I’m driving underwater. Yes, you read that correctly. But perhaps I should explain. I’m sitting in an ‘underwater scooter’ – it’s actually called a Scuba Doo – and four metres below the surface, I’m zipping along the Great Barrier Reef in the most incredible, bizarre way possible.
You don’t need to be a swimmer to see the Great Barrier Reef. Here at the Outer Reef, an hour and a half by catamaran from Cairns, aboard a Scuba Doo, it’s far simpler. You don’t need skills of buoyancy, or to worry about breathing equipment, or any of those other ‘swimming’ things. You just jump onto the Scuba Doo, slip your head into the pressurised chamber, and then accelerate off to explore the reef.
It’s hardly an adrenaline sport (the Scuba Doo seems to move at about the same pace as a slow swim) but it’s an experience quite unlike any other. It’s like being in a magical goldfish bowl, featuring a hyper-clear panoramic vision of life below the waves. Wally the Humphead Maori Wrasse, a local celebrity fish shimmering in aquamarine and gold, will be there with you. You’ll see rainbow-coloured parrotfish munching on the reef, as well as dozens of types of coral – soft, hard, glowing, flowing – in an otherworldly landscape. You may even encounter a sea turtle, particularly between November and March. All without any swimming.
The reef is very much alive. And yes, it’s magnificent. But you probably knew that. The Great Barrier Reef is the reason most people visit Cairns. It’s a Natural Wonder of the World, the kind of experience that tops many a traveller’s bucket list. But for many visitors to Cairns, it’s also the only thing they’ll see.
It should, rather, be just the beginning.
Cairns is the gateway to Tropical Northern Queensland. Here, the world’s largest coral reef meets the world’s oldest rainforest, a diverse array of landscapes and ecosystems sitting side by side. In the 150-kilometre stretch north of Cairns, the landscape ranges from mangroves to pristine beaches, rocky cliffs and sugar cane fields, all sweeping up to the lush rainforest of Cape Tribulation. It’s possible to sample it all in just a few days, and the best way to do so is on a road trip along one of Australia’s – perhaps the world’s – most spectacular coastal drives.
Cairns is, of course, where you should start. This small city somehow manages to capture everything that’s great about Australia: golden sunny weather, a water-centric outdoorsy culture, a relaxed cosmopolitan vibe and modern cuisine that’s both local and global. A day’s stroll along the esplanade – comprising the lagoon, the marina just around the corner and the culinary centre that is the waterfront boardwalk – will have you appreciating it in its full glory.
By then, you’ll be itching to hit the road. Your first stop should be the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, a tramway that takes you from the foothills of Cairns’ hilly outer suburbs up into rainforest. It’s a quick initiation into the area’s diverse ecosystems: in an hour, you go from Australian bush scrub to lush greenery, with stops (and guided tours) along the way so you can get properly immersed in the jungle.
You end up in Kuranda, a town that’s very much set up for tourism. Bohemian markets, a butterfly sanctuary, koalas, birds and lots of other animals are all here for your viewing and petting pleasure. Kuranda is a day trip at most, but perfect for those with limited time.
Once you’ve returned on the Skyrail, the real driving starts. But don’t fret – driving in Northern Queensland is about as easy as it gets. There’s one road that takes you north from Cairns, which will take you all the way to the UNESCO-listed Daintree Rainforest.
First you’ll hit Palm Cove, a beach village of cafes, restaurants and hotels that has honeymoons and family time written all over it. From Palm Cove, the road changes dramatically; you’re suddenly waterside, winding and wending around rocky cliff edges, punctuated with short strips of gorgeous beach.
There are several ocean-side stops that let you really take in the view. The first, about 10 kilometres from Palm Cove, is a beach filled with piles of balancing rocks – or ‘cairns’ (get it?), as they’ve come to be known. It’s a hypnotic scene, resembling a pagan ceremonial site that has been transplanted to the middle of paradise. Another five-minute drive leads to the most spectacular spot along the Captain Cook Highway, the Rex Lookout, set high on the tip of a bend and looking back over the bay below. Instagram that.
Drive a little further, though, and you’re suddenly in sugar country. The road heads inland, flanked by fields of green cane and mountains in the distance. Here you’ll encounter the turn off to Port Douglas – a beautiful resort town, where you could easily spend a night or two (or three).
Then you come to Cape Tribulation. You’ll need to take a barge across the Daintree River, but it’s worth it. The cape is the heart of the Daintree Rainforest, a 110-million-year-old ecosystem that’s one of the most diverse in the world. And as you drive – winding and wending again, more intensely than before – it’s as if the forest is growing around you. Incredibly, some of the most primitive of the thousands of plants here are also found in South America, pointing to the fact that they were once part of the same forest, tens of millions of years ago in the ancient megacontinent of Gondwana.
To experience the rainforest, you’ve got options. The Daintree Rainforest Skywalk – a 125-metre elevated walkway through the towering trees – is the most accessible. But for the adventurous, ziplining and whitewater rafting will get your adrenaline rushing.
There are beaches on the cape too, and some – Myall and Coconut beaches in particular – literally touch the reef. They have that powdery white sand and crystalline blue water that just make you want to dive right in.
But you probably shouldn’t. This is croc country, as the signs across the Northern Queensland coast will tell you, and these ancient predators – which you can see lurking, feeding and generally being vicious in far safer confines at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures – are one part of the natural ecosystem you don’t want to encounter on the beach.
Not that you’re short of natural wonder in Northern Queensland. The world’s largest reef, the world’s oldest rainforest, the most spectacular of coastal drives and an abundance of wildlife are all here. You just need to go that little bit farther.
The hot list
Eat and drink
A converted fishing trawler moored in the marina, serving super-fresh prawns and oysters.
A Cairns’ institution sitting on the waterfront, with a focus on game (think kangaroo, emu and crocodile) and seafood.
Flames of the Forest
Near Port Douglas, this is Australia’s only rainforest dining experience, with performances by indigenous tribes, all amid the jungle.
Set in the Cape Tribulation greenery, serving sustainable, locally caught seafood and meat.
Tjapukai Cultural Park
One of Australia’s most renowned centres of aboriginal culture, with performances and a new multimillion dollar facility.
This gorge is home to a popular swimming hole, and visitors can take a walk guided by members of the indigenous tribe who tell legends along the way.
Great Barrier Reef
Head out to a pontoon at the Outer Reef, where you can snorkel and see the reef via a semi-submersible and an underwater gallery. It’s also the only place where you can experience the Scuba Doo.
Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
A cable car that takes you from outer Cairns up into the rainforest and to Kuranda.
This Kuranda park boasts wildlife (koalas, kangaroos, cassowaries!) and indigenous culture performances. But the highlight is the tour through the rainforest in amphibious vehicles from World War II.
Jungle Surfing Canopy Tours
Zipline through the Cape Tribulation rainforest for a more adventurous take on the Daintree.
Cathay Pacific flies to Cairns and Brisbane from Hong Kong