Northern Queensland Short Tour
|Tilt Train route (red line)|
In September 2004 my wife and I did a short tour of the Cairns district, using the Tilt Train from Brisbane to get to Cairns. The tour included Cairns sight-seeing, the Kuranda Skyrail and Scenic Railway, Green Island coral viewing, the Atherton Tableland, the Daintree area, Cape Tribulation, Mission Beach and Innisfail. Overall it was a fantastic holiday, possibly the best we've had in Australia. Below are some brief critical comments focusing mainly on organisations, services and value rather than on the fabulous sight-seeing (see slideshow). For travel agencies, insurance and health matters see other travel notes. All prices mentioned are in AUD.
This could be defined as a taxpayer funded scheme for carting pensioners in an ice-shaker up to tropical north Queensland, where they can thaw out again - and have the time of their lives.
At Roma Street station, our point of departure, the first clue that we were on the right track came from a small notice at the far end of the tunnel connecting the platforms. It said something like "Tilt train to Townsville, departing at 5.00pm". Actually we wanted to go to Cairns, departing at 6.25pm. There were no porters and nobody offering any sort of help, even though we must have looked as lost as penguins in the desert. After some enquiries we eventually found the baggage check-in, where we were greeted with about as much enthusiasm as a hibernating tortoise. We had to ask where to find our seats. This laid-back mood made us feel very much at home.
The Tilt Train, said to be Australia's fastest train, is a "business class express" travelling between Brisbane and Cairns, a distance of 1690km, in about 25 hours. This gives it an average speed of 67.6km/h or about 72km/h if you allow a generous 1 hour and 30 minutes for stops. Other trains take about 32 hours, so yes, that sure makes it fast! Although the train itself is capable of high speeds, we were told it rarely achieves more than 110km/h because the railway track hasn't been sufficiently upgraded over much of its length. The fare is $280.50 one way (compare this to the Virgin Blue air fare of $119). By paying an administration fee of $22, however, pensioners can get a seat for nothing. This might explain why the train was jam-packed with oldies and a sprinkling of Aborigines, with hardly a full fare paying passenger to be seen. My wife was an exception.
The Tilt Train has comfortable reclining seats, personal entertainment systems and food at reasonable prices, although on one occasion I was overcharged (irrecoverable as no receipts were provided). The first half of the journey was in the dark. As already suggested, the cabin temperature was too cold (especially for the elderly patrons), the ride was not very smooth and we found it hard to sleep, but we had some good belly laughs - the doddery antics of one of the passengers set us off. In the morning the scenery didn't get very interesting until well after Townsville. Although the railway line goes up the coast, it never gets close to the sea (unless, perchance, in the middle of the night). The train became increasingly lethargic, slowing to a snail's pace after Innisfail. At Darwin our baggage was quickly offloaded and we marched off towards our hotel, knowing it was within easy walking distance. On the whole we enjoyed the Tilt Train experience more than the Ghan, but if ever we come up this way again by train we'll break the journey at least once.
*Newsflash (16/11/04) - Within hours of posting this article, I was very saddened to hear that a Tilt Train was derailed overnight near Bundaberg, injuring most of the passengers and crew, six of them seriously (including the two engine drivers). Seven carriages left the rails, the crash scene looked quite a mess but thankfully no lives were lost. It has now (18/11/04) been confirmed that at the time of the derailment the train was travelling at 112 km/h in a 60 km/h zone.
It didn't take us long to fall in love with Cairns. Although it's one of the most tourism orientated cities in Australia, perhaps matched only by the Gold Coast, it has a certain ambiance, relaxed pace, compactness, balmy climate and beautiful setting which must be the envy of all other Australian coastal cities (excepting Hobart, but the weather....!!). The town itself has no beach worth speaking of, but there's a large swimming pool on the esplanade. Further north there's a string of beachside resort towns, but we never saw anyone in the water at any of these beaches. Presumably the risks (from stingers etc) are too great. Strange, the brochures don't say a word about this! If there was one thing we didn't like about Cairns it was the shortage of public facilities such as seating (especially in the Central Shopping Mall), conveniences and water fountains. (In 2009, the situation was no better.)
