Overnight stays: BP Truckstop, Townsville; Ashton Hotel, Long Pocket; Paronella Park Caravan Park, Mena Creek; Fitzroy Island Camp Ground, Fitzroy Island; Cairns Holiday Park, Cairns (3 nights); Lake Placid Tourist Park, Cairns; Daintree Riverview Caravan Park, Daintree; Safari Lodge, Cape Tribulation (2 nights)
How do you top an extra long weekend at Hamilton Island? Driving golf carts, reading, lazing, and visiting the world-famous Whitehaven Beach… Whatever came next was going to be up against it.
Comfortable that we’d done enough holidaying in the Whitsundays, and not really vibing Bowen (even the Giant Mango didn’t tempt us to stay), our first foray into Far North Queensland was downtown Townsville. With the ocean water a gross dad-brown in colour, and full of crocs, stingers, and anything else that can kill you, we can’t say the town grabbed us at all. The promenade is nice enough, bringing a gentle sparkle to the turd of a town, but we agreed the sooner we left, the better.
But it was late in the day and Brownsville was our gateway to Magnetic Island, which I had listed as a must-do, after a hot tip from a work colleague from this part of the world. So we pulled into a BP truck stop on the outskirts of town, behind Bunnings, for a romantic evening free camping with all the truckies in North Queensland passing through to rev their engines throughout the wee hours. Pretty tough going given we were in a luxurious apartment on Hamilton Island only two nights prior.
Magnetic Island gets its name from when Cook and Co. discovered it and found their compass going bonkers, giving them the belief there was some freaky magnetic thing going on on the island. Fair enough, but I have since read that the compass was probably just broken – maybe they should’ve had a backup compass…?
I had high expectations for Maggie, especially given the beautiful island experiences we’ve had to-date in Queensland; outshining the mainland coastline 100 to 1.
The island was okay, but it wasn’t great. And it is definitely the worst island we’ve been to on the trip, and not one we’d hurry back to. The beaches are good, but not great. It’s a much more affordable island to visit than most, which attracts a lot of young foreigners, but you seem to get what you pay for.
We first visited Maggie’s Horseshoe Bay, the most famous beach on the island, which didn’t blow our socks off, and the water inside the stinger net was pretty gross. I had done a bit of research about the best beaches on the island, two of which involved a bit of hiking not far from Horseshoe. These became our target, and we jumped back to on the bus to start our hike for a beautiful relaxing swim in the soaring heat.
I had seen signs to these beaches (I can’t remember their names) at the beginning of the hike so assumed we were on the right track. So we started our way, walking and walking, seemingly getting no closer to the water… Eventually we passed a couple of backpackers returning from their journey, and asked “how far to the beach?” They returned puzzled looks and finally told us there was no beach where we were going; we were en-route to an old fort on top of a hill – damn it! It was hot, we were red and sweating like pigs (at least Liv and I were; Loz doesn’t sweat), and we now had news we were basically on a road to nowhere.
Accepting that we were in too deep, just as the British with their ridiculous Brexit vote, we decided to finish the walk and check out the fort. It was marginally impressive, but was never going to dazzle a few punters who thought they were walking to paradise.
On our return journey we encountered our first snake in the wild, as a 1m sizzler snuck across the road in front of us. All our practice with Liv for this very moment paid dividends, as she stayed silent and still until we gave the all clear. For those who have a 4yo, you’ll appreciate how difficult keeping them silent and still can be.
We also spotted a cuddly koala in the trees. Seeing animals in the wild is just so much more special than in a controlled environment.
Some of the best road-tripping is when you have natural obstacles. Our early morning drive to Wallaman Falls was one of the best. Deep into sugar cane country we had to slow and stop for herds of cattle, goats and wallabies. There were no other cars or people in sight, and it was awesome.
The entrance at the base of the hill into the National Park states that the onward road is unsuitable for trucks, buses, and caravans. No mention of motorhomes, so we went for it, knowing full well we were likely to come unstuck at some point along the way. But hey, that’s all part of the adventure.
It road was as steep the cost of hiring a 4WD on Fraser, and as narrow as Bob Katter’s focus on croc attacks, but with no one else around it was an awesome drive, despite half the road missing on some sketchy corners, recently washed away with the rain, it would seem.
