Written by: Matt Newkirk
Destination: Cairnes, Australia
Visited: February 2019
Located in the northeast corner of Australia, Cairns is home to some of the country’s lushest rainforests, as well as the largest coral system on Earth, the Great Barrier Reef. The road through this rugged stretch of coastline winds past thick patches of jungle and opens up for breathtaking views of white sand beaches and crystal blue water. Signs warning of crocodiles adorn the banks of each muddy creek and river you cross, and the steady hum of cicadas and bird calls provide a distinct symphony as you make your way along the winding coast.
Overlook of Daintree Rainforest
My wife Jaii and I have just set off on a full year of travel, and Cairns is our first stop, as we make our way along the east coast of Australia. The obvious choice for us was to travel by campervan, as Australia is filled with affordable, and even free campsites, and a campervan allows us the freedom to make our own path across the continent. When we picked up our ride from Spaceships, we knew we had made the right choice. For far less than we would have spent on hotels and separate transportation, our spaceships campervan came well equipped for our journey.
Located about two and a half hours north of Cairns, Australia along the coast, Daintree is Australia’s largest tropical rainforest. With more than 1,200 square kilometres of jungle to explore, combined with stunning coastal beaches, Daintree is a popular destination for thrill-seekers and those who enjoy the outdoors. The Daintree National Park is spread out across two regions, the Mossman Gorge in the south, and Cape Tribulation to the north.
Ferry crossing to Cape Tribulation
Cape Tribulation is the gateway to the thickest part of the Daintree rainforest, and the northern stretch of the Great Barrier Reef. You can reach Cape Tribulation by heading north on highway A1 from Cairns, and then crossing the Daintree river by ferry. The ferry costs AUD $28 round-trip and only takes a few minutes to get from bank to bank. We were told that the Daintree river around the ferry is swarming with saltwater crocodiles but weren’t lucky enough to spot any as we crossed the waterway. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for cassowaries crossing the road as you drive. Cassowaries are the third largest bird on Earth, smaller only than ostrich and emus, these colourful endangered birds are only found in this part of northern Australia and parts of Papua Indonesia.
Dubuji Boardwalk Trail
The Dubuji Boardwalk is a short 1.2 kilometer hiking trail through the rainforest in Daintree National Park. The elevated planks of the boardwalk run over a flood plain through this tropical forest. Walking the path, I felt at times like I was lost in Jurassic Park. Dragonflies that looked like they were at least 6-inches long buzzed by us, while strange birds, frogs and fish lined the path. Hefty vines hung from the jungle canopy, dangling down and intertwining with the long elevated roots of the mangroves that grew along the boardwalk.
Wild Cassowary in Daintree Rainforest
It was on the Dubuji Boardwalk that we were lucky enough to encounter a mama cassowary and her baby. We heard the huge lumbering birds tramping through the underbrush long before they emerged from the jungle foliage. They walked right up to us and foraged for food in the muck under the boardwalk, right underneath our feet. We spent several minutes watching the huge birds poke around looking for food, before they finally wandered off into the vegetation. We did a search on cassowaries when we got back to our campervan and discovered they are considered dangerous and have been known to attack and even kill people with their large sharp claws when threatened.
Cape Tribulation has some amazing beaches
We drove our campervan to some truly stunning beaches in Daintree. After all, this is the gateway to the northern barrier reef. We took a stroll along a few beaches and were blown away by the white sand, and amazingly blue water. Don’t get your hopes up for swimming though, despite the hot and humid weather in Cape Tribulation, you can’t swim at any of the beaches that we encountered due to crocodiles and stingers (jellyfish). Most beaches have warnings, and a bottle of vinegar in case you should be stung by a jellyfish, which in this part of the world can be lethal.
Mossman Gorge is located at the southern end of Daintree National Park. The jungle is not quite as deep here as it is in the north. From the park entrance, you can take a free bus shuttle to the swimming holes and hiking trails. The pools in the gorge are a great way to beat the hot humid weather when you are staying in Daintree.
Clownfish in anemone
The Great Barrier Reef is the largest continuous coral reef to be found anywhere in the world. Divers have flocked here for decades to explore the reef and its many inhabitants. In the past few years, however, there have been some really traumatic bleaching events that have killed much of the reef, or at least stripped it of most of its color. In the past year, there have been some reports that the reef is coming back, but it still has a long way to go before it has fully recovered.
You can dive the great barrier reef from Cairns, Port Douglas, Cape Tribulation, and even as far south as Townsville and the town of 1770 and Agnes Water. There are a lot of operators that will take you out to the reef. Unfortunately, the reef is a couple of hours away from the mainland by boat, so you really need to book a tour in order to reach the reef. I have been diving all over the world, and diving the great barrier reef is some of the most expensive diving I have ever encountered. Operators charge upwards of USD $200-500 per diver for a two dive day, and liveaboard boat tours can be even more. If this is out of your budget, you may consider snorkeling, or doing a snorkel/dive combo trip. At the time of writing, Compass Cruises was the most affordable operator for dive and snorkel day trips.
