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Rainforest to Reef: This is the ultimate Tropical North Queensland itinerary

Dripping with style, culture and adventure, Tropical North Queensland is nature’s antidote for the soul. Natasha Dragun discovers what makes this part of Australia so unique.  

International tourists flocked to Tropical North Queensland, but many Australians are yet to discover just how great our own backyard can be.

The incredible region is home to more than 30 national parks, including the Daintree Rainforest, which predates the Amazon by 80 million years.

If you’re looking to get away from it all, this is the place to do it.

Tropical North Queensland sits at the union of the Wet Tropics Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef. It’s the only place in the world where two UNESCO World Heritage sites meet.

It’s also the first place in the country to achieve Ecotourism Australia’s ‘Eco Destination Certification’. The newly-conceived badge assures travellers that tourism providers in the region have a strong, well- managed sustainability ethos.

Thornton Beach Daintree
Thornton Beach © Tourism Tropical North Queensland

Daintree Ecolodge

My journey to Tropical North Queensland begins at Daintree Ecolodge.

Emersed in the canopy of the rainforest, the resort has 15 eco-friendly villas, an on-site spa, bar and restaurant.

A veritable insect and bird orchestra chirps and twangs away in the tangle of jungle that surrounds my villa.  I listen quietly to the crescendo of graceful tree frogs, the soft vibrato of cicadas and the metronome strobe of owls and bats.

I could shut my windows and seal out the sound, but the unconducted symphony is hypnotic. It’s like constant waves lapping the sand.

The nocturnal chorus eventually lulls me to sleep. But it also wakes me up at sunrise – do cicadas ever rest? Once up, the clarity of the morning light, dappled through enormous king ferns and fan palms, has me stretching my limbs, curious to explore.

Daintree Ecolodge bathtub
Daintree Ecolodge bathtub

Daintree Rainforest Indigenous tours

Walkabout Cultural Adventures help tourists discover Indigenous traditions dating back tens of thousands of years. The company is 100 per cent Aboriginal owned and operated.

My guide for the day is Kuku Yalanji man Juan Walker. Juan was born here. His family still live up the road. He’s spent his life fossicking on the sand and amid the rainforest.

Juan shows me how to spear mud crabs and fish in the gin-clear waters of Cooya Beach, his ancestral home. He points out mussels and pipis growing among the gnarly roots of mangroves. We scoop up the juicy delicacy to cook over coals for lunch. He douses our seafood bounty with lime and chilli oil. It’s like eating a ray of salty sunshine.

Tropical North Queensland Indigenous tour
Walkabout Cultural Adventures

Inhabitants of the rainforest

Wandering under this dense, green canopy is a spiritual experience. We leave the blinding tropical north Queensland sunshine behind and enter a cool cocoon.

The forest seems to be moving around us, Is moving around us. More than 12,000 species of insects call the Daintree Rainforest home. It also has 430 different birds, including noisy pittas, varied trillers and elusive cassowaries. Incredibly, up to 30 per cent of Australia’s reptile, frog and marsupial species call this forest home.

The Kuku Yalanji came here to forage and feast, marking their trails and songlines using bent saplings. They highlighted achievements through middens. Piles of bones and shells told the next tribe what had been consumed.

Tropical North Queensland
Daintree Rainforest tropical North Queensland.

Mossman Gorge

Mossman Gorge is a spiritual place where the Mossman River tumbles over granite boulders into freshwater swimming holes.

On a Dreamtime Walk from the Gorge Centre, I discover all manner of bush foods and native medicines. The Gorge Centre also has a fantastic collection of Indigenous art.

The highlight of my time here, however, is simply watching nature. As I sit beside a waterhole, Ulysses butterflies flit above the surface of the water. Known as Walbul-Walbul, these striking creatures are believed to be the reincarnation of Aboriginal elders, sent back to watch over those still roaming the Earth.

Mossman Gorge Tropical North Queensland
Mossman Gorge Tropical North Queensland

Port Douglas

The laid-back town of Port Douglas in Tropical North Queensland is the closest point on the Australian mainland to the Great Barrier Reef.

At 344,400 km2, The Great Barrier Reef is by far, the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem. Remarkably, 90 per cent of coral diversity occurs within four metres of the surface. The reef is home to 10 per cent of global coral gardens and fish species. At least 30 types of whales and dolphins visit each year. You can swim with dwarf minke whales from July to September.

Snorkelers over the Great Barrier Reef
Snorkelers over the Great Barrier Reef © Tourism & Events Queensland

Six of the world’s seven species of sea turtles come here to breed and float over giant clam gardens, thought to be centuries old.

I strap on a mask and flippers with Wavelength Reef Cruises and dive into the cool water. My wide eyes take in colourful coral, parrotfish, waving anemones and slow turtles.

Quicksilver Cruises offer a similar Great Barrier Reef snorkel or dive experience from Wavedancer, a 30-metre catamaran. This tropical North Queensland company pioneered tours back in the 1980s.

In the years since it has set up a division dedicated to reef research. Quicksilver now employs the largest team of marine biologists outside a government agency. The project has evolved into Eye on the Reef, which encourages visitors to the region to report coral conditions via a nifty app.

Picnic Bay tropical North Queensland
© Tourism and Events Queensland/Jesse and Belinda Lindemann

Cape Tribulation

You’ll need to take a ferry across the Daintree River if you plan to drive from Port Douglas to Cape Tribulation. The trip takes two hours. In this part of tropical North Queensland, the rainforest is so lush is the rainforest that envelops the headland. It’s easy to imagine the time of Gondwana.

It’s the ideal setting for eco-lodge, Mist at Cape Tribulation. The stunning lodge sits at the foot of Mount Sorrow – but offers complete, heart-jerking joy. The property’s breezy pavilions are all off-grid, although the sustainable ethos doesn’t come at the expense of style.

This is the kind of place where time seems to stand still in the cloak of humidity that hangs overhead, running to the rhythm of those chirping cicadas – my insect orchestra is back, with a familiar, soul-salving tune.

This article originally appeared in volume 38 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.