There were more cassowary side-of-the-road signs than any actual signs of cassowaries, much to our disappointment. We learnt that they are native to this part of the world, quite allusive, aggressive, and critically endangered. But with all the road signs our hopes increased, knowing that we couldn’t leave FNQ without seeing one in the wild. It just seems that this day was not going to be ‘that’ day.
Wallaman Falls are far and wide the most impressive falls of the trip so far. They hold the highest single drop fall in Australia, and are absolutely spectacular. Just as well, as it was quite a way there and back, and given we weren’t really in much of a waterfall mood, they had to be good to impress us. And they did in spades, well worth the round trip inland from Ingham.
The Tully Welly
Queensland is out of control with its ‘big’ things. There’s the giant shell, crab, pineapple, mango, and plenty more non-notables. But when you’re driving through these places you feel a strange attraction to having to stop at each of these ridiculous things. And Tilly’s Giant Gumboot is no exception. Standing at 7.9m tall, it represents the water level experienced during the floods when they labelled themselves Australia’s wettest town.
When we were approaching FNQ we started to put the feelers out to friends who had lived up this way in the past. And recommendations came at us like bullets from a somehow legal automatic weapon in the US. One place recommended by our uni mate, Grievo, was Paronella Park. The photo on Google looked nice so we decided that would be our next attraction.
This place would have to be one the weirdest attractions on the planet. Deep in sugar cane country, it was built as a tourist park by a Spaniard named Jose Paronella in the 1930s. And it is awesome, just awesome. Here he built a couple of castles by hand, overlooking a gorgeous waterfall, where he also harnessed hydro-electricity, thirty years before electricity even reached this part of the world.
As part of your ticket you get a day tour, night tour, all access, and a night’s accommodation in the caravan park.
On the night tour we swallowed the true beauty of this place, as we were guided around the stunning grounds lit by a bright starry night. We saw nature at its finest and most spectacular: the smallest bat we’ve ever come across get stuck in the web of a biggest spider we’ve ever imagined, twice! We also got up close and personal with a python cruising across the path as we passed – just another Wednesday I guess.
And the waterfall and castles under lights are pretty special. This place, with its existence unbeknown to us, was shaping up as an absolute highlight of the trip.
The day trip the following morning gave us a deeper view of the history of Paronella Park, and highlighted the genius and extravagance of this weird Spaniard building castles in cane fields in FNQ 90 years ago. And we got to feed the local turtles in the river 🐢😀.
With the weather looking to take a turn for the worse in a few days time, we scurried like crabs on an incoming tide towards Cairns to make sure we ticked a few boxes we needed to while in this part of the world. We were booked in on the last ferry to Fitzroy Island, leaving at lunchtime, and didn’t have a second to spare when we boarded.
The Cairns coastline itself is as gross as eating garlic-soaked snails and calling them something French fancy. But when you get out a bit, the brown water turns blue, and things start to look a hell of a lot prettier.
I reckon if you stood on the coastline of the bit of National Park on Cairns’ headland, you could almost throw a stone at someone on Fitzroy Island. But when you’re on Fitzroy, you feel a million miles away from anywhere; in a tropical, isolated paradise. As you approach on the ferry you get a tease of the famed Nudey Beach, recently crowned as Australia’s best. To those naturalists out there, don’t get your hopes up; the beach is awash with not only clothes humans, but stinger suitors, leaving only faces exposed.
Camping with wombats
With no car ferry option available to Fitzroy, and with Nudey rated so highly, this place was a must-do for the Wombats. So we dusted off the cobwebs and packed the unopened tent and a few camping essentials, ready to get cosy for a night of something different.
The tent was super easy to setup, but smaller than a 2021 Federal Surplus, something we could’ve and should’ve checked before deciding on camping. It was about as wide as the snake we spotted on Maggie, and shorter than the snake we saw at Paronella; but we managed to squeeze the three of us and a few backpacks in, just.
With no room to rollover, and the ground as hard as remembering which side of a boat is Port and which is Starboard, we were set for a poor night’s sleep. Add to that the mysterious helicopter that hovered around noisily and endlessly, and landed seemingly on the tent, and we were pretty pumped to get back in the motorhome.
Nothing dusts off a bad night’s sleep like an ocean swim.
