Rolling green hills and cool, clear waters draw people to the Atherton Tableland
Tucked away in the folds of the hills of the Atherton Tableland are numerous freshwater falls surrounded by lush rainforest and home to native animals. The most popular are those at Millaa Millaa, Malanda and Mungalli but there are others as attractive that are worth seeking out. Image supplied by Tourism Queensland.
Contrast: The dry red lands around Mareeba are also home to the Mareeba Wetlands, the perfect spot for getting back to nature and birdwatching. Image supplied by Mareeba Wetlands.
Serene: The rebuilt Hou Wang Temple in Atherton is a reminder of the importance of Chinese immigrants in opening up the Atherton Tablelands in the 1800s. The temple is open daily & informative tours are available every half hour during the day.
Trip back in time: The calm waters of Lake Barrine teem with wildlife and the Teahouse offers one of the best Devonshire teas on the Atherton Tablelands; this is the perfect spot to relax and enjoy the cooler climate. Image by Tourism Queensland.
About a half hour drive west of Cairns city is the Atherton Tablelands, the major agricultural area of the region and home to a number of quaint towns and villages, B’n’Bs and attractions.
Running from the Bellenden Ker Range in the south to the Great Dividing Range in the north, the Atherton Tablelands range from 600m to 1100m above sea level and are a cool getaway from the coastal plain around Cairns city.
Getting there: Kennedy Highway
To the north of Cairns is the Kennedy Highway that runs up the Kuranda Range and begins in the suburb of Smithfield about 14km north of Cairns city. Commonly known as the ‘Kuranda Range’, the road is about 12km long and rises to a level of about 430m about sea level.
It’s mainly two lanes with a number of overtaking bays and lookouts on the way up. At the top of the range is the village of Kuranda which is a tourist destination in itself.
Mareeba & Chillagoe
Heading west from Kuranda on the Kennedy Highway, visitors will reach the agricultural community of Mareeba. About an hour’s drive from Cairns, Mareeba is known for its Italian immigrant population and the Mareeba Rodeo held annually in July. From Mareeba travellers can head north to Cooktown, Weipa and the tip of Cape York or south to Atherton, Malanda and Milla Milla.
Mareeba was first settled in 1877 and was founded by John Atherton, whom the tablelands and Atherton is named after. Mareeba’s colourful history of miners, drovers, explorers and larrikins can be discovered in the Mareeba Heritage Museum which also operates as a visitor information centre.
Traditionally an agricultural area, the rich red soil was popular for tobacco and corn growing but is now home to a number of excellent coffee plantations that are open to visitors. Mangos and macadamia nut farms are also abundant and their produce is available all over the Atherton Tablelands.
Mareeba is also the home to the Cape York and Gulf of Carpentaria cattle industries and every week sale yards are full of animals brought in by road train from outlying properties. The annual rodeo is one of the largest in Australia and is visited by thousands of people every year.
Nearby is the Mareeba Tropical Savannah and Wetland reserve, a 5000 acre sanctuary home to a great many birds and other animals. The Wetlands Safari Camp provides visitors with luxury tents for a unique outback experience.
About half way between Kuranda and Mareeba is the Cairns Wildlife Safari Reserve, home to African lions, Sumatran tigers, lemurs, rhinos, hippopotamus, giraffe, bears, jaguar and other wild animals. Other popular Atherton Tablelands attractions include hot air ballooning, food tours, a go-kart track and horse-riding.
Just west of Mareeba is the township of Chillagoe. Home to a remarkable underground cave system, Chillagoe is an old mining town that is heaven for fossickers and geologists. In 1999 a 110 million year old, 5m long marine reptile fossil was discovered. Old mines and smelting works dot the countryside, but Chillagoe is now known for its excellent marble that is quarried out of the hillsides.
>> Also see the Cairns Outback for more information on Chilligoe
Getting there: Gillies Range highway
To the south of Cairns city is the Gillies Range access to the Atherton Tablelands which starts at Gordonvale about 30km south of Cairns city.
The ‘Gillies’ as it’s referred to sweeps up to the tablelands beside the Mulgrave River, flanked by the cone-shaped Walsh’s Pyramid, a 922m volcanic hill. It then winds up the Lamb Range, climbing about 800m over 19km with about 263 turns.
Historically users of the road were only able to access the road going one way when it was constructed from 1923 to 1926. Gates were located at the top and bottom and manned 24 hours a day with a system of telephones that recorded registration numbers as cars were allowed up and down at particular times of the day. It wasn’t until 1957 that the toll gate system was replaced and the road widened to two lanes. The Gillies is the easiest access point to southern Atherton Tableland attractions like the Crater Lakes – Lake Barrine and Lake Eacham – and Lake Tinaroo, Yungaburra, Malanda and Milla Milla.
Lake Tinaroo, Lake Barrine & Lake Eacham
During winter it can be too cold to swim but the summer months see dozens of people, visitors and locals alike, heading to Lake Tinaroo – the largest lake in the area – or to one of the crater lakes, Lake Barrine or Lake Eacham.
About 15 minutes northeast of Atherton, Lake Tinaroo has more than 200km of shoreline when filled to capacity. The lake is a feeder system for the Tinaroo Dam which serves the Cairns city region. Built in 1959 the dam also supplies the drinking water and agricultural water of the Atherton Tablelands. Aside from this function, Lake Tinaroo is a Mecca for watersports and fishing enthusiasts and a major tourist attraction.