Watching our budget as usual, we stayed mostly at the Hides Hotel, right in the heart of the city and only a short walk from the esplanade. We thought this was good value at $95/double/night (shoulder season, cheaper in the low season), with continental breakfast and light evening meal thrown in (the latter has now been discontinued). We especially enjoyed eating an early breakfast on the verandah, level with the bird-laden tree tops, while the bonus evening snack at O'Brien's, the popular Irish pub in the same building, went down well with a cool drink, whether alfresco or in a cosy nook indoors. However, we met one couple who weren't happy with Hides Hotel - they complained about a noisy, malfunctioning air conditioner and moved out to a more upmarket establishment. We also stayed one night at the Lyons Motel ($65/double), a very run-down place operated by the Accor All Seasons Esplanade Hotel, but it was well located, roomy and had all the essentials. (This establishment has now been demolished.)
Cairns has an enormous number of restaurants, mostly tourist orientated and expensive, especially along the esplanade. Even a reasonably priced cup of coffee was very hard to find. We did come across one alfresco-only place that provided a good, moderately priced breakfast on the esplanade, a little to the south of Aplin St. As we love Indian vegetarian food, we were delighted to find Gaura Nitais Hare Krishna Vegetarian Restaurant, 55 Spence St, where the food was good and quite cheap. Otherwise the pubs seemed to represent the best value in meals.
Kuranda Skyrail and Scenic Railway plus Atherton Tableland - This excellent but rather rushed one-day tour was run by Tropical Horizons and booked through Sunlover Holidays. The journey up the hill to Kuranda by train and back down on the Skyrail is an experience not to be missed. We were told that in the peak season it can get very crowded, but it wasn't bad when we did it. Unfortunately the version of the tour we were on didn't allow enough time to enjoy the walks and sights at the halfway stop on the trip down. Another funny thing about this version was that, having gone up the hill and down again, we were taken all the way back up by coach. Strangely, this didn't seem to matter at all, because it's only a short trip by road and the route is quite different. Back at the top again, we were given about an hour and a half to have lunch and visit the Kuranda markets ("famous" but really nothing special). There was insufficient time to see any of the other attractions in Kuranda. The coach then took us on a short but varied tour of the middle part of the Atherton Tableland. This included a fruit-farm-cum-distillery, the Giant Curtain Figtree and Lake Barrine with a cruise option and afternoon tea in a very pleasant setting. Later (see below) we were able to complement this with a tour of the southern tableland, which was more scenic.
Green Island outing - This full day outing was run by Big Cat Green Island Cruises and booked through Sunlover Holidays. It's very popular. They take you out to this small island on the Reef by catamaran and give you tickets for lunch, coral viewing by glass-bottom boat and either snorkelling gear or underwater coral viewing by semi-submersible (or you can pay extra to do both). For all of these activities you have to return to the catamaran, moored way down at the end of the jetty. The island itself is quite pretty and it gives you the opportunity to swim safely in the sea. But if your main reason for going there is to see some decent Great Barrier Reef coral and fish, then I very much doubt this is the way to go. Unless you do the semi-submersible cruise, you could end up being extremely disappointed. In the area reserved for snorkelling there's hardly any coral worth seeing, and the glass-bottom boat doesn't show you anything very exciting either. Also, on the boat we took, the commentary was hopeless. So it's essential to go in the semi-submersible, which allows good viewing at close quarters, and when we went the commentary was excellent, although some excitable Japanese on board sometimes drowned it out. The lunch was excellent and offered a choice of steak or fish (vegetarians should order in advance). One tip - if you can't get a seat in the lounge at the front of the Catamaran, try to sit on the lefthand side to avoid the sun, both going out and coming back. I don't think I would go to Green Island again to view the Reef in the Cairns area. According to travellers' accounts, the best coral viewing is to be had at reefs further out, such as the Agincourt Reef visited by Quicksilver. Here there's an underwater observatory as well as a semi-submersible, and you can go snorkelling or diving. Sunlover Cruises take you to Moore Reef where you can do all this as well as use the Seawalker helmet system to walk underwater (for an extra $129. I believe this is also available on Green Island, but it was not part of the package we took).
