Escaping the heat in Far North Queensland

The cool, clean and astonishingly green volcanic plateau of Australia’s Atherton Tablelands, just an hour inland from tropical Cairns, packs a dramatic punch in the sightseeing stakes.

Almost every visitor to Far North Queensland has the tropical town of Cairns on their itinerary. As the gateway to the iconic Great Barrier Reef and fringed by jungle-covered mountains, littered with white-sand beaches and home to a surprisingly cosmopolitan nightlife scene, it is little wonder this erstwhile fishing village has become one of Australia’s top tourist destinations. But for those who are willing to look beyond Cairns’ obvious attractions – and have the energy to get out of their deck chair – there is a wealth of delightful alternatives within an hour’s drive of the coast’s sticky climes.

The Atherton Tablelands is a cool, clean and astonishingly green volcanic plateau with vistas more reminiscent of Switzerland than sunburnt Australia; dairy cows munch yellow flowers, tractors trundle down meandering tracks and blue lakes wink at the base of impossibly rounded emerald hills. But do not mistake bucolic for boring: the 32,000sqkm region – which soars to heights of almost 1,300m – packs a dramatic punch in the sightseeing stakes.

The Tablelands are a short and scenic drive inland from Cairns, but for those who believe the journey should be as thrilling as the destination, the Kuranda Scenic Railway – a 37km mountain edge train track constructed in the late 1800s – and Skyrail – a 7.5km-long cableway gliding above the jungle canopy – are delightful alternatives. Both start in Cairns and terminate in Kuranda, a hippy hamlet nestled between a World Heritage-listed rainforest and the Barron Falls, which roars to life in the summer monsoon season. Billed as “the village in the rainforest”, Kuranda offers prime nature experiences both outside and in: more than 80 types of winged wonders flutter about in the Birdworld complex, while the Butterfly Sanctuary is Australia’s largest butterfly aviary. But the town’s most interesting inhabitants can be found at the Original Markets at the northern end of town, a ramshackle, sandalwood-scented jumble of stalls flogging everything from avocado ice cream to organic lingerie until 3 pm every day.

Trade the sarongs for spurs with a 30km drive west to the cowboy town of Mareeba. Home to one of Australia’s most iconic annual rodeos (held this year from 12 to 14 July), the town revels in a “wild west” atmosphere, with local merchants selling leather saddles, handcrafted bush hats and the oversized belt buckle of your bronco-bustin’ dreams. Mareeba’s main street is even wide enough for a high-noon showdown. Once the heart of Australia’s largest tobacco growing region, Mareeba now turns its soil to more wholesome produce, with organic coffee plantations, distilleries, a mango winery and abundant fruit and nut crops. For a sample, visit one of the many farms that offer tasting menus, or try Food Trail Tours for guided gourmandising.

Heading north towards Queensland’s rugged Cape York Peninsula, twitchers should stop off at the Mareeba Wetlands just out of town, a 2,000 hectare sanctuary that harbours more than 200 bird species, as well as the upmarket Jabiru Safari Lodge, a collection of lagoon-side African-style safari cabins ideally placed for wildlife watching and unwinding.

Named after the man – 19th-century pastoralist John Atherton – who gave the region its name, Atherton, located 30km south of Mareeba, is a bustling, central country town that makes an ideal base for exploring the delights of the southern Tablelands. Old-school accommodation at any of Atherton’s four traditional pubs ensures an authentic stay, while the lure of Crystal Caves – a gaudily fabulous mineralogical museum that houses the world’s biggest amethyst geode (more than 3m high and weighing 2.5 tonnes) – and the fastidiously restored late 19th-century Hou Wang Temple – one of the oldest original Chinese temples in Australia – tempt day tippers to linger longer.

It was John Atherton who also, accidentally, named one of the Tablelands’ most beloved outdoor playgrounds, the nearby Lake Tinaroo. Locals swear that in 1875 Atherton stumbled across a deposit of alluvial tin and, in a fit of excitement, shouted “Tin! Hurroo!” The excitement has not died down since, with Tinaroo becoming a favourite for Tablelanders as well as Cairnsites fleeing seasonal jellyfish, the threat of giant crocs and the swelter of the lowlands. People flock to its cool, clean waters for boating, water skiing and lazy shoreline lolling. It is also renowned as one of the best barramundi fishing spots in Australia. The sprawling lake, estimated at being two thirds the area of Sydney Harbour, is framed by the Danbulla Forest, a green blanket of rainforest, pine and scrub that offers refuge to kangaroos, bird colonies and platypus.

The elusive platypus – as well as amethystine pythons, water dragons, tortoises and musky rat kangaroos – also makes its home at two nearby lakes, Eacham and Barrine. Known collectively as the Crater Lakes, their 65m deep, tranquil ultramarine waters belie a violent past: both were formed anywhere from 17,000 to 10,000 years ago by a massive volcanic eruption. Gorgeous, cool and almost hyperactive with weird wildlife and exotic flora, it is hard to pick a favourite. Barrine’s shores shelter 50m-high, 1,000-year-old twin Kauri pines and draws a genteel crowd for its European-style tea parlour and slow boat cruises, while Eacham’s inviting pontoons tempt even the most water-shy into a jubilant bellyflop.

But never mind the amateurs – the bravest cliff diver would shudder at the thought of a leap into the Tablelands’ deepest crater. More than 80m deep and surrounded by a sheer 138m granite drop, the Mount Hypipamee Crater, about 40km southwest of the Crater Lakes, is a volcanic pipe filled with mossy green water and surrounded by broccoli-bunched trees, a dramatic spectacle that has been known to attract the curious glimpses of the rare “dinosaur bird”, the southern cassowary. Other unusual critters, including long-nosed bandicoots, tree kangaroos and ringtail possums, also haunt the crater: roll up after dusk with a flashlight to get a glimpse of these nocturnal marsupials.

Swap calderas for stunning cascades on the Millaa Millaa Waterfall Circuit. The 17km loop begins near the southern town of Millaa Milla, nicknamed the “Village in the Mist”, and takes in three exceedingly picturesque falls, starting with the jungly 15m Ellinjaa to the prehistoric-looking 20m Zillie and culminating at the idyllic 18m Millaa Millaa Falls, so postcard-perfect that they have been a backdrop for everything from beer to shampoo adverts and are recognised as the most photographed falls in Australia.

Looking for something more than snapshots to bring home? Historic Yungaburra is an artsy haven 38km north of Millaa Millaa that has changed little in 100 years. The largest National Trust village in Queensland, Yungaburra is packed with quaint galleries, antique nooks and artist workshops selling one-off pieces inspired by the Tablelands’ laidback lifestyle and natural oddities like the nearby Curtain Fig Tree, a 39m-wide strangler fig named for its thick drape of Tarzan-like aerial roots.

To reach the Tablelands, there are two routes for drivers out of Cairns: the longer 30km Kuranda Range takes drivers on a dizzying trip through the rainforest to the northern town of Kuranda, while the Gillies Range rises 800m in just 19km to emerge near Lake Barrine. Tours from Cairns run daily; see here for a comprehensive list of operators.

Atherton is the most central base for those wishing to overnight on the Tablelands, with pub stays, charming bed and breakfasts and family-friendly accommodation in surplus supply. Yungaburra’s On The Wallaby backpackers lodge is renowned for its homey atmosphere and platypus-spotting walks. Self-contained cottages, treehouses and farmstays can be found in even the most tucked-away Tablelands nook. There are also several National Park and State Forest campsites on the Tablelands.

The Tropical Tablelands Tourism site is crammed with ideas and advice, and the Atherton Visitors Centre offers short itinerary suggestions.