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Great Barrier Reef Drive: Cairns to Cape Tribulation

October 22, 2018

There’s only one place in the world where two world heritage sites sit side by side, and it lies at the end of one hell of a scenic drive! Taking in Daintree rainforest, jewel-like waterholes and a cruise through croc and cassowary country, this three-hour road trip is all the proof you need that far north Queensland has as much happening on land as it does beneath the waves.


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Cairns to Port Douglas

While Cairns is a fine base for reef activities, waterfall chasing and glorious wild swimming in secret waterholes, you’re going to have to leave it behind because Port Douglas beckons. The tidy little resort town is a world away from the hubbub of backpacker-favourite Cairns, yet is bursting with outdoor pursuits like diving, snorkelling, SUP and hiking, and has enough lively pubs, boutique shops, cane toad races, and market stalls to fill idle hours in between.

It's also the gateway to Daintree Rainforest, Cape Tribulation, and of course the far-flung coral cays of the northernmost Great Barrier Reef. And while all these might sound like very good reasons to race up there as fast as your right foot will let you, there’s about 75km of bitumen standing in the way that’ll have you tapping the brakes.

As highways go, the Captain Cook Highway isn’t long, and takes just under an hour. But even intrepid off roaders can’t deny the allure of this short, scenic drive that winds between the Kuranda escarpment and the Coral Sea coast, waves so close you can almost see them licking at the kerbs. The glint of aquamarine peeking through mangroves, pearl-white beaches uncurling around each bend and a languorous coffee stop at aptly-named Palm Cove all add up to something pretty damn memorable. Our only complaint is that it’s over all too soon – or is it?


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When two become one

Considering Queensland has not one but two world heritage listed sites quite literally bumping into one another, we’re not sure why it took the state government as long as it did to realise their roads have got what it takes to rank among Victoria’s “Greats”. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 2015 that the Captain Cook Highway and Cape Tribulation Road were officially yoked together to become the spectacular 140km-long Great Barrier Reef Drive.

So, while it’s tempting to recline in Port Douglas with a tumbler of crushed pineapple, some Queensland prawns and not move for 5 to 10 days, the end of the line is still another 70-ish klicks and whole lot of wows away.


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From reef to rainforest

Can you imagine what much of Australia – including the vast swathes of arid treeless bits in the middle – looked like 100 million years ago? Spend some time exploring the Daintree Rainforest and you won’t have to. Some of the families of mosses, ferns and palms that you can gaze upon today have been growing in these parts relatively unchanged for eons. In fact, 12 of the world’s 19 flowering prehistoric plants can be found in Queensland’s Wet Tropics (of which the Daintree Rainforest makes up a large part) and nowhere else.

The most famous primitive plant would have to be the one commonly known as the ‘idiot fruit tree’ which was only discovered in the ‘70s after an investigation into the mysterious death of two cows. Turns out they’d swallowed the plant’s tennis-ball-sized seeds and the rest, as they say, is history. (Leave it to the Aussies to nickname a plant of such botanical and evolutionary importance ‘idiot’, but there you are.)

Evolution has been slow off the mark here thanks to a climate that, while the rest of the continent progressively dried out, remained consistently warm and wet. What we have now is not only the oldest continually surviving rainforest in the world, but one of the most biologically diverse.


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The concentration of primitive plants, as well as birds, marsupials, frogs, insects – think 90% of Australia’s butterfly species – the seldom-seen cassowary and hope-you-don’t-see crocs, will make you feel like you’ve touched down in Jurassic Park, or that place where the blue Avatars live. The only real difference is the people will probably be some shade of red. (Dress smart, drink plenty of water and try to travel either side of the cyclone-prone summer.)

As you venture towards this ancient landscape you’ll be drawn first to Mossman Gorge’s shady boardwalks and emerald-green boulder pools which entice muggy walkers to strip down and cool off. It’s a pocket of rainforest of paradisiacal proportions (and there’s plenty of other places just like it), but wandering beneath the canopy is taken to another level entirely if you do so with an indigenous guide.

A Dreamtime Walk is a chance to learn about the local Kuku Yalanji people’s customs and their spiritual and social relationships with the rainforest, an eye-opening and fascinating experience by all accounts.


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Cape Tribulation Road

Beyond Mossman the road trip takes an intrepid turn as it heads towards the Daintree’s upper reaches and its dinosaur-riddled river. If you don’t have time for a cruise with the giants, you should still pop into Daintree Village for a squiz at the teeny settlement before taking the car ferry to the other side.

From here you’ll be deep in jungle vibes as the road weaves beneath the canopy, taking you deeper into the Daintree’s wilder side. The northern terminus isn’t far, but countless palm-fringed beach stops such as Cape Kimberley and Cow Bay are certain to stretch out the drive.

Unlike a lot of other tourist drives that tend to just trickle off, arriving at Cape Tribulation feels decidedly final – partly because sealed road comes to an abrupt stop – but mostly because it’s just a damn good place to wind up. Yes it’s got reef charters, jungle surfing, rainforest treks and amazing beachside camping – things that are all quite at odds with the town’s ominous name – but tours, they come and they go.

The beating heart of Cape Tribulation is its claim to something simpler. The humbling experience of walking from one natural treasure into another, of being at the point where oldest living rainforest in the world and the largest living thing in the world converge. There’s nowhere else on the planet where you can can have the same experience, and here it is in our own backyard, reachable on a beaut of a drive, by 2WD cars!


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Getting off the beaten track is great and all, but some destinations are well and truly deserving of their place in the sun. The road from Cairns to Cape Tribulation is undeniably one of them. So, what are you waiting for?