Travel tips for north Queensland’s awesome wet tropics and the Daintree rainforests

Written by Gary on October 20th, 2015

I have just returned from a 2 week self-drive holiday in Queensland’s wet tropics so I thought I should share some tips.

Palm Cove

Palm Cove, Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Samyang Fisheye lens.

The Wet Tropics – something for everyone!

This is an amazing area in Australia so get there while the $AUST is so affordable, here is a taste of what one can do and see:

  • Cairns:
    • this is the main city and main point of access with its international airport
    • it is a hub for the multitude of overseas backpackers and thus is well suited to their needs
    • the main base for tours to all the regions below whether they be boat tours or bus tours
    • regular public bus travel to the northern beaches so you can get away with not having a car
    • the lovely free swimming pool and sunbathing area right in the heart of the CBD on the harbour – and with free outdoor gym machines and plenty of shade if you want it
    • Cairns Tropical Zoo
    • Cairns Night Zoo
    • Skyrail  Cableway or Scenic Railway to Kuranda tourist village at the top of the mountains behind Cairns gives access to the nearby rain forests and Barron Falls
    • sunset river cruises
  • The Great Barrier Reef
    • even if you are not into snorkelling or scuba diving, everyone should get to one of the reef islands such as Green Island and at least view  the coral and colourful fish from a glass bottom boat – although check the weather first as you don’t want rough seas
  • northern beaches such as Palm Cove and Port Douglas
    • Palm Cove is my favourite, lovely little village, very aesthetic palm lined beaches with a stinger net section for safe swimming monitored by surf life savers
    • Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure is a must do – well worth it and the food in the cafe is very nice indeed – you must try the crocodile dishes!
    • Mossman Gorge – north of Port Douglas, lovely circuit walk through rainforest although the highlight for many is the swimming in the cool clear waters of the stream amongst the many granite boulders
  • Daintree rainforests and remote beaches
    • if you enjoy the wilderness and can live without mobile phone access or the internet, or TV, then take the car ferry across the crocodile infested Daintree River and explore
    • some nice short easy walks on boardwalks gives everyone easy access to the rainforests and mangrove swamp environments – great for photos
    • several remote beaches with lovely sand, and when I went in October, no nasty bugs biting you (except the occasional march fly in Cape Tribulation) – but you need to be careful about swimming – crocodiles are a risk, especially near estuaries, while from Oct-April, swimming is not advised due to the potential dangers of lethal stinging jellyfish – nevertheless, these beaches are awesome to walk along and just relax
  • Atherton Tablelands
    • this elevated rainforest plateau 700m to 1000m above sea level is littered with ancient volcanic hills, valleys, waterfalls and crater lakes makes it a photographer’s and naturalist’s delight and is some 4 degrees Celsius cooler than Cairns and unlike the coast, you will need a jumper or cardigan for evening wear
    • great location for ornithologists who enjoy bird watching
    • backpackers find the swimming in the waterhole below the picturesque Millaa Millaa falls and the ability to get a selfie shot behind the waterfall an awesome way to spend a warm day
    • the elevation in the higher parts is said to be too high for mosquitoes, although mosquitoes seemed to be well controlled in Palm Cove – at least while I was there in October (Dengue fever outbreaks do occur in the Cairns region over the wet season in particular)
    • Mareeba to the north is drier with clearer skies and further north, the woodlands are filled with large termite mounds
    • the historic mining town of Herberton a little to the west is also drier and has a re-constructed 19th century mining town as a tourist attraction
    • 1-2hrs to the west is the much drier historic outback mining town of Chillagoe with its limestone caves to explore
    • 1-2hrs to the south-west is the unique Undara Lava Tubes
  • Innisfail region to the south of Cairns
    • recently hit by a major cyclone, a major tourist attraction here is Paronella – an old castle-like mansion estate amongst the rainforest representing one man’s dream
    • Mamu Skywalk is a tourist attraction amongst the rainforest tree tops
    • Mission Beach and Dunk Island are south of Innisfail


What will you see in the rainforests?

This depends upon the season and which part of the rainforest you are in.

Rainforests generally consist of 4 layers of life:

  • emergent layer at the top of the tallest trees  at around 50-60m above ground – exposed to the most sun and wind and occupied by birds, bats, butterflies, python snakes, etc.
  • canopy layer at tops of other trees to around 50m above ground forms an umbrella thick with leaves and flowers, birds, air plants
  • understory layer is immediately above the forest floor and with limited light, is generally filled with dense vines and vegetation along with green tree ants, birds, snakes, frogs, butterflies, etc.
  • forest floor receives perhaps 2% of the sunlight and is dark, damp and filled with ants, beetles, termites, fungi as well as snakes (including venomous snakes), birds including scrub turkey and southern cassowary, frogs, and butterflies.