Coming off the back of the famed Whitehaven Beach meeting expectations, our hopes were high for Nudey. Some dude whose job it seems to be to rate beaches, does an annual Top 101 Beaches and last year he rated Nudey at número uno. That’s as much as we knew about it, and with stinger suits packed, we made the short hike across to try and get there before the daily crowd.
Nudey made Whitehaven look like Shitehaven. Just kidding, Whitehaven is still world-class, but Nudey blew our stinger socks off. The water is clearer than the penetrating thuds of a chopper at 2am, and as warm as a lazy arvo in the Outback. The beach is made of coral, rather than sand, which probably helps make the water so clear. Despite being on the fringe of stinger season, we opted for the recommended sexy stinger suits, as there was supposedly a sting only two weeks prior on the island.
Nudey Fails of Instagram
One of the things that undoubtably gets us all out of bed in the morning is the chance we’ll see wannabe Insta models doing a shoot in an exotic location. We’ve seen some real rippers on the Wombatical thus far – none better than at Fraser’s Lake McKenzie, and Whitsundays’ Whitehaven Beach.
Loz is not one to partake in such activities, but she did spot a fella being photographed on a nice looking rock in the distance, and thought it’d be a good spot for a photo on Nudey Beach. So she started her trek along the gorgeous beach, boulder-bound, with me holding tight with the camera, ready to be a good Boyfriend of Instagram.
All seemed to be going well from my angle, with Loz making it to her destination safely. Now given I’m new to this BoI business, I started snapping like a croc on a backpacker, assuming all was great on the other side of the lense. At first I assumed Loz was trying out some new poses, but it soon became evident this wasn’t a deliberate pose; she was in trouble.
She had somehow navigated herself onto her desired rock, which was great for photos, but she was stuck, belly first, arms and legs sprawled like a bat in a spider web, hanging on for dear life.
Thankfully the male model who inspired her location became aware of what had happened, and slipped his joggers on to rescue a wombat in distress. Meanwhile, still slightly unaware of what was actually going on, I continued to snap this odd pose in a beautiful setting.
We finally got ur shot, and then Loz quickly returned, laughing and explaining what had transpired; a photo shoot never to be forgotten 😀.
The Great Barrier Reef
The following day, based back on the mainland in Cairns, we were back on a boat, headed for the Great Barrier Reef. With more choices on offer than a Google search, we chose to trip with Sunlover, whom had been recommended as the best family-friendly boat and pontoon on the outer reef, including a water-slide, pew pew.
The sensational weather was keen to stick around as forecast for another day, and there weren’t too many people around, so things were stacking up nicely.
After the two-hour trip out we were ready to go, with the girls starting with a glass-bottom boat and submarine trip, while I joined the boat’s Marine Biologist for a private snorkel outside the roped-off area, away from the punters.
Here I managed to chase a couple of turtles, seen by no one else, a giant clam in action, and somehow caught a pilot fish along the way. These fish usually closely follow and often sucker themselves to sharks, turtles, and other big fish. The Bio spotted him in my orbit and said he’s never seen anything like it. I was totally fine with it, until he tried to latch onto my chest, like a newborn looking for milk. It freaked the hell out of me, and this video clearly highlights my brevity.
Once I managed to get rid of him, we jumped straight into the Bio’s orbit, giving me some much needed return comic relief.
We couldn’t managed to get Liv into the open water, but we also couldn’t get Loz out of the water. She loved it like white on rice, and claimed the day as one of the best of her life. Despite being the most confident person I know, the water is not where she usually spends her time. But she was in the water for hours on end, getting selfies with all sorts of fish, and having a hell of a time.
Liv passed the time swimming in the kids area, eating, partaking in the varying activities through the day such as touching the starfish and sea-cumbers and feeding the fish. We also had a turn on the waterslide, which was absolutely terrifying 😱.
On my last snorkel for the day I was certain I came face to tentacle with a Box Jellyfish, one of the most dangerous animals on the planet. All the signs were there: multiple extra long white tentacles, and swimming in the GBR. It wasn’t until a week or so later that I spotted another and was informed what I had actually come across.
