Queensland: beautiful one day, perfect the next. The residents’ self-assured catchphrase could be a PR banana peel if it didn’t deliver, but it does — day in, day out. With 6967km of mainland coastline, and as much jaw-dropping hinterland behind the beaches, the Sunshine State steals the hearts of all who enter.
As the dry season sets in, the time is ripe for a coast-hugging northward journey. If you’re venturing above the popular Sunshine and Gold Coasts, skip the piles of marketing brochures and libraries of tourist information by reading this guide. In this article, we take you to the must-not-miss highlights of the well-travelled 1065km road between Rockhampton and Cairns.
1. CAPE HILLSBOROUGH
Fifty kilometres north of Mackay, Cape Hillsborough extends as a mountainous spur into the ocean. Its plant-laden hills drop off abruptly towards the glinting mica-laced sand. Ancient hoop pines sway in the breeze, the faint woody smell of their needles mingling with the tang of mangroves. Impressive headlands wrap around the Cape to the left and right, a blue ice-cream scoop of a bay encircled by reefs. Outlying islands dot the horizon. Welcome to paradise.
At low tide, you can skirt around the black mangrove-mud and hop over the smoothed rocks on the narrow causeway of land connecting the beach to Wedge Island on the bay’s right, where a singular stunted hoop pine waves in the breeze. Those willing to put in the time may be able to scramble over oyster rocks to hunt down Orchid Island and its exclusive tinted blue pool.
As the water rises, the paths to the islands submerge, and beachgoers are forced to instead focus on the mainland. Commercial trikes equipped with boat sails catch the wind and tear over the flat expanse of the beach at speed. Mellower travellers venture along a choice of walks — including Andrews Point Track that ascends through rhyolite boulders and vine-locked forest to deliver glimpses of the bay, where rows of unbroken waves roll in as regular as a heartbeat.
Elsewhere in the National Park, stare down the line of a cliff at the depths below to witness green sea turtles as they drift along the shore; drive to the Diversity Boardwalk for your best chance to see black and blue Tiger Butterflies gorging on blossoming eucalypts; or wake up early to watch the sun rise over the ocean as the park ranger feeds wallabies on the beach.
2. EUNGELLA NATIONAL PARK
The roads to Eungella National Park may be sealed, but that doesn’t mean they’re not exciting. Three shallow creek crossings splash the chassis on the way to Finch Hatton Gorge, before able swimmers take a dip in the forest-surrounded plunge pool at Araluen Falls, just 1.4 lush green kilometres on foot from the carpark.
Be careful if you hike further, as you’ll need to rock hop over the slippery Callistemon Crossing to arrive at Wheel of Fire. This rockhole has claimed five lives in the last 40 years but is beautiful to observe, with its sleek granite boulders, delicate ferns, rippling lime-green surface and namesake bright-red flowers blossoming in summer.
Back on the bitumen the straight road continues west and transforms into a steep zigzag, colliding with the Clarke Connor Ranges. At the top, with your car gasping for breath, you’ll reach the misty township of Eungella. Here, Goodes Lookout provides a vantage of mountain-locked agricultural plains darkened here and there by the amorphous shadows of drifting clouds. Nearby, Peases Lookout and Sky Window Lookout stagger with grandiose vistas.
Set out on foot along the 20km of walking tracks but be prepared for natural abundance. We used a ground tent one night and found a corner of it coated in a thick, black swarm of unidentifiable baby bugs. During a hike to the photogenic Strangler Fig Arch on the Cedar Grove Track, we passed under a bat colony. Thousands of fruit bats were hanging upside-down from the branches and they squealed and flapped their wings as we passed. The Highlands’ abundance has its rewards — a lucky few will catch a glimpse of a platypus at Broken River.
The Whitsundays receive all the marketing hype, and for good reason — just look at the way the water swirls through the sandbars at Whitehaven Beach. Too bad you can’t get a caravan over there.
Fortunately, the mainland at the same latitude is on par — plus there’s room to sidestep love-drunk honeymooners.
Bowen presents a prime spot to relax and is favoured by the locals, but is often lost in the white noise of interstate tourism marketing. Drop in at Horseshoe Bay, grab a takeaway coffee and mosey up to the Rotary Lookout. Down below, stacks of granite boulders wrap around to form the aptly named bay. On the palm-edged arc of sand, red and yellow Surf Lifesaving flags snap in the breeze. How’s the tranquillity?
From here, continue around the 2.5km Cape Edgecumbe Track to arrive at the one-time location of a radar tower and light anti-aircraft gun installed during WWII. The curling path then descends towards Murray Bay, where the blue slate of the ocean expands beyond chalky rocks that recall white-washed Greek buildings. Near the waterline, rounded stones peep through transparent candy-blue waters. Palm trees and casuarinas cast shade onto gnarled slabs of grey driftwood bedded down into piles of air-light coral fragments.