In the “dry season”, wildlife is much more scarce and the flowers and fruit generally not in season.

Getting there and getting around

Thanks to the international airport, getting there is very easy and the airport is only a few kms from Cairns CBD.

If like me, you want the freedom of self-drive, hire a car – I hired a Toyota RAV 4 AWD SUV from Avis at the airport – this gives me more car elevation to minimise risk of damage to the undercarriage from unexpected pot holes, dips, speed humps, etc, as this damage is not covered by insurance. Avis do allow you to cross the ferry on Daintree River and drive as far north as Cape Tribulation (further north to Cooktown is via a 4WD only gravel road and is not covered in your insurance!).

If you are a backpacker, don’t despair as the public transport buses provide regular access to the northern beaches, etc and of course there are a multitude of tour buses and boat trips accessible from Cairns CBD.

When to go?

The coastal areas are classified tropical climate as they generally have no month with a mean temperature below 18 °C (64.4 °F) or with less than 60 millimetres (2.4 in) of rainfall.

The peak season is the drier “winter” months of July-Sept as this gives the best access to the rainforest and Great Barrier Reef with no risk of sea stingers and less annoying bugs, while the temperatures are more pleasant (relatively dry, clear skies and very pleasantly warm  with 15-24degC average daily range),  and thus you are generally guaranteed of mild to warm, humid weather with minimal rain apart from generally brief showers – so sun hat, sunscreen, shorts and sandals and plenty of water is all you need to take. In the cooler Tablelands, rainforest insects have gone into hibernation, but early morning fog can be great for photos.

October is a quieter month as it follows the Australian school holidays in busy September and this makes for cheaper accommodation and better access to tourist destinations but the weather is warming up with peak sunshine hours, but the rain and clouds is starting to increase. March flies are more common in Oct-Nov in the Atherton Tablelands (in southern Australia, they are mainly in the late summer months Jan-March). Most of the tropical fruits unfortunately are NOT in season.

Dec-April is the best time for best time for waterfalls, insects, fungi (especially bioluminescent fungi) and macro photography.

Feb-Mar is the wettest season with highest risk of cyclones (risk is from Nov-May), almost half of the 2,500mm annual rainfall in the rainforests falls during these 2 months, but if you want to see the rainforest wildlife at its most active, then bring your highest level of DEET insecticide and get ready to explore during the breaks in the heavy rain – usually between 10am and 4pm. Many tropical fruit such as mangoes are in season.

May is towards the end of the wet season and is a good month to indulge in the seasonal tropical fruits such as custard apples.

Safety issues

Rainforests are not really a place for urbanised humans so here are a few safety issues you need to be aware of:

  • many very deadly venomous snakes which can be quite small and hard to see – so be vigilant hiking, wear covered shoes not thongs – the ones in tops of the trees are usually non-venomous pythons and not problematic, it is the venomous ones on the ground you accidentally step on which are the dangers – in reality, it is quite uncommon to see one as they usually feel you coming and get out of your way, but they do like to sleep on warm tracks!
  • the coastal estuaries and beaches are saltwater (estuarine) crocodile territory – you need to be croc safe and aware of how sneaky they can be
  • marine stingers are potentially lethal jelly fish – do not swim Nov-May (October may also be problematic further north in Daintree) unless within the confines of stinger nets
  • dengue fever is a mosquito borne nasty viral infection – mainly a problem around Cairns in the wet season so avoid mosquito bites where possible
  • cassowaries are big flightless birds but are potentially dangerous stay away from them – they have dagger-like middle toes which can easily disembowel you
  • venomous bullrouts (freshwater stonefish) live in some rivers – wear shoes when wading or swimming
  • stinging trees are common – they grow to 4m and have large heart shaped leaves with serrated edges – don’t touch them as they have a painful sting
  • flash flooding (rapidly rising water) is common during wetter months
  • take water and use hiking cautions such as telling people where you are going in case you get lost or incapacitated – there is NO mobile phone signal in most rainforests up there
  • avoid sitting too long along creeks – very tiny ticks cause annoying scrub itch

 more information on my wiki.


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