One of the two crater lakes – lakes created by volcanoes – Lake Eacham is one of the most popular swimming and picnicking spots on the Atherton Tablelands. The lake is at the centre of the 489 hectare Lake Eacham National Park and is perfect for swimming, canoeing, bushwalking and bird-watching. Similar to Lake Eacham, Lake Barrine was formed by the same volcanic activity and is also surrounded by Cairns rainforest.
The larger of the two lakes, Lake Barrine offers extra facilities including a picturesque tea house that offers sit-down meals and Devonshire teas. There is also a wildlife cruise that departs four times a day offering a gentle and informative cruise around the lake. The walking track that circles Lake Barrine is about 6.5klm long.
There is a third crater lake known as Lake Euramo (or Euramoo) off Danbulla Drive, which runs around the back of Lake Tinaroo from the Gillies Highway. Lake Euramo has a viewing platform but no other facilities as it is less well-known and is well of the beaten tourist track.
The historical of Atherton was the fist spot settled on the tablelands; hence the reason the region wears the same name.
About 94km southwest of Cairns and 753m about sea level, Atherton is a fast developing business centre with touches of its former genteel country life remaining. It is built on the side of an extinct volcano, Hallorans Hill and has a population of about 5,800 people.
The town and area was named after John Atherton, a grazier and explorer who drove cattle from his property near Mackay to the goldfields of the Palmer River in 1873. Atherton was originally a stopover point for miners and carters heading from Cairns to the tin mines at Herberton.
At its peak it had a large Chinese population and their cultural influence can still be seen in the restored temple. The town has grown quickly in the last 5 years and now has fast food outlets and a large supermarket. Atherton is a good central point for exploring the surround small towns of Yungaburra, Kairi and Tolga.
Yungaburra is located centrally between Atherton, Lake Eacham and Lake Tinaroo. It’s about 70km inland from Cairns and about 720m above sea level. Yungaburra is about 100 years old and hasn’t changed much over the century.
The village is home to a number of local artists and craftspeople and offers great dinning options and relaxed spas and the classic Lake Eacham Hotel. On the fourth Saturday of very month the Yungaburra Market held opposite the hotel is packed with tourists and locals buying up the great produce, arts and crafts.
Malanda & Milla Milla
The township of Malanda is located on the Atherton Tablelands on the Malanda-Atherton Rd about 25kms southeast of Atherton. The area was discovered by Europeans in 1882 and the first settlers arrived in Malanda in 1907. Malanda’s main reason for existence is the north Queensland dairy industry.
For many years ‘Malanda Milk’ covered the longest milk run in the world from Townsville in the south, Alice Springs in the west, north to Darwin and across to New Guinea and Southeast Asia. Although the company name has changed, milk from the Malanda region continues to travel the same distance.
Another claim to fame is the oldest operating picture theatre in the town’s centre. The Majestic still has canvas seats and regularly shows films on the weekends. The authentic Queensland timber architecture of Malanda is another highlight, particularly the fabulous Malanda Hotel, its ballroom made completely of local exotic timbers is a standout.
As you leave the village heading towards Atherton, the Malanda Falls are on the right with a visitor’s centre and a great swimming hole at the base of the falls.
About 15km south of Malanda is the village of Milla Milla. A former timber town, Milla Milla’s main attraction are the falls of the same name.
The name ‘Milla Milla’ is meant to mean ‘lots of water’ in the indigenous language and Europeans first settled the area in 1910.
The township is the centre of the Waterfall Circuit which includes Mungalli Falls, Zillie Falls and Ellinjaa Falls. The old timber buildings in the centre of the small township are picturesque and this is the starting point for the Palmerston Highway which descends to the coastal town of Innisfail, travelling past Mt Bartle Frere, the tallest mountain in Queensland.
Herberton & Ravenshoe
One of the highest towns on the Atherton Tablelands, Herberton is about 915m about sea level and about 120km from Cairns. It has a population of about 1500 and is reached via Atherton on the Atherton-Herberton Rd.
Established in 1880, the township was built up around a major tin deposit that was mined until as recently as 1978. At its height Herberton had 20 hotels, two newspapers, 17 pubs and a brewery. The intervening years haven’t managed to change a great deal and the township retains its historical feel.
The main attractions are the buildings and various museums and galleries and the old cemetery with its massive headstones. The recently re-opened Herberton Historic Village pays homage to the region's pioneering past and features lovingly restored heritage buildings, iconic Queensland vehicles and household items.
Ravenshoe is the highest town on Atherton Tablelands and at 930m is the highest town in Queensland. Located to the southeast of Atherton, Ravenshoe is about 147km from Cairns.
Ravenshoe was founded in 1881 by the timber industry when William Mazlin discovered massive cedar forests in the area. The first sawmill was built in 1899 and timber cutting remained the major industry for 70 years. In 1987 however, the then federal government allocated 900,000 hectares of rainforest around Ravenshoe for World Heritage Listing.
Since then the township has developed into a home for artists and environmentalists with the town centre becoming home to imaginative galleries and craft shops. There is also a writers group and theatrical society. The first Saturday in October sees two weeks of the Festival of the Forests focused on creative woodcraft.
There are a number of unique Atherton Tablelands attractions for visitors including the Millstream Express steam train which departs Ravenshoe every Saturday and Sunday from April to January for a scenic tour north to Tumoulin.
The Millstream Falls and the Misty Mountain Trails offer great hiking. There is a fair bit of interesting accommodation in Ravenshoe including a number of great B ‘n’ Bs.