. From here it’s an easy walk to the riverfront where you can fill up on traditional pub fare or enjoy fish and chips on the wharf.
Day Seven – take the scenic route home
AM: Congratulations, road warriors. You’ve almost reached the end of your 300km journey – but the adventure’s not quite over yet. After breakfast, there’s still time to check out the Milbi Wall along Cooktown’s wharf, which tells the story of the Guugu Yimithirr people and their first contact with European settlers, or dive deeper into the region’s Indigenous culture at the Kuku Bulk-Away Art Gallery.
PM: Stock up on picnic supplies and your favourite road snacks: it’s time to wave goodbye to Cooktown and take the scenic inland route back to Cairns. But there’s no need to rush: schedule in a detour to Little Annan Gorge, where nature and time have carved an idyllic swimming hole out of black granite. It’s the perfect spot to say farewell to the beauty that is Tropical North Queensland.
Want to learn more about Indigenous Queensland? Check out our free ebook and get inspired.