At any of these hideaway beaches there's a good chance you'll hear the sticky fingers of a mango picker dance along the fretboard of an acoustic guitar. Mangos are the lifeblood of local industry, and in honour of Australia’s primo perfumed fruit, a 10m tall replica awaits paparazzi by the visitor centre. Grab some locally grown fruit and enjoy panoramic views at Flagstaff Hill Lookout. Low-tide water levels unveil the swirling reef and sandbars that pose peril to boats between the lighthouse on North Head Island and the low-lying Stone Island behind.
Townsville warrants the most extensive exploration of all the small cities between Brisbane and Cairns. With its moderate population of 178,000 people and an average of 300 sunny days a year, the numbers add up for an invigorating coastal visit. Start off at the Strand — the 2.5km shopping and dining strip that runs along grassy seaside lawns by the white sand, palm trees and opaque green waters.
From here, walk to the jetty and check out the ‘Ocean Siren’. This sculpture, jutting up out of the sea and featuring a woman holding a torch, changes colour in response to water temperatures.
Next, hike through the Jezzine Barracks precinct and ogle at 32 installation-style artworks that tell the story of the barracks’ military importance and Townsville’s Indigenous heritage. Cook up a fresh stir-fry after stocking up on veggies at one of many public markets or drop into Townsville Brewery to cool down with a beer paddle.
Adventurous sorts can swim in the Riverway Lagoons (three man-made pools in a natural setting); jet-boat to the Great Barrier Reef for a tour-based underwater experience; or scuba-dive at the eerie SS Yongala wreck. Alternatively, they can hike or drive the steep road winding up Castle Hill, the 290m pink granite monolith visible from all over town. From the top, Townsville spreads out like a carpet, and the rippled Magnetic Island — a mere 20 minute ferry ride offshore — entices those seeking a tranquil cove to themselves.
Sixty-five kilometres north of Townsville, slide into the plunge pool below the bridge at Paluma Range National Park’s Little Crystal Creek. Another 163km further north and you arrive at the 268m Wallaman Falls, the highest year-round single-drop waterfall in Australia. Curtains of spray peel from the main torrent and billow into the sunshine, projecting a rainbow into the airborne water. The tranquillity dies when the deafening impact reaches your ears, though.
5. MISSION BEACH
Characterised by peach sand, overhead coconuts, crystal waters and generally paradisiacal picture-perfect scenery, the getaway town of Mission Beach is ideal for both active travellers and those who wish to flake out in peace. When a place is nestled between two of our prized World Heritage-listed hotspots — the Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics — what else could be expected?
The Kennedy Walking Track, linking South Mission Beach and Kennedy Bay, will take you under the shade of angled palms before leading you out to softly lapping waves on the sandy shoreline. At low tide you will be made to tiptoe over thousands of tiny circular sand pellets created by sand bubbler crabs as they feed. With enough focus, you might spot the nearly camouflaged crabs as they emerge from their sand burrows.
For those who can brave the humidity, a short and steep rainforest hike to the top of Bicton Hill will offer wide-reaching views of the long natural coastline and Dunk Island through gaps between fronds. Meanwhile, bike riders can navigate the fern-skirted Musgravea Track winding through Djiru National Park. Whether on wheels or foot, beware of Australia’s heaviest and most dangerous flightless bird, the Southern Cassowary.
Around 7km out of Mission Beach township, Lacey’s Creek Day Area is a popular picnic destination. Keep your eyes peeled here for turtles and rainbowfish in the stream, or take a short boardwalk stroll to listen eagerly for any rustling in the bushes. When all is said and done, you can seek safety from all things wild in the stinger net enclosure on the main beach.
- Rockhampton to Cairns — 1065km
- Rockhampton to Cape Hillsborough — 380km
- Cape Hillsborough to Eungella National Park — 102km
- Eungella National Park to Bowen — 214km
- Bowen to Townsville — 201km
- Townsville to Mission Beach — 235km
- Mission Beach to Cairns — 139km
Camping Queensland is generous in its provision of free campsites. Rest areas are, as a rule, fair game for overnight layovers, but councils (such as Cairns's and Townsville’s) do provide nicer free or cheap camps in places. National Parks campsites are lovely but generally have to be booked online in advance, which can make it hard to travel off the cuff. Caretaker-run showground campsites support the local community and plenty of well-run caravan parks are keen to earn your business, too.
WHEN TO TRAVEL: During the dry season, March–September.
WHERE TO NEXT: From Cairns, head inland to the Atherton Tablelands, where you can explore World-Heritage rainforest, sample agricultural delights and scale fog-covered mountains. From Rockhampton, swing inland and tackle the ochrous sandstone paradises of Expedition National Park, Kroombit Tops and Blackdown Tablelands.
MORE INFO: queensland.com.au; mackayregion.com; tourismbowen.com.au; townsvillenorthqueensland.com.au; and missionbeachtourism.com.