A popular destination from Cairns, taking about 3 and 1/2 hours drive, from Mt Garnet to Undara Volcanic National Park is about an hour. Not realising this, we went on to set up at Mt Surprise, with the intention of returning for our booked afternoon tour. If you find yourself in a similar situation, go directly to Undara, as the Undara Experience Centre has a beautiful bistro, eating area, souvenir selection and waiting space where we could easily have spent the few hours before our tour and then gone on to Mt Surprise later. It would have saved the fuel, at any rate, even if we bought a drink or something. They also offer free tea and coffee, but it’s not of a standard that would have you going back for more.
The lava tubes were explored by one of the Collins family members, who used to take people there when they visited. Later, working with the Queensland government, a National Park was established on the Collins’ land and formal tours and trails have been set up, complete with information about how they formed. The Collins family run the Undara Experience, with whom we took a tour.
So, how did they form? About 200 000 years ago there was a huge volcanic eruption and the lava flow was so fast that, as it travelled along a river bed, the top cooled and formed a crust, while the lava underneath kept flowing on and out, until hollow tunnels were formed. They extend 90km in one direction and 160km in another, making them Australia’s longest lava tunnels and one of the longest in the world.
Over the years, a roof might collapse, forming arches or caves and allowing rare plants and creatures to flourish. Some plants are believed to be relatives of those from Gondwanaland.
Outside the caves, you can see birds and insects unique to the area, including the spider that weaves a net to catch falling prey. I can’t remember what they are called and can’t find the information, so if anyone knows, please send me a message.
We travelled far in to caves and learnt about what lives there and what drips from the ceiling. The formations and surfaces have asuch a fascinating variety of shape, colour and texture.
The Undara Experience has accommodation and there are many walking trails that you can do independently. We chose the only daytime tour available in Covid times, but there are usually several to choose from, including night treks.
If you are staying in Cairns, it’s about a 3 and 1/2 hour drive to Undara, so you might choose to stay there. Be sure to book before you go, as even in these restricted times, the tours filled quickly.
Definitely worth putting on your bucket list.
Safe travels. Take water, hat and insect repellant.
The colourful bollards are the work of artist Jan Mitchell. Jan was commissioned by the City of Greater Geelong to transform old timbers and piles from a city pier, demolished in the 1980s, into remarkable works of art that stop young and old in their tracks.
Cooktown is a pretty town, set on the banks of both the Coral Sea and the Endeavour River. It is in Far North Queensland and seen as one of those ‘last frontier’ places, from where adventurous people head into the wilderness to the north, hoping to make it to ‘The Top of the Cape’ (Cape York Peninsula). We left Port Douglas fairly early, for Cooktown, and so drove on roads that were new to us. We had expected lush rainforest, but instead got dry terrain, much like the Northern Territory. Then, a mountain would loom ahead and we’d have green foliage again, but gum trees for the most part. We met some people at the lookout, who had driven from Cape Tribulation and taken about 2 hours. They said it could be achieved, at that moment, with a 2WD. It pays to ask other travellers as you go, for the opportunity to increase your experiences.
As we got closer to Cooktown, cows appeared on the road more frequently and about 30km out is Black Mountain. If you didn’t know its name, you’d have no trouble remembering it, as there are about 3 moderate-sized hills that are made up of boulders, or rocks, that are jet black. It is a bit like hitting coal mountain. Apparently it is lichen.
There are few places to stop on this stretch, but Lakeside is worth the stop (not sure where the lake is, though). When we arrived at the campground, our site was backing on to a rainforest and things scuttled in there. There’s a note in the toilets, to turn off lights as lights attract bugs, bugs attract frogs and frogs attract snakes. Yippee.
We made our way in to town where there was a water park, as it isn’t safe to swim in the sea here. First stop the Botanic Gardens, which has examples of the type of plant samples collected by Banks and Cook but is quite small.
On to Cook’s Lookout at Grassy Hill, one of the best lookouts we both thought we’d ever seen. It’s probably a good time to mention that the area got it’s name from when Captain Cook beached his ship here for repairs in 1770. The lookout takes in a 360 degree view of the area, which I tried to recreate, taking a small turn each time.
Having awoken early the next day, we set off to find Trevethan Falls, that were supposedly 13.5 km out of town. We drove about 30km to the turnoff and then had a 4WD adventure, trying to get there. When the road/track became very rough and demanding, with no end in sight, we decided to turn around and head to the beach at Mt Amos. We didn’t find that, either, and hit private property, so turned back once more. Locals we asked had never heard of the falls, so…
Now was the time to hit the markets, which were collections of produce and trash, or fundraising efforts with a strong local feel, and we walked the foreshore, seeing the monuments and Milbi Wall, a mosaic retelling of the history of the area, by the first nations people.
There were also people fishing and everyone keeping well back from the water – crocodile warnings everywhere. Cooktown really established itself on the map when, in 1873, tens of thousands of people from around the world landed here in search of gold and the port became the State’s busiest.
One of those last minute decisions saw us heading for Mount Cook, late in the day to do the 6km return walk up to the lookout. In fact, there are two lookouts, and the first is quite easy to reach, with gently raising paths, lined with trees and shrubs. It is also lined with spider webs, I discovered, or it was until I decided to wear all of them. We made the first section quite easily but the path was littered with leaves and even though we had good trekking sandals, I was anticipating a slippery walk home, when the increased slope would be downward.
The second section was definitely more difficult, with a constant upward climb, although not the steepest I have done. When we finally made it to the main lookout, it was quite a relief and the strong breeze was refreshing. Another traveller at the campground said that he found the really strong winds at the top made him feel like superman. So, either he’s been on the kryptonite or it is windier in the morning (when he went). Definitely do the walk if you visit here, as it is pretty and the view at the end is stunning. But don’t leave it until late in the day. The advice when you get there is to allow 2 hours and that you should be of reasonable fitness. It took us about 1 ¼ hours, but we were moving pretty fast, as walks go.
Isabella Falls was first on our list for the day. It is a short drive from town and very close to the road.
From here the plan was to go to Hope Vale to see some Indigenous art and on the Elim Beach, where there are coloured sands. Hope Vale was poorly sign-posted and the road just ended, leaving us to drive uncertainly around the community. Feeling that this was intrusive, we headed back but saw a sign for Endevour Falls and pulled in to the Tourist park , behind which, after a 2 minute walk we made our way to the small but pretty falls behind the park. It is a very attractive park, 20 minutes out of Cooktown, with shady sites and well-maintained.
Why not visit Keating’s Lagoon? Only a short way out of Cooktown, we went to the birdwatchers paradise and spied keenly for the object of our visit.
Cooktown is known as a windy city, so when you hear the ‘waves’ of wind tearing through the park at night, fear not. There is quite a bit to do, so that while you reach for the furthest point you can attempt in Queensland, there are a few spots before you turn around or press on. Usually there are plenty of international tourists, but we met only three while there and a handful of Australians who weren’t in lockdown.
Safe travels. Water, hat and sunscreen (and a jacket for the evenings).