FNQ:  Cairns and Atherton Tablelands

Cairns is a city of about 160,000 people perched on the Coral Sea in FNQ – Far North Queensland.  It is a place I used to pass through on my way to and from the Torres Straits in the early 1970s when I was working on Thursday Island.  It is a place where my brother Paul was for many years a radio announcer with 4CA:

  • Good morning – this is Tall Paul Hall with the morning show

… and where I was reduced to tears one day in the 1970s after visiting him in the studio to hear on the radio as I drove south the old Hollies favourite

  • He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

About fifty years have passed since then and my memories of Cairns and the Atherton Tablelands are pretty hazy.  This 2022 visit has been a really enjoyable trip back in time.  It is winter here now – clear sunny days of 250C are a welcome change from the colder climates in the south of the country.  Many people from Melbourne flock to the north for the winter sunshine and hotels are packed, accommodation prices go through the roof, restaurants are COVID-relatively packed – but despite all that it is so good to be here.

Rusty’s Market, Cairns

Rusty’s Market is as always packed with shoppers looking for good fresh fruit and vegetables, Annee’s Caphê Sua Da had queues of people lining up for a fresh brew and a pastry.  The Cairns Lagoon was open for swimmers – but was closed the following day for one month of maintenace works.  Cairns can be a hot sweltering place in summer, and with the presence of “stingers” and crocodiles in its creeks and oceans in the summer, this huge city-centre artificial lagoon is a real treat.

Cairns Lagoon with Marina in the background

“Stingers” and crocs:  ideal companions for a summer holiday. 

Australians are known for their ability to downplay tragedy.  Monty Python captured this spirit admirably in its episode of two knights fighting, lopping off sundry arms and legs:

  • ‘Tis but a scratch.  It’s just a flesh wound …

“Stingers” are not the rather cute beastie their name suggests.  The irukandji or box jellyfish are tiny critters but they pack a powerful – and often lethal – punch.  Swimming in this area from about November to March is risky – as it is also the time when crocodiles can be encountered in mangrove areas, but also in the ocean as the males make their way from river to river looking for suitable mates.

Yes – go to Cairns – but do not swim in the ocean in the summer.  Yes – go to Australia – but beware that we have SO many little gremlins and goblins and nasties that can gobble you up, poison you, bite you, sting you, or give you a fatal anaphylactic  shock.  But then – so can a peanut …

COVID has had an impact on this city.  Cairns Pier shopping centre is mostly deserted, and the luxurious Galleria with its Gucci and Louis Vuitton shops was deserted apart from two or three shoppers in Tommy Bahama hunting for just the right Hawaiian print shirt to wear to an evening cocktail party. 

I set off for a tour of the Atherton Tablelands. Again, this is an area of which I have fond memories – some real, some imagined perhaps, as I was born and grew up in the region.  My tour on this occasion was just nine hours and about three hundred kilometres – a very pleasant day’s driving through Kuranda, Mareeba, Atherton, and Yungaburra.

Kuranda

I had visited Kuranda a few days earlier – it was the first stop in a wonderful four-day Savannahlander railway journey, and the first place for scones and jam and whipped cream at the beautiful old railway station.

This tiny mountain-top village offers more than scones and jam.  There are several art galleries – some with relatively inexpensive indigenous artworks produced for travellers – but one, the Tropical Pulse Gallery, offers visitors serious and important artworks by First Nations artists.

Tjampitjinpa’s Bushfire Dreaming

I was particularly taken by one of Ronnie Tjampitjinpa’s works – Bushfire Dreaming.  This is large canvas has vibrant colours and a dynamic story.  The artist is one of Australia’s top aboriginal artists whose works feature in major collections worldwide.  The price tag on Bushfire Dreaming made me ask the owner of the gallery if this was a realistic price, and when I learned a little of the artist’s history, achievements and place in modern art world, I accepted that AU$24,000 was perhaps a fair price – had I had pockets deep enough to afford it.

I had left home without packing very carefully – and my shorts kept falling down without a belt.  A quick visit to Coral Coast Leather, a quick AU$50.00 later and my trews stayed up, thanks to a Norman Guy handmade belt in local  leather (norman.guy@crocbelts.com).  It’s good to be able to support the local community – and to prevent the local populace from being shocked as my shorts, deep pockets or not, dropped to my ankles.

Mareeba

In the Koko-Muluridji language, “Mareeba” means the meeting of the waters as Granite Creek, Emerald Creek and the Barron River all join up here.

The Romeo family has vast vineyards nearby producing almost all of Australia’s table grapes: hectares of vines stretch off into the mountains and acres of white plastic are stretched over the vines to stop birds from gorging themselves.  On the way to Mareeba I called in to the Golden Drop Winery near the tiny town of Biboohra.  But the Golden Drop Winery does not use Romeo grapes at all.

Charles and Lucy Nastasi grow mangoes

Mangoes at Golden Drop Winery and Plantation

Millions of them

Their property was originally a tobacco farm but from 1975 Charles began converting the property to mangoes.  There are now almost 20,000 mango trees – one of the largest mango plantations in Australia.  About 80% of their fruit is sold as fresh fruit, but winemaker sons Sam and Dino Nastasi turn the remaining 20% into booze.

