Down under and Way Up North; Tropical Adventures in Northern Queensland

Article excerpt

Forget the stereotype of a dry and sunbaked outback when you enter northern Queen sland. This part of Australia, at the northeast tip of the island continent, is a land of weather extremes, and unfamiliar animals and glorious birds abound in its scrub landscapes and tropical rain forests.

More travelers are learning about this area first-hand as more of them enter Australia through the airport at Cairns, 2 1/2 air hours north of Sydney and gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. But you may not realize that you can round out a Barrier Reef vacation with a journey up Cape York Peninsula touching the northernmost tip of Australia's northernmost state in a four-wheel-drive safari as memorable, in its way, as the beauty that flickers before a snorkeler's mask.

There are many options, but all require advance planning; you can work with a local travel agent who specializes in adventure travel. Here we discuss a range of guided excursions from Cairns, some one day and some two weeks long. Costs (including transportation, food, and lodging) run $80 to $200 per day. It's best to tour this area during the Australian winter (May through September), when rain is tapering off, roads are drying, and temperatures are in the 80s. During the rest of the year, monsoon rains flood much of the peninsula, turning primitive tracks into muddy lakes- and jellyfish endanger swimmers in northern Queensland's waters. Year-round, however, swimmers must beware of estuarine crocodiles that live in still, deep water.

You don't have much time? Cape Tribulation is a day outing from Cairns

This cape is where Lieutenant (later, Captain) James Cook ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef in 1770, while charting eastern Australia. Today, aboard small four-wheel-drive buses, touristexplorers follow a marginal road on their way to Cook's infamous but still beautiful beach.

North from Cairns, you pass cane fields with a mountain backdrop, then cross the Daintree River by vehicular ferry Next you reach wide and sandy Tribulation Beach, a fine place for strolling and swimming. If you drive on north to Cooktown, you'll pass through a densely beautiful stretch of rain forest in one of the most mountainous parts of Australia.

Day excursions cost about $65.

History buffs: don't miss Cooktown

This is where Lieutenant Cook and his men spent 48 days repairing his ship, Endeavour. The town reached its zenith and peak population during the Palmer gold rush of 1873. Now it has the air of a quiet Western town, with tin roofs, shaded wooden sidewalks, and 3 bars instead of the former 65.

The James Cook Historical Museum contains a fine collection of Cook memorabilia, and pioneer and aboriginal artifacts. Visit Grassy Hill Lookout for glorious views of the town, the purple sea and its treacherous shoals, and the Endeavour River twisting its way through mangrove swamps, The Pioneer Cemetery includes a Chinese shrine and historical grave sites. A Cooktown outing can take one to three days from Cairns. A one-day outing by sea costs $80 round trip. A two- or threeday overland expedition costs $200 to $265 and includes a stop at Cape Tribulation. Or go overland and return by sea, taking two days, for $280. …