Cairns, Cooktown, Atherton Tablelands
Encouraged by beautiful weather and no rain expected for a week or more, we set off in the car for Cairns. Our excuse was to visit all the big rental companies for motorhomes and campervans, thinking that we might buy an ex-rental vehicle.
We drove straight through in one long day, not stopping at the many interesting towns that we'd visited before.
When we arrived in Cairns (on a Wednesday afternoon), we learned that the Cairns Show was on Thursday and Friday, so there was no accommodation after Wed night (we'd intended to stay for at least 2 nights). We stopped at the Coolabah Motel, where we've stayed before. It's a bit old but quite pleasant (2-1/2 star), in our price range, and just a short walk from a shopping mall (Stocklands) and a Sizzler's restaurant. This is handy for us, but wouldn't suit someone who wanted to be near the tourist areas along the ocean front.
At other times, especially when we're not in the car, we like to stay in the old part of town. We've enjoyed the Great Northern Hotel, a recently-renovated 3-star place near the Casino and the wharf. It's no good if you want to park a car off the street, or if you have difficulty climbing stairs (there are no ground floor rooms), but it's otherwise comfortable and convenient, and has a cosy bar area where you can chat with other travellers. I'm not sure whether it has family rooms.
A few blocks further away is the Lake Central Motel, a 3-1/2 star place with family units and full cooking facilities, as well as off-street parking. It's a bit more expensive than the Great Northern (and about twice the price of the Coolabah), but it's conveniently located, comfortable, and has ground floor units.
Of course there are many other places to stay, both close to the city and away from it, and in all price ranges from backpackers' shared dorm rooms to penthouse suites; the ones we've mentioned here are the ones we've actually stayed in.
On Thursday we visited the major campervan-rental companies (all of them located within a block of each other) and collected a heap of pamphlets about the various vans and motorhomes. That gave us plenty to think about and discuss for the rest of trip.
Up the coast to Port Douglas
In the afternoon we drove north through the suburbs of Cairns, passing the Tjapukai Cultural Park and the terminal for the SkyTrain. Numerous roads branch off to the coast, to beaches named Machans, Holloways, Trinity, Kewarra and Clifton (among others). We bypassed Palm Cove, a popular (and beautiful) beach town full of mostly expensive resorts. The last time we were there (about 10 years ago), you could get a room at about half price on "standby" if you turned up at a certain time and there were any vacancies; this system is probably still in effect. Of course, you may end up driving somewhere else at the last minute, if you're not lucky.
We continued on up the incredibly beautiful coast road (Captain Cook Highway) to Port Douglas, stopping at every chance to admire the views. Camping has long been banned along the coast road, except at the Ellis Beach caravan park (which tends to be full during tourist season), but you can stop for a picnic at many places. Even in the busy season, many of the beaches are almost deserted - although "deserted" is often a relative concept. I recall years ago coming up this way with my parents. We would go to a beach and find three or four families (about a dozen people in all) spaced in little groups about 100 metres apart. My parents would exclaim, "Look! There's no one on the beach!" and I would say, "My goodness, it's crowded here today!"
We didn't plan to try to stay overnight in Port Douglas, assuming that it would be crowded and more expensive than we wanted to pay (we were right on both counts), but we fondly recalled a visit some years ago, so we stopped to see how the place had grown. Our previous visit had been after the big resorts were built in the mid-'80s, but the main beach and old part of town hadn't changed greatly at that time from what I recalled from the mid-'70s. Now the old town was still there, but a lot more blocks of holiday apartments meant that the beach was quite crowded (probably even by my parents' standards).
Out of curiosity, we enquired about accommodation. The old place we'd stayed in years ago was still there, but had no vacancies. A few holiday apartments (at well over $100 per night) were available, and would have been good value if we'd had children or another couple with us.
Port Douglas has a lot of attractions, including trips to the rainforest and the reef, deep-sea fishing (very popular place for trying to catch marlin and other big fish), as well as beach sports or various sorts.
We decided to drive on to Mossman (on the edge of Daintree country), where we learned that the Mossman Show was on the weekend, and everything was booked from Friday night on! We stayed at the White Cockatoo on Thursday night, and thought it was a very nice place, if a trifle overpriced. The accommodation was in individual cabins, each with its own kitchen. The one negative point (not for us, but for some of our friends) was that all the cabins were on stilts, so you had to go up several steps to get into them.