The Winery produces several varieties of “wine”.  Sam and Dino knock out a rather nice dry white wine, a sparkling bubbly mango wine – huge nose of fresh fruit – and various fortified wines including a powerful lemoncello liqueur.  www.goldendrop.com.au

Just down the road from the Golden Drop are the Mareeba Wetlands, with, apparently, a lovely boardwalk to allow visitors to enjoy the wildlife and the scenery.  It is now closed.  When it opened it gained great publicity but it is now privately owned and only open by appointment.  Bit of a bugger, actually, as I drove quite a way over rough dirt roads … just to find some locked gates. 

Peters Family Causeway

The only good thing about my disappointing journey was to find the Peters Family Causeway – a lovely rural river scene – and distant glimpses of the massive Mt Emerald Wind Farms seen over burgeoning fields of cotton (see left).

Over 70% of Australia’s coffee crop is grown around Mareeba.  The bustling Coffee Works business grows and roasts its own coffee – another of the new crops on the Tablelands to replace tobacco.  Their Black Mountain coffee – and a chewy slab of locally made Rocky Road chocolate – made for a wonderful morning tea. 

Old coffee roasting machinery

Coffee Works has a large museum of all things coffee related – and I doubt I will ever see again so many types of percolators, roasters, dripolators, espresso machines or images of Arabian nymphets offering their pashas tiny cups of brewed beans.

In the 1880s local transport was unreliable and irregular.  Migrants looking for work at the Chillagoe mines had to have a pick and a shovel.  They loaded their possessions into wheelbarrows and set out on a 140 km journey pushing their wheelbarrows, picks, shovels and all their household goods to Chillagoe in hope of a better future.  Since about 2010 a re-enactment of the trek from Mareeba to Chillagoe has been staged, with teams competing for best times and for the greatest amount of money raised through sponsorships.  Over two million dollars have been raised for local charities – and the race goes on.

A competitor in the Mareeba – Chillagoe Wheelbarrow Way 140 km race

I just missed the Mareeba Rodeo and its multi-national Rodeo Queen aspirants, and I will have to return one day for the annual wheelbarrow race held each May.

Walkamin

While this town had no claim to hand-held computer games, it does have coffee plantations for the Mareeba Coffee Works roasters and the Mt Uncle Distillery which offers five or six different gin variants.  Some, like the Navy Strength bottle, a staggering 57% proof – surely enough to see any old sea dog well and truly pickled – some vodkas and whiskies and tequila.  I still had a long way to travel so I sniffed one gin … and was strong enough to refuse the naval knee-trembler.

Atherton

There is no towering marble monument commemorating the fact that Atherton is the town where I was born, but roadside stalls – in season – offer avocados at two dollars a bag, pumpkins just $5.00 each and zucchinis for three dollars a bag.  I did not see any fruit or produce for sale … and did not know where to look to find the house that was my home all those years ago.

Yungaburra

Yungaburra street
Anglican Church, Yungaburra

A sparrow’s spit from Atherton is this quaint village – classified by Australia’s National Trust as Queensland’s largest historic village.  Its Anglican church, the old Lake Eacham pub, the main street of heritage-listed shops and the flowering hanging baskets along the streets make this place a delightful short stop.

Curtain fig tree

A vast 500-year-old, fifty metre-tall curtain fig tree is still growing – and getting even bigger – just outside the town, and on the north side, beside the attractive Lake Tinaroo is an amazing find:  the Afghanistan Avenue of Honour.

Afghanistan Avenue of Honour

Private Ben Chuck, a Yungaburra man, was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2010.  The avenue of Illawarra Flame trees commemorates the Australians who helped fight one of the dirtiest wars in history.  Australians have protected this country in a couple of World Wars, and have also assisted sundry allies in wars around the world:  South Africa, Afghanistan, Korea and Vietnam. 

I was once on a train and speaking to a man from the USA who had been part of the US contingent to Vietnam.  He was totally staggered to learn that there were soldiers from countries other than the US fighting and dying in that country.

Hmm.

And back to Cairns

This scenic loop is an enjoyable day trip, going past many plantations, some protected from the winds by stately Cyprus pine windbreaks.  There are juggernauts called Winnebago motor homes, some of which have in tow small 4WD SUVs…  like remora suckerfish snuggling up to their mother sharks.  I kept looking for bumper bar stickers that said MY OTHER CAR IS ALSO A PORSCHE … but to no avail.

Two- or three-trailer trucks full of sugar cane rumble along the roads, and an occasional kangaroo or wallaby hops over the road.  Some wallabies are not so lucky … and end their days nose up by the side of the road.

We passed through Gordonvale: an important small town.  Here drivers must turn RIGHT to go to Innisfail, or LEFT to return to Cairns.  It must be nice to know that you are a town that has such a dramatic impact on travellers’ future directions.

Just south of Cairns are two Sikh temples.  My taxi drivers in Cairns were all Sikhs, who are a long way from home.  The days of political correctness have not yet fought their way into every nook of Tableland nomenclature, as there is still a Blackfellow Creek and a Chinaman Creek … but no Murdering White Colonial Settler Creek … and no Christopher Hall Creek.

There are other loops travellers can take to explore the Tablelands – both shorter and longer – but this nine-hour jaunt with detours, lunch stops and pretty villages to explore is a great day out.

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Text and photographs © Christopher Hall July 2022

Wheelbarrow Way racer and Golden Drop mango photos from Internet

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In my blogs I try to present a snapshot of the places I have discovered during a brief visit.   I am not trying to present a detailed picture of the whole city or the whole region or the whole country.

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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.

  • Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship

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