Philippe Bourget - 2012-11-15
In the north-east of Australia across from the Great Barrier Reef, the Atherton plateau is a magnificent region for rambling. It offers travellers the possibility to discover a little-known face of tropical Queensland that features forests, agriculture and a wealth of splendid natural sites.
Few tourists venture into inner Queensland. The Great Barrier Reef is so alluring that visitors tend to remain in and around the hotels of Cairns and Mission Beach, tanning and snorkelling about the corals and multicoloured fish. A few of them may leave the beach for a short time and board the famous Scenic Railway train to the town of Kuranda, but that’s often the extent of their adventures.
Yet all one has to do is journey a bit further inland to discover a different Queensland. Situated in Australia’s Great Dividing Range, the Atherton Tablelands or Cairns Highlands are easily spotted from the coast, as they are higher than Cairns by about a thousand metres. In less than an hour, the spectacular and famously hairpin-bendy Gillies Highway leads from the city to this fleecy range where tree ferns and eucalyptus abound. With the exception of the tropical flora, the landscape is almost reminiscent of Auvergne, France or Snowdonia, Wales: the same rich green, the same rolling curves typical of aging mountains. Where the forest has been cleared – farmers have changed the landscape considerably – it’s been replaced by immense, rich prairies where dark-coated, big-eared cattle graze peacefully. Farm buildings are rare and isolated, set amongst vast zones of farmland. Built of modern materials, they evoke the pioneer homes of the American Far West, with long, covered wood porches like those of the farms in Western movies.
Communion with nature
Silence reigns in these lands where one doesn’t usually bump into too many other folk, excepting in the small towns of Atherton, Malanda or Yungaburra. Under a sky that is so blue that the Pacific itself seems green with envy, it’s easy to pinpoint the sites that promise communion with nature, such as some of the forest lodges. Built in the midst of the woods, Rose Gums Wilderness Retreat in Malanda and other lodges of the region make it possible not only to sleep in cabins fitted with all mod cons while surrounded by trees, but also to hear and see abundant – and noisy! - fauna. To hear the calls of mysterious birds as they walk on the cabin roof while one is snug in bed takes one back to eras past when humans actually had to make their peace with the animal kingdom. Birds are in their element in the rainforest: parrots of all hues, forest kingfishers, robins, black storks, cranes, eagles and also rainbow bee-eaters and brush turkeys…
Home of the platypus
But there’s more to Atherton wildlife than birds. This is the abode of that most mysterious of mammals, as discreet as it is awkward-looking: the duck-billed platypus. Lying low on the beds of deep rivers, camouflaged to look like rust-coloured water, this semi-aquatic creature is not easy to spot. Whence the appeal of visiting the Tarzali Lakes aquaculture centre south of Malanda. Thanks to the explanations offered by the guide, a fellow as big as an icebox and graced with an inimitable accent, one learns that the platypus is capable of spending a full hour under water without surfacing to breathe. Fortunately there are several of them in the lake and one can see the flat bills followed by ungainly bodies that look like aquatic floor cloths. They may not be sexy, but they are very closely protected.
Many of the area’s natural sites are also protected, such as Davies Creek and Wooroonooran National Parks and Lake Tinaroo. Or Millaa Millaa Falls, splendid waterfalls surrounded by lush flora. Atherthon Tablelands is a ‘hidden’ territory that is, in fact, quite accessible and bound to please nature lovers in search of wilderness and wide-open spaces.
Flights from London to Brisbane (one stop) start at around £1,000 return. Travel time is at least 24 hours. The journey from Brisbane to Cairns is 1,700 km.
Flights from London to Cairns begin at £1,300 return, require two stops and at least 27 hours.