On to Cooktown
We considered visiting Daintree and perhaps taking the ferry across the river and going on to Cape Tribulation, but we've been there before and the whole area has been getting a bit over-run with tourists for our taste. It's thoroughly beautiful country, and one day we want to take the river cruise on the Daintree, but this time we decided to go somewhere else (since we weren't sure whether we'd be able to find a place to stay for Friday night).
We decided to press on to Cooktown (where Eric has never been) by the inland road. (The coast road, past Cape Tribulation, is suitable only for 4-wheel-drive vehicles.) So it was up the steep, winding road over the coast range and on into the town of Mount Molloy, then on to the Peninsula Development Road through Mount Carbine and past Bob's Lookout (which provides a sweeping view back down the valley towards Mount Molloy - see photo left). Further along is the turnoff to the west for the Palmer River goldfields (a 4-wheel-drive trip into a historic gold-rush area, long abandoned). Staying on the main road, we passed the Palmer River Roadhouse, which offers food, fuel and camping and stopped for lunch at Lakeland, where the main road continues north to Cape York and the Cooktown Development Road branches off to the east.
We looked longingly at the sign showing the roads open through the Cape, but knew we were totally unprepared for a long trip, and the car wasn't suitable anyway. We could probably get to Weipa in the car, if the creeks weren't too high, but considered it foolish in the extreme to set off for the tip of the Cape without 4-wheel-drive or (at the very least) a vehicle with a lot more road clearance than a Ford Laser!
The road to Cooktown is mostly unpaved, but a new road was under construction and bits of it were finished. (It may be complete by now.) When done, it will offer a sealed road all the way from Cairns to Cooktown, which should help the town's tourism industry immensely.
We arrived in Cooktown on Friday afternoon to discover that the Cooktown Races were on over the weekend, so no rooms were available on Saturday. We couldn't believe it! Every place we went was having an event just when we got there! What a lesson in why we should do some homework instead of just setting out to follow the road where it leads us. Fortunately we could get a room on Friday. Meanwhile the weather continued beautiful. We settled in at the Alamanda Inn, wandered about a bit, found some dinner, and collapsed.
The Alamanda is typical of older motels in small towns. They've kept the old units (renovating them a bit, putting in new beds, and so on) which they rent cheaply or turn into backpackers' dorm-style accommodation; but they've also built a new set of modern units that cost quite a bit more. We generally choose one of the newer units but we have a look at the older ones, just for the comparison. None have been awful, but they're often small and crowded. It's nice to know that one can still get a relatively cheap room for the night, without having to go to a shared hostel-style room.
The next day we did a bit more sightseeing in Cooktown, then headed back to the Atherton Tablelands.
On the way we stopped to look at the Annan River and Annan Gorge. You can see in the photo that the river bed is very wide (notice the huge culverts under the road, near the centre of the picture), but in July very little was is visible. Just imagine what this looks like in the wet season!
If you walk across the rocks toward the middle of the river's channel, you'll reach the edge of a deep, narrow gorge. I got a bit nervous, as there is nothing to stop people from falling into the gorge. (If someone did put up a fence, it would wash away in the next big rain anyway.) But I did manage to get a couple of photos of the gorge -- without falling in.
In Mareeba, we finally found a room for more than one night (their show had been the week before). We stayed in the new wing of the Jackaroo Motel, in a very comfortable room. We happened to get the disabled-access room, which was nicely appointed and (we think, not being expert in these things) would have suited a person with limited mobility (or in a wheelchair) very nicely. We were also impressed that the room had a telephone and two powerpoints near the breakfast bar, and the telephone could easily be removed to plug in my computer's modem line, so I was able to collect my e-mail quite easily.
We were very impressed with the Mareeba Information Centre and all the things to do and see in the area - we could easily have stayed much longer. We visited the Mareeba Wetlands (about 20 km by road from the town) and thought that our many bird-watching friends would love the place. There were several blinds to stand in and view the birds in the lagoons.
We also visited Davies Creek Falls. The campground and picnic area, quite a ways downstream from the falls, is a beautiful spot. You can get a permit to camp there. It has toilets. The road was closed just past the campground, so we had to walk uphill about 2 km to get to the falls. We were impressed at the depth of the erosion gullies in the road - some went down more than a metre - but otherwise there weren't any complete washouts. Several 4WD vehicles bypassed the roadblock and drove to the upper carpark near the falls, so it was passable - but you definitely wouldn't want to drive anything without a lot of ground clearance up that road.