November 27, 2017
Just like the coming of summer break back in the States, conversations that last few weeks have been full of asking friends what they are doing for summer break. It is pretty strange having two summers in the same year, but I’m not complaining. Some people are headed back to their homes relatively quickly, many have family coming to travel AU with them, and a few like myself are going on solo-adventures excited to make more new friends along the way. When I asked my Dutch friend, Renzo, what his plans were, he said that he was headed to Cairns for a week, where his mom was going to join him to travel down the East Coast. When I told him I was headed to Cairns at the same time, we decided to spend a day doing something together before his mom arrived and I got busy with other planned activities.
So, after saying “see you later,” but not goodbye, to my closest AU friends Friday night, I went to bed one last time in my dorm room at University Hall. While I could not be happier to be leaving Uni Hall, I was feeling sad about parting ways with my friends as I began my South-ward travels along the East Coast. It is the people you meet while traveling that makes memories even more meaningful. The next morning, I loaded myself up with all of my bags, nearly a third more than I showed up to AU with despite leaving two boxes in storage for incoming international students, and called a taxi to take me to the Greyhound bus station. After paying the taxi driver $35 for a 30-minute taxi ride, I pulled out my $55 bus ticket that was going to take me five hours up the coast. I suppose it depends which way you look at it, but on one hand the taxi ride was pretty steep, or on the other hand my bus ticket was pretty cheap.
I arrived in Cairns mid-morning and lugged all of my bags to the Mad Monkey hostel, about a 15-minute walk with all of the extra weight. When I arrived, I found out I had been given a free upgrade from the 12-person dorm room to a 4-person room, something that I did not fully appreciate in that moment but came to really be thankful for over the coming week. After settling into my hostel and making plans for the rest of my AU trip, I sat down and began figuring out what Renzo and I could do together. Since he was going to have a rental car, we decided that a day trip through the Atherton Tablelands to find as many waterfalls as we had daylight for would make for an epic day.
After looking up the waterfalls listed on a local tour flyer (listing a day trip as costing $150) and doing some google searching for even more stunning falls a bit off the tourist track, I had mapped out the following road trip and messaged Renzo. “Would you like to see photos of where we are going, or be surprised?” He replied saying he would rather be surprised, and in the end, we were both surprised by the beauty of the falls we visited. We ended up seeing seven waterfalls in total, five main ones and two smaller ones that were apart of larger falls. In the end, we managed to fit in much more than the average day tour through the Tablelands.
If you would like to do the same trip while you are exploring Far North Queensland, all you will need to do is to rent a car, pack a lunch, snacks, and water, put on your closed-toed adventuring shoes, and follow this itinerary below. Also, if you are prone to car sickness, take some motion sickness tablets before you begin your waterfall road trip, because the road, albeit very scenic, is also quite windy.
It is best to make sure that you leave town with a full tank of gas any time you go on an adventure, but there will also be gas stations along the way if needed. Also, downloading a map of Far North Queensland on the ap MapsMe or google maps makes navigation on this trip a breeze, even if you lose cell reception which is highly likely and part of the adventure.
We left Cairns a bit before 9am and began with the longest drive of the day into the Tablelands. Our first stop was Millaa Millaa Falls. But, on the way we took a surprise pitstop when we passed a sign for Lorenz Creek. While we were looking for a place to turn around, the next cross road was called Ellias Road. This is incredibly amazing, because those happen to be Renzo’s first and last names! It was so crazy to pass both of his names on road signs less than a minute apart. All Renzo had to do was add the “O” to Lorenz, but that is such a slight detail when you pretty much pass your whole name on two road signs up in Far North Queensland without having any idea they were there. The first three waterfalls that Renzo and I visited are a part of the 17km Waterfall Circuit around the Atherton Table Lands. In total, there are five falls along this circuit. However, I swapped out a few of the falls on the circuit for some other falls in the surrounding area.
Drive 1 hour 45 minutes (100km) from Cairns to Millaa Millaa Falls.
Millaa Millaa Falls is one of the most photographed falls in Queensland. It is 18.3 meters (60 feet) tall and quite wide. Water spills over from the top and cascades like a waving curtain into a large swimming hole below. When we were there, there were about ten or so people enjoying the water; but, Renzo and I did not get in since this was only the beginning of our waterfall journey. However, from the bank we could see turtles, cat fish, and minnows in the water. When I called the small fish minnows, Renzo asked me if all Americans just call small fish minnows. I shrugged my shoulders saying, “Probably….”
Accessing Millaa Millaa Falls is very easy. There is a viewing platform right off the car park and there are also public bathrooms. It is just as easy to spend a few minutes here snapping a few photos as it is to spend the whole day. With more waterfalls awaiting, Renzo and I were on our way to Zillie Falls.
Drive 10 minutes (10km) from Millaa Millaa Falls to Zillie Falls.