Cape Tribulation, Daintree, Mossman Gorge and Port Douglas area by car - For the next few days we hired a car from Network Car & Truck Rentals, 131A Lake St (or you can do it on this website - their rates are pretty good). The road from Cairns to Cape Tribulation has some magnificent scenery and the driving is quite easy, so it makes sense to do it by car so you can stop often and where you want, not where the coach driver dictates. Personally I prefer the scenic beauty of this road to that of the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, though the two hardly bear comparison and it's definitely worth doing both if you have the opportunity. The mixture of dense tropical rainforest, coastal mountains and blue sea and sky is simply stunning. Although there are shady beaches and calm water along the route, you'd have to be extremely careful when and where to swim. To get to Cape Tribulation, shortly after Wonga you turn off the main (Daintree) road and very soon afterwards come to the winch-operated car ferry across the Daintree river. A return ticket on the ferry costs $20 - very steep considering the journey takes only a couple of minutes, though in the busy season you may have to wait up to half an hour to get across. After that the road winds through lush rainforest - don't miss out on any signed viewpoints facing the ocean. Food and fuel are scarce after the river crossing. If you just want a snack keep an eye open for the store/cafe on the left (there are also one or two relatively expensive restaurants). For rental cars the Cape is as far as you can go, as the road is unsealed from thereon. If you find yourself on this unsealed section you've gone too far - turn back and take the first turning down to the beach and lookout.
On the way back we stopped immediately after the ferry crossing and did a river cruise on the Solar Whisper, a solar-powered boat run by David White, whose speciality is wildlife. He did us proud, finding crocodiles, snakes and a variety of birds. I suspect, however, that the best time to do one of these cruises is early in the morning.
We then headed for Daintree village, where we had booked a night at the Red Mill House (this website is excellent), a bed and breakfast joint run by Trish and Andrew Forsyth (phone 07 4098 6233). This is no ordinary "joint" and I can hardly commend it too highly. The proprietors are keen bird-watchers and have a wealth of information on the local species. A first-class breakfast is served on the elevated verandah overlooking the large garden. For ornithologists in particular, for a warm and friendly reception and for real value for money, I'd suggest this is the place to stay in Northern Queensland. In all my travelogues it's probably the only accommodation I've listed where I can't think of anything negative to say! For our evening meal we went to Jacanas Restaurant, a few paces further up the road. Here I tucked into the best and biggest vegetarian tempura I've ever had, and once again the service was very friendly and accommodating. Incidentally the proprietor here recommended the Daintree Wildlife Safari for a cruise on the river; I believe you can do it at the crack of dawn and it leaves from a jetty very close to the Daintree village, which is perched above the river.
From Daintree we headed back down south, stopping first at Mossman Gorge. This beautiful place should not be missed (and you might, if you don't watch out for the poorly signed turning out of Mossman). Driving back towards Cairns we took a quick look at some of the beach resorts (Port Douglas, Palm Cove, Trinity Beach etc). Port Douglas is quite big and flashy while most of the others have a certain tropical charm but are very touristy.