The Cairns area is home to some fantastic swimming holes. We found that a dip in some of these scenic swimming holes, usually at the foot of waterfalls, was the best way to beat the heat while exploring Cairns in our campervan. In addition to the famous Mossman Gorge mentioned above, here are some of the best swim holes to check out while driving around Cairns.
Crystal Cascades Swimming Hole
We got an inside tip from a local who told us about Crystal Cascades swimming hole, and we were really glad we made the stop. Crystal Cascades consists of several cascading waterfalls with a small swimming hole at the bottom of each. The water is cool and refreshing, making this a great way to cool off and relax in the afternoon. The cascades are just out of town on the Freshwater Creek, which supplies the city of Cairns with drinking water. You will need a campervan or car to reach the cascades, as no public transportation stops there.
Millaa Millaa Swim Hole
Located about an hour and a half south of Cairns, Millaa Millaa Falls is in the Atherton Tablelands Region. Millaa Millaa is the first waterfall you will encounter if you drive the 17km waterfalls circuit just outside the town of Millaa Millaa. This swimming hole is popular with locals and tourists alike. We saw quite a few campervans parked outside Millaa Millaa and the other 4 waterfalls found on the loop drive.
Josephine Falls is located about an hour south of Cairns near Wooroonooran. This cascading waterfall is an easy 700 meter hike from the carpark through a tropical forest filled with a surprising variety of wildlife.
Just outside of Kuranda, the sizable Barron Falls is definitely worth a stop. The tiered waterfall drops 125 meters off of the edge of Atherton Tablelands. The park includes a scenic lookout trail with a boardwalk which leads you through a rainforest canopy to a platform overlooking the falls.
Our Spaceships campervan on the way to Millaa Millaa Falls
Traveling by campervan is the perfect way to have the freedom to see the sights along the northeast coast of Australia. There is no shortage of free and cheap places to stay if you know where to look. Traveling this way allowed us to go wherever we wanted, and have everything that we needed for camping and cooking. Here are some tips for exploring Australia by campervan that we have picked up so far.
There are a couple of great apps that you should download to find campsites, water, and gas.
Spaceships Travel is a great resource to find campgrounds and day use areas, and it’s totally free.
WikiCamps AU is another great resource. It lists campsites, with user reviews, costs, and even photos. The cost is USD $10.
Fuel Map Australia is a free app to help you find petrol stations in remote areas.
If traveling during the slow season, it is rare to come across a campground that is full. We have found that we need to know where we will be sleeping and call ahead to the camp host to let them know that we are coming, usually by 5:00 PM at the latest, because some hosts go home early or lock the gates to keep out unwanted guests. If you let them know you are coming they will provide you with after-hours check in information, etc. National Parks generally require advanced reservations, especially during busy season.
Cairns area is a tropical region. Insects are out in legion, especially in the Daintree area. Even if you don’t normally get bitten, you’re going to need it here.
Our campervan came equipped with a table, two chairs, two butane cookers, and dishes and cookware. Having the option to cook our own food has saved us a ton of time and money. Some campgrounds provide pots and gas cookers, but this equipment can be kind of gross if it is not looked after, so you shouldn’t count on it.
It’s hot in northeast Australia, we have been drinking way more water than I could have imagined. Our campervan can hold about 5 gallons, and our own containers hold about 8 liters. We have needed to fill all of these daily. Aussie “city water “ is totally safe to drink, but many campsites only offer “bore water” (well water) with a disclaimer that you might get sick if you aren’t used to it. I’m pretty adventurous, but some of the bore water has smelled like an old gym sock, so it’s a good idea to fill up when better water is available. We have gotten into the habit of tasting the local water before filling up all of our jugs.
Wallabies hung out with us for lunch
Day use areas are a great resource for finding drinking water, or cooking lunch at a comfortable picnic area. Many of them also come with amazing amenities like wild kangaroos just hanging out, or swimming holes. Use the Spaceships App, or WikiCamps AU to find day use areas along your route.
Our Spaceships campervan has a tent that goes over the back hatch, to allow us to have open windows with screens. Without the windows open the temperatures would have been impossible to bear, and without screens, we would be carried off by mosquitoes. Be sure to figure something out before attempting to sleep in a campervan around Cairns.
It’s best to buy your non-perishable items like rice, pasta, butane, and bread in big supermarkets like Coles or Woolworths. Shops in touristy areas can charge double what the big retailers sell these things for.
Every town in northern Australia seems to have a local butcher shop. These guys have got some great meat and sausages, for less than many grocery stores. On Sundays, farmers markets pop up all over the place. Take advantage of these local merchants to get better quality food, and support the local small businesses.