Thrills, spills and wonder
From taking on the Tully’s rapids to exploring a jaw-dropping park, there’s a long ‘to do’ list
THINK Far North Queensland and images of sun-soaked beaches, coral reefs and tropical rainforests will spring to mind. And that’s all good, except when you arrive in the middle of winter, the dry season, and it’s raining.
But there is lots to do in and around the area that has very little to do with the beach or the weather and makes it a trip that is so worthwhile.
White water rafting
The Tully River has long been known as the best wild water rafting experience in Australia and New Zealand.
With a series of rapids rated as three or four (the best is five out of five) you can understand why.
But you don’t have to go down the Tully in a raft with a large group of other people (most of whom you won’t know) and put your life in the hands of a guide.
You can paddle the lower stretches of the Tully and have just as much fun. In my opinion, even more fun.
Wildside Adventures offers sports rafting tours where you can paddle your own raft down the river while being led by an experienced guide the whole way.
A big advantage of doing this tour was that my nine-year-old daughter could come along whereas you have to be 13 to join in the rafting tours on the upper stretches of the river.
I’ve been white water rafting on what’s rated as the best thrill ride in the world, the Zambezi, where the rapids are graded 5 and the crocs literally line the banks of the river at the foot of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.
I genuinely enjoyed rafting the Tully more as I was in control (mostly) of my own craft and I had a far greater adrenaline rush.
There is little more thrilling than steering yourself towards a rapid and having absolutely no idea what is to follow.
My teenage sons, who shared a craft, had an absolute ball, in hindsight. During the tour there were moments when they were pinned on a rock and their bulging eyes explained why they were saying things like “we think we are going to die”.
But they were in expert hands and our brilliant guide, Mac, was never far away to yell at them and make sure they popped out safely on the other side of the rapid.
The $99 half day tour will pick you up and take you back to Mission Beach, with trips also available to and from Cairns.
If you have never been to Paronella Park, near Innisfail, then you absolutely have to include it on your next trip.
We’ve been twice and have never been disappointed, even though no one in my family has much sentiment for history. It’s no wonder it constantly wins tourism awards.
The 5ha park was hand-built by Spaniard Jose Paronella on the banks of the Mena Falls and then opened to the public in 1935.
That a mere man could build all of the buildings, fountains, parks, a love tunnel and even a hydro plant is a phenomenal story.
It is nothing short of amazing to walk through the grounds and consider what one man with a dream could achieve.
But if you ask me, the incredible story is that of its current owners, Mark and Judy Evans, who bought a neglected, run-down, old tourist attraction in 1993 and transformed it into what it is today.
The Evans have done more than keep Jose’s dream alive.
They have created a historical tourist attraction that easily bored teens (like mine) are mesmerised by.
And they don’t use trendy new electronics to capture their interest. It is the wonderful staff who share the park’s history on the guided tours who make it so worthwhile.
Another advantage for the budget conscious family is that this is such good value.
The $138 price of admission (for two adults and three kids) gave us unlimited access to the park and its tours as well as an overnight powered campsite with modern facilities and the opportunity to visit and experience it all again for free within two years.
The night tour is an absolute must and even included a free souvenir.
If you really want to enjoy a tropical beach experience that’s away from the crowds, head down to Mission Beach.
It’s only 139km from Cairns and is well worth the trip with its coconut palm-lined beaches and stunning views of Dunk Island in the distance.
We first discovered Mission Beach in 2010, a year before Cyclone Yasi devastated the area.
It was so good to go back and see Yasi had no lasting impact. The town is full of little tourism shops, but it is the council-owned campsite right on the beach we will keep going back for.
We have never, in our many tours around Australia, found another camp site quite like it.
Not only do many of the sites front the beach, we have yet to find better value. With sites for $20 a night for a family of four (an extra $4 for our fifth child), you have to be sure you get in early as it can be fully booked.
No advanced bookings are allowed, so you have to turn up and hope for the best.
From Mission Beach, you can visit Dunk Island. While the resort is no longer open, there is still so much to see and enjoy.
I’ve been to Port Douglas, and sure, it’s nice. But if you ask me, Mission Beach is the pick of beaches in North Queensland. You can walk for hours, search for sand dollars and bask in the sun for free.
Paronella Park, near Innisfail, was built by Spaniard Jose Paronella and, bottom left, Mission Beach.