You can’t go to Cairns without visiting Kuranda; the only question is how you get there and back… Drive, hike, gondola, or train? I vaguely remember the Kuranda train as a child, and the gondola as a teenager, and eventually discovered we could do both in one day – gondola there, and train back. It’s great to do both, as you get perspective of the rainforest and waterfalls from above and within.
Barren Barron Fails
However you look at Barron Falls, it’s an honest disappointment in the Dry Season. I had seen photos of it gushing furiously, pumping out more water than my pores on a hot humid day. But in the dry season it’s just another skinny waterfall filled with not much but letdown.
The town itself has quite a buzz going, not unlike Nimbin in Northern NSW. I reckon the locals might drink the same cool-aid too, as they’re pretty relaxed about their subsidised life. The markets are cool, as is the air up in the hills, combined with a misty rain that cuts trough the tropical climate we were accustomed to around The Tropics.
Whilst waiting for our train ride home we had some time to kill and had heard word of crocs in these parts, so figured it’d be a good time-waster to get on the water. It didn’t take long to get our first taste of top-end crocs, with a couple spotted along the way, albeit freshies. Naturally the salties don’t make it this far up the river as there’s the big-arse Barron Falls in the way. Still, it gave us an appetite for more crocs, of which we were to see more a bit later.
Liv also got to feed the turtles and fish, and we learnt a lot about the river and hydro-electricity that is generated under our feet. And she got to drive the boat for a while which was cool.
Kuranda Scenic Rail
The ride home on the train was definitely the highlight of the Kuranda experience. It was informative and interesting as we descended through the beautiful rainforest. The windows opened so you could experience the delicious rainforest breeze en-route, and stick you camera out for a photo.
Recharge the batteries
One of the many considerations when travelling on wheels is keeping things cold. Loz does a big grocery shop in most major towns, often giving us enough meals for a month to store in our cupboards and fridge. And the fridge runs on any of three power sources – electricity (when plugged in at a caravan park); gas (when free camping or on unpowered sites); or battery (all other occasions, including while the vehicle is in-motion. There are two ‘house’ batteries that run lights, tv, fans etc while free-camping, and they also run the fridge while in-motion (leaving gas on while driving is dangerous).
These batteries are charged when you’re plugged into electricity (including a generator), the two solar panels on the roof, and the vehicle alternator when turned on.For our first few months of travelling we didn’t have any issues with power. Given our average daily drive was 40-odd kms, we didn’t rely too much on the house batteries to charge the fridge as we were barely driving.
Little did we know that the alternator charging function was actually broken, leaving it up to the sun to power our fridge when we were driving. Sadly the fridge uses more power than than pub arm wrestle with a Welshman, meaning on driving days we were using more power than we were generating. The outcome of this was that we’d either have to turn the fridge off while driving, or have no power overnight and the following morning.
When you have multiple driving days in a row you end up with no power, leaving your fridge warmer than a cheap doona on a warm night.So this stared to become evident in FNQ when our distances became greater, and we couldn’t bare it any longer, especially with some big distances coming up on our way to central Australia. Cairns was our last major town for a while so we booked the WomBatmobile in to get fixed up, where they convinced us a couple of new top-of-the-line batteries were a good idea as well.
So now we had more things charging the batteries than Queensland has expensive attractions, and two new batteries holding enough charge to run South Australia, so we were feeling good to go.
Weather, water, predators & disappointment
Heading north from Cairns we weren’t quite sure where we were going to land next. So many hyped places to see, all coming with huge expectation. Our first dart off the highway was into Palm Cove. What a beautiful little town.It seems the entire town faces the ocean from the Main Street, including the caravan park. But it was windy af and the clouds soured what would’ve otherwise been an awesome place to spend a few nights. Also, the water was as brown and gross as what seems the entire Queensland mainland coastline, and is filled with crocs and stingers, so moving on was the only logical step.
Next stop was the incredibly hyped Port Douglas, including the famed Four Mile Beach. Unsurpringly the weather was no better than anywhere, and the beach was another unswimmable disappointment, so the journey continued after a bite to eat and game of beach cricket.
We eventually gave up on the coast for a couple of nights and moved in on Mossman Gorge, at the south end of the oldest rainforest in the world, The Daintree.