Mission Beach, Innisfail and southern Atherton Tableland by car - From here we zoomed all the way back through Cairns down to Bingal Beach, then Mission Beach, a wide flat beach more in the English style, except that it's surrounded by tropical rainforest and hilly grazing lands. The township is small and uninteresting. It's a departure point for the popular Dunk Island and outer Barrier Reef, and you can also do whitewater rafting near here. We stayed at Mackays in a "Garden Motel" room for $85, having been upgraded from some other type of room, as I understand it. The garden setting here is pleasant, but small and enclosed (in a muggy, rather dark sort of way). Reception here was distinctly cold. Wanting a low-cost meal, at Shan's Chinese Takeaway and Cafe we ate one of the worst Chinese meals I can remember. For lovers of fish, the seafood cafe next door looked good.
Next morning we headed for Innisfail, taking the direct route to El Arish and stopping en route at the entrance to the Lacey Creek walking track. We had been told that this spot was our best chance of finding a Cassowary (having failed to spot one at Cape Tribulation). Sure enough almost as soon as we stopped the car an adult and two chicks emerged from the forest and scavenged around, taking little notice of us (see photos). We spent some time in Innisfail but found very little to interest us; the town has not made the best of its riverside situation. (This is a comment that also applies to my home city, Brisbane, although the council is doing something about it here and there, e.g. the Southbank Parklands.) From Innisfail we sought the back route via Wangan, Henderson Drive and the Palmerston Highway up onto the Atherton Tableland. There are few roadsigns in Innisfail and it was a hard road to find. (Best to get a good map or seek directions from right in town.)
It's glorious country up in this part of the tableland. We stopped to admire no less than five waterfalls - Gregory, Mungalli, Ellinjaa, Zillie and Milaa Milaa. To get to the first of these we had to walk across a paddock, which, judging from the cowpads, obviously houses cattle much of the time. Fortunately when we arrived the cattle were in a neighbouring paddock, but they fixed us with reproachful stares that left us in no doubt that we were trespassing. Mungalli Falls can be seen, rather distantly, from a lookout on the side of the highway, while the last three falls are seen by doing the waterfalls circuit just east of Milaa Milaa. There are several other falls in this region. In Malanda we stopped at the Dairy, hoping for a guided tour, but we were too late. Instead we ate icecreams, the worst we'd ever tasted. Before commencing the steep, winding descent from the tableland via the Gillies Highway, we turned off to see the huge Cathedral fig tree (see photo) and Lake Tinaroo, parts of which are now unfortunately being developed. But our parting vision of this inspiring country was of the evening sun turning the giant, motionless trees to gold:
There are lots of other things to see and do up there, but I have a feeling it would be best to go during a fine spell in the wet season, rather than (as we did) a mainly dull spell in the dry season. Information offices usually carry copies of an excellent, colourful map called "Your welcome map of the Tropical Atherton Tableland", definitely worth getting before you go there, and it makes an attractive keepsake.
One annoying thing that travellers (especially from overseas) will have to get used to is the out-of-kilter time scheme adopted by Northern Queensland - out of kilter not only with other States (in summer) but with the whole world (all year round). On the NQ clock, sunrise and sunset both seem to occur too early. You can blame it on farmers (who have a valid point to make) and other Queensland ultra-conservatives (who are just anti-progress). In my opinion, all Eastern Australian States should set their clocks at EST plus half an hour all year round (i.e. a compromise between EST and "daylight saving time").
After a delay of at least 75 minutes "due to a computer fault", we eventually flew out of Cairns with Virgin Blue on one of their new 737-700 aircraft. The cabin crew were excellent but the seating was very cramped. From now on I'll have to make use of their offer to provide, on request, a seat with extra legroom. From previous experience, this usually means putting up with other inconveniences (usually the conveniences!) But who cares? For someone in love with Cairns and the Daintree two hours in a flying sardine can is no deterrent.
PS - In early 2009 we made one of the Cairns northern beach suburbs our permanent home.
All opinions expressed are mine alone and would-be travellers should make their own enquiries. While to the best of my knowledge the factual information in this article was correct at the time of recording it, I cannot accept responsibility for any inaccuracies.