Sunday Herald Sun - Escape
Four days on the Savannah Way
Leaving behind a glistening coastline for the red radiance of the Queensland outback delivers sights in spades
Tropical rainforests, vast red desert, forested mountains, fertile farming land – it’s the diversity of landscapes that makes Australia such a fascinating place to explore. But on how many roadtrips do you get to see them all in a single day? Head inland from Cairns and you’ll kiss the golden coastline goodbye, pass up and over the lush tropical hinterland of the Great Dividing Range, cross the ochre savannah plains of the
“food bowl” – aka the Atherton Tablelands – and head off into the red dirt of the outback, all in just a mere four hours behind the wheel. Melbourne may boast four seasons in one day; here you get four topographies.
The Savannah Way is an epic 3700km journey across the top of Australia. It starts in Cairns in
Far North Queensland and ends at the pearling town of Broome in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, traversing 15 national parks and five
World Heritage areas along the way. But, shucks, we only have a weekend, so we’re packing four kids and two grown-ups into the car, and heading southwest on the first leg – destination: the volcanic lava tubes of Undara.
At 380km, you can put your pedal to the metal and do it in a morning, but that would mean missing out on a heap of amazing
Instagram shots, and rather defeats the purpose of a roadtrip. So here are a few of the places we stopped along the way.
Mareeba is known for its annual rodeo, nearby Granite Gorge, where our kids loved feeding the rock wallabies, and the Coffee Trail, on which you can visit the coffee plantations, take tours and taste the beans. Here we met two grey nomads (the first of many), who told us they had planned to stop for lunch and stayed a week, because it was such a great base from which to explore all the following.
The Atherton Tablelands comprise more than 20,000 square kilometres of undulating countryside. Much of it is deep volcanic basalt, fertile soil that allows farmers to grow coffee and tea (the verdant tea fields at the Nerada Tea Plantation near Malanda make a muststop photo op), as well as sugar cane, bananas, avocados, mangoes, macadamia nuts and citrus, all for sale by the side of the road. As we headed further west, the focus turned to cattle – both dairy and beef. At its centre is the town of Atherton, home to the somewhat weird Crystal Caves, one man’s extraordinary crystal and fossil collection, housed in 300 square metres of manmade tunnels and grottos. Touching is encouraged. Try persuading your kids this isn’t a good place to stop. Atherton is also (as we discovered far, far too late) the last place before Undara with a decent-sized supermarket.
This historic timber town is the highest in the state and home to Queensland’s highest pub, the eponymous Ravenshoe Hotel. At 915m above sea level, the pub was built in 1927 and, walking in, not a lot seems to have changed since then. Stopping for a late-ish lunch we were the only guests (thanks, Covid), and the yesteryear furniture, décor and memorabilia made for an almost eerie atmosphere, cheered considerably by some terrific pub food. The bar is quintessential Aussie outback – Mick Dundee would be right at home. Oh, and Ravenshoe is the last place before Undara with even a small supermarket. We missed that one, too.
4 MILLSTREAM FALLS
This is a land of records and Millstream Falls (known locally as Yindinji) is one of them – Australia’s widest single-drop waterfall. You can park the car and take a short walk to the viewing platform to watch the water plummet over the edge of a columnar basalt lava flow, surrounded by giant, ancient eucalypts. Millstream is only five minutes’ drive on from Ravenshoe.
5 INNOT HOT SPRINGS
After a few hours behind the wheel there’s nothing like a soak in a natural hot spring to rejuvenate the senses – and limbs. The geothermal waters of Nettle Creek flow through the tiny town of Innot Hot Springs, and the mineralloaded water is said to have healing properties – so much so it was bottled and sent to Europe in the early 20th century so gentlefolk could “take the waters”. Here’s a tip: “hot” means hot. While most parts of the creek are tepid, step in the wrong spot and it’s close to boiling. Some of us were quite pink when we got out.
It was getting dark by the time we passed through Forty Mile Scrub National Park into Undara. We stayed at Undara Experience, which is rustic (not in a cool way), but the facilities are good and the welcome warm. Accommodation is in repurposed railway carriages, pre-erected tents or campsites scattered among the trees, each with its own rock campfire. There are also free gas barbecues that would have been great if we’d planned ahead. Luckily, there’s a large restaurant and full bar (yay!). After dinner we toasted marshmallows, then lay down on the flat rocks for an amateur astronomy session. The night sky here is incredible and our city kids had never seen anything like it.
After a bush breakfast the next morning, we set out on a tour of part of the 164km of lava tubes and bat caves for which Undara is famous. This is an excellent way to learn about the geology of volcanic activity – by actually looking at it rather than having to build one out of modelling clay and baking soda.
Back above ground, kangaroos, rock wallabies and emus wander around (I found a bettong with its head in my bag). You need a couple of days here to do it justice. There’s a super walk up to Bluff Lookout from where you can see the sun going down over the lava plains. Take a sweater – it cools right down at night.
Come Sunday morning, we had the roadtrip bug and wanted to carry on driving west. Just around the next bend is gem fossicking at Mount Surprise and the glass bridge over Cobbold Gorge, but that’ll have to wait for another day.