Family adventures in and around Cairns

Tropical North Queensland is awash with adventure for families craving a bit of fun in the sun

Father and son paddle-boarding in Cairns
  • Craig Tansley
  • September 2013

It’s as we pass through a mangrove forest and make our way onto a deserted, sun-drenched Cape Tribulation beach that the big, unassuming bloke leading us on horseback lets his guard down for the first time. “Well, I dunno,” Cape Trib Horse Rides owner Steve Maloney says. “But if this isn’t paradise then I don’t know what else to show you buggers.”

The bloke’s got a point. We’re about to canter off on a wide, sandy beach beside the Coral Sea and are within sight of 700m-high mountains that rise from a wild, green hinterland. As far as I can tell, there’s not a ripple on the water.

It’s been a decade since I last ventured across the croc-infested Daintree River by car ferry to Cape Tribulation, but it seems nothing has changed. Locals still tell me what they told me all those years ago: “If there’s someone within 100 metres of ya, move on ’cause no one likes bloody crowds.”

It’s the activities available to visitors here – the meeting place for two World-Heritage-listed national parks, home to the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef – that should have families coming here by the truckload. Oddly though, when I visit, it’s as if I have the entire region north of Cairns to myself.

I hate crowds, so I’ve opted for a bit of family adventure that’s slightly off the tourist radar. Though Cape Tribulation is just a two-and-a-half hour drive north of Cairns, the car-ferry ride might well be what keeps many visitors away (the price is $24 return and it’s worth every cent). The drive here, on a route that passes through the world’s oldest rainforest – where the presence of rare, endangered cassowaries keeps speed limits down – is an adventure in itself.

But there’s plenty more on offer. Maloney’s horse ride is my favourite diversion. Thanks to him, within an hour of embarking on our ride, complete novices in my group have their steeds cantering confidently along the beach.

Later, I take a guided kayak tour around Cape Tribulation as turtles and gigantic fish swim below. If you come between August and October, you’ll have the chance to see migrating humpbacks up close. You can also try Jungle Surfing, which means enjoying a bird’s-eye view of the Daintree while ziplining through the jungle canopy.

The forested hills that surround the area on both sides create the illusion that you're taking on the Amazon

While you’d be crazy to miss out on all the fun things to do in and around Cape Tribulation, there are also plenty of family activities on offer closer to Cairns.

After landing at Cairns Airport, for example, travellers can be kitted-out and ready for whitewater rafting within just 25 minutes of retrieving their bags from the carousel. The Barwon River offers family-friendly trips over Grade Two and Three rapids just a few kilometres from the Cairns CBD. Though you’re just a short drive from “civilisation”, the forested hills that surround the area on both sides create the illusion that you’re taking on the Amazon. But it’s the guides that make it really special; they’re all big, jovial characters high on life. On my visit there, we make our way through the rapids, paddling in unison, then throw ourselves into the Barwon to cool off.

An hour or so up the coast, I try a river activity of a different sort. Just outside the town of Mossman, I manoeuvre a stand-up paddleboard along the tranquil waters of the Mossman River while on a Rainforest River Tour, dodging locals drifting downstream on lilos with eskies of cold beer dragging behind. It’s as peaceful and pretty an afternoon’s adventure as you could have in North Queensland.

Away from the coast, I take an hour’s drive high into the Atherton Tablelands, the eye-catching hinterland outside Cairns, where the temperature drops a full five degrees in the course of my journey. I’ve come to spend most of a day cycling along new, world-class mountain-bike trails built by an acknowledged trail expert (and a local), Glen Jacobs. There are 26km of graded trails here at the Atherton Forest Mountain Bike Park Trail Network, located in the Mt Baldy Forest Reserve.

Take me there

Cape Trib Horse Rides: 3781 Cape Tribulation Rd, Cape Tribulation, opens in new window

Paddle Trek Kayak Adventures: The Snake House, Lot 2 Cape Tribulation Rd, Cape Tribulation, opens in new window

Jungle Surfing Canopy Tours: The Snake House, Lot 2 Cape Tribulation Rd, Cape Tribulation, opens in new window

Raging Thunder Rafting Tours: Barwon River, Cairns, opens in new window

Wind Swell Stand-Up Paddle-Boarding: Mossman River, Mossman, opens in new window

Tableland Adventure Guides: 102 Mather Rd, Yungaburra, opens in new window