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The Atherton Tablelands, Cairns: Tropical classics on a country drive

By Gabrielle Martinovich 23 January 2020

For all its tropical luxe, marinas and cruise ship ports, the city of Cairns offers little in the way of natural beauty. Don’t get me wrong, I like the place—there’s plenty to do, see and experience—but it’s hard to appreciate the Lagoon when you’re used to Sydney Harbour.

To experience some of the best of Cairns, take a short drive southwest to the heart of tropical north Queensland and you will find one of the state’s most diverse regions. The Atherton Tablelands is a 77-kilometre stretch between Mareeba and Millaa Millaa. We opt to start our journey on the outskirts of Mareeba and finish at Atherton, the main town in the heart of the tablelands.

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Perched along the ever-present mountains of the Cairns Highlands, the tablelands are abundant with walking tracks, silver-blue lakes, and lush rainforests. The geology and rich fertile soils give rise to an agricultural industry which produces a bounty of tropical fruits, coffee, tea, and avocados.

Our first destination was not about food, however, but about something to drink. We made our way to Golden Drop Winery at Biboohra, where we’re met by Anna for a rundown on the Kensington red mango. It is among the world’s most fragrant fruit and serves as the base note to all their wines and ports, as well as sparkling and fortified cellos. Their signature mango wine was delicately fruity while the Dragon Cello was lusciously sweet. The real star of the show (for me, at least) was having the pure, fresh mango ice block afterwards while enjoying the warm sunshine.

Skybury Café was our next stop, which is a coffee and papaya plantation that doubles as a roastery. We took a short detour from Wheelbarrow Way to stop for lunch between foraging missions. Sitting on the all-weather veranda with our single origin Arabica coffee, grown, picked, and freshly roasted on the farm, we absorbed the relaxed atmosphere. The lunch menu was flavoursome with Sweet Red Papaya infusing several dishes; be sure to try their mouth-watering ginger papaya jam.

With tummies full, we continued our exploration and head to Walkamin. Passing through a banana strewn driveway, we found our way to Mt Uncle Distillery. Seated at the bar, we were served a four-glass tasting plate which seduced our tastebuds with navy strength botanical gins, smooth vodkas, and scrumptious marshmallow liqueurs—also served from the most beautifully handcrafted bottles. As we left the distillery with our bottles in hand, we were greeted by a curious mix of baby llamas, flanked by chickens and peacocks fanning their feathers in the surrounding farmyard.

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From Walkamin, we drove south through Atherton to the waterfall haven at Millaa Millaa. Atherton Tablelands and the waterfalls aren’t places many travellers to Australia talk about, yet images of its picturesque waterfalls have graced many travel pages.

Our first stop on the Waterfall Circuit, which begins at Theresa Creek Road just east of the town, was Millaa Millaa Falls. This waterfall is a short walk through a rain-forested path to picnic tables, changing rooms, and toilets, where we sat down on the grass to watch fellow travellers bask in the waterfall showers. From here, it’s a short 10-minute drive to the narrow viewing platform at Zillie Falls to see the cascading water rapids.

Although there are more than 10 waterfalls on the circuit, our final stop was at Ellinjaa Falls. Water trickles through the pebbles as you cross the stone path to the other side. All the falls have walking tracks; other falls to visit include Pepina and Souita which are located 10 kilometres from Millaa Millaa along the Old Palmerston Highway towards Ravenshoe.

On the south side of the tablelands and situated near the world heritage listed Mount Bartle Frere, Queensland’s highest mountain, we make our final stop at Mungalli Creek Dairy and Café to indulge in an organic cheese platter, not forgetting to buy some samples for our drive back to Cairns.

With my partner quickly falling sound asleep, I’m left to quietly enjoy the leisurely highland road en route to our intended stop at Atherton. As I approached the main stretch, we see a parking spot. The town was bustling with tourists and locals alike, so we decided to grab a coffee and head onwards.

Past Atherton, the road climbs steeper and the views in both directions continue to delight. You have to fight the urge to pull over for another stop to drink it all in because there is still a lot to see! We continued to weave slowly up the Gillies Highway for another 60 kilometres to Gordonvale, where the road turns to White Rock, which is only 10 minutes from Cairns.

If you get a chance on a longer stay in Cairns, head southwest back through Yungaburra to the national parks surrounding Lake Tinaroo and camp for the night. Alternatively, you can pack a picnic, go for a swim or do a spot of fishing. And if you’re anything like me, you will sit back and read a good book.

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Gabrielle Martinovich


Gabrielle Martinovich is a Sydney-based freelance journalist and has been published in Daily Life, MiNDFOOD, Sunday Life, Great Walks, and custom publications. Passionate about enticing readers to head out for a dose of adventure before they hit snooze on their smartphone, her areas of interest are hiking, kayaking, new experiences, and the road less travelled, with a focus on the environment and sustainability.