Exploring the Atherton Tablelands

It can get steamy in the Tropics – but there’s a refreshing escape less than 90 minutes’ drive inland from Cairns.

The Atherton Tablelands offers crystal-clear crater lakes; tumbling waterfalls; cool, dark rainforest; and temperatures two or three degrees cooler than the coast.

And there’s so much to do and see, you’ll want to spend at least a couple of days chilling out.

Here’s a suggested 4-day itinerary:

Day One:

From Cairns, climb the winding Gillies Range Road to the Atherton Tablelands – and find your first night’s accommodation at Lake Eacham Tourist Park. This compact and tidy caravan park offers powered sites plus comfortable cabins and cottages, set in leafy loveliness.

The on-site Frond Café is famous for home-made treats –  including flaky pastry pies and cakes. Or you can tuck into a generous grazing platter of local cheeses, chocolates and tropical fruit. The café includes a gallery space that showcases the work of local artists.

Best of all, Lake Eacham Tourist Park is a skimming stone’s throw from the beautiful crater lake from which it takes its name – one of several on the Tablelands.  Swim, bushwalk and barbecue here, surrounded by rainforest.

To explore more of the Tablelands’ natural wonders, why not book an afternoon or evening wildlife tour with Alan Gillander? A long-time local and trained Savannah Guide, Alan specializes in nocturnal animals and native birds.

But his tours can also include a visit to Nerada Tea Plantation –where a family of very cute Tree Kangaroos live in a specially planted reserve near the Visitors Centre.

Day Two:

From Lake Eacham, it’s 40 minutes’ drive to the little Tablelands town that was built on tin. Herberton hit the map when mineral ore was discovered in 1875 – and many of the town’s buildings hark back to that era. One of them houses Australia’s only Spy & Camera Museum.

The museum is full of rare and vintage camera equipment – owned by Michael Peterson.  For $15, Michael gives a fascinating 40-minute tour of his collection – including a handful of rare and unusual spy cameras. There are KGB button-hole cameras and spy cameras hidden in fake cigarette packages, pocket watches and juice boxes. But the most unusual item is a secret transmitter in the shape of a “doggy doo” – used by British World War II pilots who parachuted in behind enemy lines.

The museum is just a snapshot of Herberton’s heritage treasures. Hop on board the Tinlander and it’ll take you to Australia’s biggest privately owned historical village.

Historic Village Herberton covers 16 hectares – a proper town that includes pubs, a bank, grocer, toy store, chemist, coachhouse and blacksmiths… just to name a few of the more than 50 heritage buildings on site.

It’s immaculately kept – and feels like you’ve been flung back in time to the late 1800’s.  A small army of volunteers maintain the village which includes incredible relics from the past – common-place in their day but transformed, by time, into treasure.

Adult entry costs $29 and buys you a 3-day pass to the village. You’ll need it to see everything!

There’s a range of accommodation in Herberton, including a heritage cottage bed and breakfast and the Wild River Caravan Park, which offers powered sites and rooms.

Day Three: 

Leaving Herberton, it’s a lovely drive across the Central Tablelands to the towns of Millaa Millaa. Here you’ll find one of the most photographed waterfalls in Queensland – and it’s just one tumbling beauty on the Waterfall Circuit, a drive that takes in half a dozen cascades in the area.

One of the waterfalls on the drive is at Mungalli – which is where you’ll also find a unique farm. Rainforest Heart specializes in native fruit trees – and, by appointment, you can take a tour of the orchard.  Native Lychees, Lemon Aspen, Davidson Plum and many more indigenous delights are growing on the farm, nestled in a rainforest valley. After the tour, head to the owners’ homestead for a morning tea that features the delicious range of products created from bush fruits – including chutneys, teas, spices and sauces.

From Mungalli, turn back towards Millaa Millaa and head further north to the town of Malanda – famous for its beautiful waterfall; old-time cinema; and the biggest timber pub in Australia.

Not far away is Rose Gums Wilderness Retreat – 93 forested hectares peppered with tree-house villas and studios.  Walkers will love the trails established on the property – and they’re likely to spot birds and wildlife in the forest. But if that sounds like too much activity, there’s always the daily wildlife feeding session hosted by owner, Peta Nott.  Depending on the time of year, a feathered frenzy of Rainbow Lorikeets and King Parrots descend on Peta’s deck for a feed. Peta also takes guests to a hide, not far from her home, to spot the shy musky-rat kangaroo.

Day Four:

Complete your circuit of the Central Atherton Tablelands by looping back to Yungaburra, not far from Lake Eacham.

This little town takes history to heart – with no fewer than 18 heritage-listed buildings. Get a little luxury with your heritage at Allumbah Pocket Cottages or bunk down in the Lonely Planet-endorsed bed and breakfast, The Gables – comfortable digs in a 1920’s Queenslander home.

Yungaburra may be quaint – but it’s also rather quirky.

Mad Hatterz Café in the heart of town is an ode to all things Alice-in-Wonderland – and owned by the fearsome Red Queen (better known as Annie to the locals).

You’ll feel like you’ve tumbled down the rabbit hole in this curious café – with décor including warped clocks; a trompe l’oeil wall; and crazy hats on every table (No Hat, No Service!).

Staff dress as various characters from the Lewis Carroll classic – and the food is as colourful and wonderful as the ambience. Annie makes fabulous home-made pies and features fresh home-grown herbs in her cooking.

You’ll grin like a Cheshire Cat after a visit to Mad Hatterz Café – that’s if you last that long. The Red Queen has a habit of shouting “Off with her head!” from time to time!

A serious rival for Annie’s quirky crown comes in the form of a Swiss-born, son-of-a-goatherd, yodelling chef called Nick Crameri.

Nick’s Restaurant has been an institution in Yungaburra for more than 30 years – serving up everything from sauerkraut and steaks to bratwurst and barramundi. And dinner often comes with song!

On special occasions, Nick grabs his accordion and bursts into a yodelling medley. Whole families join in – and the restaurant takes on the oompah-pah atmosphere of a party chalet somewhere in the Swiss Alps.

Whether you come for the day, or a week, the Atherton Tablelands is well-worth exploring – a region rich with world-class heritage; wonderful characters; and scenic wonders.

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