The drive from Millaa Millaa Falls to Zillie Falls is so quick, that Renzo and I missed the turn the first time around. When driving from Millaa Millaa Falls, the car park for Zillie Falls is on the right, directly opposite a sign on the left-hand side of the road that marks the trail head. After doubling back and parking the car, Renzo and I started down the walking track after passing a sign cautioning us about the slippery conditions. Now, when Renzo was getting ready this morning, he thought wisely to himself that closed-toed tennis shoes would probably be a good idea. I, on the other hand, figured a sturdy pair of flip-flops would be fine, after all, I figured we wouldn’t be going too bush today. Its not like I was exploring with the Bushwalking Club. However, I quickly realized that Renzo was the wiser one of the two of us as we headed down the path.
First, the path just led to a viewing area of the top of the falls. But, off the end Renzo and I could see a well-worn path through some vies and into the bush. Both desiring a better view of the falls, we took the path and found our way down to the river. Then, we rock hoped around until we worked back up the stream towards the base of the falls. The view from here was spectacular. From the base, cool mist came off the falls. Hoping from rock-to-rock, Renzo went as far as he could before the rocks got too big and too slippery to maneuver on. But from where we both were, we were quite content to sit and take in the view of Zillie Falls before making our way to Ellinjaa Falls.
Dive 5 minutes (3km) from Zillie Falls to Ellinjaa Falls.Ellinjaa Falls is very easy to walk down to. There is a paved path of steps the whole way. At the base of the falls, there is a shallow swimming spot. The falls are 17 meters tall in total, making them the shortest of the main falls we saw. But, the falls were still very impressive and well worth the stop. On our way back, we spotted this down tree and thought it was the perfect photo opportunity. And getting out on the middle of it also ended up being the funniest part of the day. Let’s just say that it was a bit narrower than it looks and that both Renzo and I tried very different methods of getting out on it; his a bit less embarrassing looking than mine….
After visiting Zillie Falls, it started to rain. Passing through a car park with a covered picnic area, Renzo and I figured this may be the perfect time and place for a lunch break. I had cooked up chicken and spicy rice for us both earlier in the morning at the hostel. Although it was basic, it was the first meal I had cooked in five months and just being able to cook something that I wanted to eat felt so great. I vow from now on to view the ability to cook for myself as a privilege, not a chore. As it rained, we could see steam rising from the hot asphalt, which was something neither of us had seen before during a rain down-pour. After the rain had stopped, we climbed back into the car for the rest of our waterfall adventure.
Drive 13 minutes (14km) from Ellinjaa Falls to Mungalli Falls.
Mungalli Falls were the first falls we visited today that are not a part of the Waterfall Circuit, but from what I could see online, I knew that it was a waterfall I wanted to see in person. These falls are the tallest of all the waterfalls in the Atherton Tablelands, totaling 90 meters in height. There is an “upper” and a “lower” section. Right from the side of the road, the upper falls can be seen. Parking for Mungalli Falls is at the carpark for the Education Center (signs at roadside). At first, Renzo and I thought that the upper falls was the only section. And, while it is nice, its location literally right on the side of the road makes it feel more like a culvert drainage area more than a natural waterfall. But, taking a short walk down a road that lead to another path, Renzo and I found the lower falls to be quite spectacular. Again, we did some more rock hopping at the base of the falls to check it out from various views. Needless to say, all the views we found of Mungalli Falls were great.
Dive 15 minutes (14km) from Mungalli Falls to Nandroya Falls.
At this point in the day, Renzo and I were doing well on time, and it was a good thing because the walk to Nandroya Falls is surprisingly long. It is six kilometers round trip, so be sure to consider this during your visit. But, the walk winds through the Woonoorooan National Park and is a beautiful path. Along the way, Renzo and I came across this huge tree with giant buttresses at the base. For perspective, I am standing, not sitting or kneeling, behind one of the buttresses. Through my rainforest explorations, I have seen many trees with buttresses, but never had I seen one this large. I wonder how old it may be.As we continued along the path, we passed the little falls above called Silver falls. Past Silver falls, I held out a stick, waving it around like a ma wizard casting spells on the spiders to stay away and taking down any spider webs along the path. After about two more kilometers of walking, Renzo and I finally came around the bend and could hear a large fall not too far away. Nandroya Falls is 50 meters tall and spills right over a large, rounded wall of cliff and rainforest jungle. Here, the cliff face is just as impressive as the actual falls. At the base, there is a very large swimming hole that two fellow travelers were enjoying while we were there.After hiking back out from Nandroya Falls, we climbed back into the car and returned to Cairns (1 hour 30 minutes, 120km). We had such an incredible day exploring the Atherton Tablelands! I wouldn’t have been able to see any of this if it weren’t for my international mate, Renzo! I am so thankful for adventurous friends like him who are keen for going with the flow, always have a positive attitude no matter the situation, and are happy to and good at driving on the wrong side of the road. Dank je wel, Renzo!
To anyone headed to Cairns, I highly recommend exploring the Tablelands, whether by tour or on your own following this itinerary or a similar one. It will absolutely be a memorable day.