With the sun now shining we wandered through the gorge, not knowing what to expect. It was a beautiful easy walk with massive and diverse trees, and some of the most beautiful swimming holes you could imagine. We also saw more roots than an episode of Game of Thrones (season 1), often tangling their way across the forest floor or even wrapping themselves around other trees, strangling and strangling until finally overtaking the original structure.
We were expecting this place to be croc city so naturally didn’t pack our swimmers for the hike. Didn’t matter too much in the end as we just jumped into the bitterly cold water in our undies / clothes, and were out quicker than Glenn McGrath on a turning wicket.
There are two things that outdate the Amazon in South America: the Queen’s reign, and The Daintree. We found exactly what we were looking for when we pulled into he tiny town of Daintree just before sunset – a nice little caravan park near the water – close enough to see any crocs, but far enough to run from any crocs.
We setup and wandered up to the local watering hole for a cheeky sunset beer amongst the locals, only to be disappointed by the fact that the entire town seemed to have shut down before 6pm, including the pub. Not to worry, our fridge charges while driving now, so the beers in the fridge will do nicely 🍻.
Here, with beer in-hand, we witnessed the sunset of the trip so far, reflecting effortlessly off the still water of the Daintree River.
Bright and early, with the fog still settled, the following morning we boarded our first Daintree croc boat, with expectations higher than the Kuranda locals. This cruise was the highlight of The Daintree, with the water as calm as a hungry croc’s heartbeat, providing a backdrop to make any movie extra envious.
Our incredibly informative and passionate driver also spotted a coupl’a crocs for us, giving us so much more than what we came here for.
This first cruise really gave us a taste for what we were after, so we jumped on another boat at the river crossing for a completely different experience, only a few kilometres down the river. This tour was all about the crocs, and it seemed wherever we looked there was another, either swimming alongside the mangroves, or getting their tan on on the riverbank. We were astounded at how frightfully close we were able to get to these fascinating dinosaurs, including this cute little dude, seemingly stranded on a stick, adrift.
The drive up to Cape Tribulation is slow and windy, but beautiful. Along the way we dropped in for a couple of easy walks to check out more of the rainforest and mangroves. Here we spotted an abundance of those strangle trees we witnessed in Mossman Gorge, a bunch of beautiful umbrella acting ferns, and best of all, an elusive cassowary; something we had given up on and assumed they were actually a myth. Not only did we spot him, we were able to get up close and personal, almost smelling his breath as we passed. Apparently these birds can be dangerous when spooked, but with crocodile confidence behind us, took our chances.
Cape Trib was another town with a super-chilled vibe. The locals have it pretty good, living in an ancient tropical paradise, with uninterrupted access to the biggest coral reef in the world. The downside is that rainforest weather is as unpredictable as the citizenship saga’s next victim.
I couldn’t leave the coast without one more reef visit, so booked in for a half day snorkel with Ocean Safari, which came with multiple recommendations.
This reef blew the socks off the Moore Reef pontoon, as you would expect… The pontoons are built for tourists, mostly international, as an introduction to the Great Barrier Reef. And I can’t take anything away from them, as the sea life and experience are top-shelf. But swimming with turtles, rays, sharks, clams, clownfish is pretty special, and up there with the best snorkels of my life.
There are not many things more majestic on this planet, than a sea-turtle swimming in crystal clear water.
One of the main reasons Loz didn’t join me on this snorkel outing was the fact that we were sure I’d come face to tentacle with one of the most dangerous animals on earth a few days earlier (not a croc or cassowary). She had decided she was happy with the snorkelling she got in, but wasn’t going to stretch her luck. Fair enough too, I must say it was pretty terrifying when I saw it.
So just as we were finishing our second day final dive for the day, I spotted these same white tentacles hiding under the coral. Jesus, I though! What are the chances of seeing two bodies in just as many Reef dives?!
I quickly pointed it out to a few comrades around me, including our guide, who informed me that it wasn’t in-fact a box jellyfish, it was a string of spaghetti worms 🐛. Here I was thinking for days that I had looked death in the tentacle eye, only to find I was looking a bunch of harmless worms 😬.
We finished our terrific Tropics trip with a few games of cricket, pool swims, cards, scrabble, and a failed attempt to turn wet wood into a campfire. Not to worry, I prefer my marsh-mellows uncooked anyway 👍🏻.