A renowned navigator Captain James Cook may have been, but in one place he’s got it all wrong. The ‘Big Captain Cook’ that stands beside his highway namesake in downtown Cairns has him pointing southwards. It’s the wrong way. If city fathers had any sense they’d spin him around 180 degrees so he’s directing travellers towards Australia’s newest road trip.
As it turned out Tropical North Queensland proved quite the challenge for Cook, running his ship aground on what we now know is the Great Barrier Reef. Thanks for finding that unknown treasure for us! Continuing his tale of woe, Cook was prompted to name Cape Tribulation after the troubles that beset him in reef-strewn waters. But we don’t let any of that that stop us. Bound for Cape Tribulation we dismiss Cook’s wayward finger pointing and drive in the opposite direction. Thanks all the same James, but we’ve got it from here.
The 140km Great Barrier Reef Drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation comes with serious bragging rights courtesy of two UNESCO World Heritage listed sites – the Great Barrier Reef needs no introduction, while the Daintree Rainforest is the poster child for the Wet Tropics Rainforest.
Driving north we turn right off the highway at the beachside village of Palm Cove, less than 30km into our journey. Ancient melaleuca trees compete with a photogenic stand of coconut palms lining the beachfront strip, excuse enough to stop for brunch on an outside table at Vivo where the service is almost as sharp as our waiter’s starched apron. Perfectly poached eggs on sourdough don’t disappoint. Nor does the view through the palms of a sparkling ocean.
If we were the fine-dining kind we’d hang around for dinner at Nu Nu’s, which regularly appears on ‘best restaurant’ lists but we’re more intent on outdoor adventures and instead hire a kayak to circumnavigate the conical rock aptly known as Scouts Hat. Drifting silently over the fringing reef, I’m thrilled to spot a turtle poke his head up from the reef in the crystal water. It’s clear our journey is going to take more than a day or two at this pace but I’m in no mood to rush.
When we do get back in the car, we’ve barely got the music playlist cranked up when we arrive at Ellis Beach, a five-kilometre stretch of pristine sand and sea just up the road from Palm Cove. Mango trees laden with fruit have created a carpet of squished fruit across the road. The air is laden with the sickly sweet smell of luscious fruit. Afflicted with a mango addiction I find a few intact on the ground and can’t resist slurping my little heart out, juice dripping from my elbows.
Ellis Beach is our first taste of soul-cleansing beaches blessed with a mountainous rainforest background. We check into a cabin metres from the sand at Ellis Beach Oceanfront Bungalows and spend the day moving between the ocean and beach towels laid beneath a coconut palm.
Ellis Beach Bar and Grill is just over the road for an easy meal but, exhausted from doing not much, I fall asleep to the soothing sounds of waves softly lapping the sand. At dawn beneath a pink hued sky I walk to the end of the beach, my footprints the only visible signs of human existence.
Leaving Ellis Beach behind we roll down the windows and feel the wind in our hair as the road twists and turns along the coast. Rainforest-clad mountains dominate the left while the Coral Sea stretches all the way to the horizon on the right. Around every bend there appears another Instagram-worthy photo opportunity. A bizarre strip of beach has developed a bit of a cult following with piles of rocks stacked artfully upon each other cairn-like, pardon the pun. Naturally we can’t get back in the car without making our own contribution. Rex Lookout offers photo-worthy views south to Double Island while Cape Tribulation is just visible on the northern horizon.
Far north Queensland waters have their fair share of dangerous critters. Marine stingers during the wet season are one serious hazard, saltwater crocodiles another. Lycra stinger suits help avoid marine stingers but they’re not much of a defence against crocodiles. Nothing is actually, beyond avoiding their habitat. Still, we’re keen to see these apex predators up close so we book a boat cruise at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. The peaceful billabong soon erupts with the snapping snout of a saltwater crocodile. His jaws snap dramatically around a chicken sacrificed for our viewing pleasure. It’s not pretty. But it is impressive.
A little further along, we check into Thala Beach Nature Reserve, nominated as one of Australia’s Top 10 hotels last year. Kicking back in a treehouse-type bungalow, we’re spoilt with views above the canopy of the Coral Sea and surrounding mountains. With almost 2km of private beach and 58 hectares of native forest Thala is all about relaxed rainforest rejuvenation.
Dinner at Osprey’s restaurant is preceded by a star-gazing tour with resident astronomy nut, Rose. Equipped with some high powered telescopes and a laser pointer Rose takes us on a galaxy tour from the onsite observatory. With little light pollution the sky twinkles overhead with astonishing clarity.
Port Douglas’s fortunes rise and fall almost as regularly as flotsam and jetsam washes ashore on Four Mile Beach. Once a fishing village in the mangroves, then a celebrity hangout favoured by Mick Jagger, Tom Hanks et al, these days Port rolls along nicely to its own laidback vibe.
In Macrossan Street sophisticated alfresco bars and restaurants sit alongside cane toad racing competitions. You might wonder if anyone really wants to watch venomous, ugly toads clamber over each other. Apparently some do.
We’ve timed our arrival in Port to coincide with the Sunday cotters market (goods for sale are made by or produced by the stallholder). Quality arts and crafts from local artisans vie for attention amongst fruit, vegetable and pot plant sellers. I make a beeline for the stall pressing sugar cane juice into cups before topping up my sugar intake with a freshly crushed Mareeba Gold pineapple juice. Slipping a few locally grown mango and avocados along with cheese and yoghurt from the Atherton Tablelands into my bag, my sustenance needs are well satisfied. But time to get back on the road as we’re not yet halfway along the GBR Drive.
Next stop is Mossman Gorge where there’s a splendid Indigenous visitor centre which offers interactive tours by guides with generational ties to the rainforest going back tens of thousands of years. On the banks of the Mossman River, it’s time for another cooling swim, in fresh water as crystal as gin amongst granite boulders shaded by the forest.
Following our detour the road weaves through sugar cane plantations before terminating temporarily at the Daintree River. We drive onto the river barge, mentally slowing down as we absorb our arrival in the famous Daintree Rainforest, said to be more than 135 million years old. Rolling down the windows, the first thing I notice is the rich smell of dank, earthy forest. Breathing in forest-filtered air my lungs must wonder if I’ve suddenly signed up for a radical detox program. It feels cleansing just sucking in the air of this ancient forest. There’s an overwhelming sense of green, which comes in shades from pastel to iridescent lime to a green so dark it’s almost black. Clearly I’m not the only one sucking in all this goodness as there’s a fair old cacophony of cicadas, frogs and goodness know what else creating their own soundtrack.
The bitumen twists and turns up the Alexandra Range. At the lookout we pause to enjoy the views across the forest and the ocean beyond. In the distance down at sea level the forest gives way to long stretches of pristine uninterrupted beaches like Cow Bay and Thornton, Noah and Coconut Beaches.
There’s some conjecture about how Cow Bay got its name. Some attribute the name to the dugongs, or sea cows, that inhabit the waters here. Others say that passing sailors used to see cattle on the beach – probably more likely as parts were cattle grazing land before being regenerated into today’s dense forest.
At the end of the Great Barrier Reef Drive, Cape Tribulation is the closest thing to a community hub you’ll find in these parts. But really, the rainforest and beaches are the real players. It’s no wonder the UNESCO folk deemed the place worthy of World Heritage status. The good news is we get to enjoy it all again on the return journey to Cairns.
- Ellis Beach Oceanfront Bungalows accommodates two people for a minimum stay of two or three nights depending on season.
- Thala Beach Nature Reserve in Port Douglas offers four different bungalow types and an on-site restaurant.
- Hill Retreat in Cape Tribulation has four tree houses offering bed and breakfast.
- Cow Bay Homestay is a 15 minutes walk from Cow Bay Beach.