This post shows you a self drive itinerary from Cairns to Daintree in the tropical north of Australia.
I will show you Palm Cove and Port Douglas and tell you how to visit Mossman Gorge. Before crossing the Daintree River with a ferry we will relax on the white sands of Wonga Beach and spot wild crocodiles on a Daintree river cruise.
Captain Cook Highway that we drive along is one of the most scenic roads in Australia. It offers great views of the Coral Sea and the coastline on one side and rainforest mountains on the other.
The blog post brings you from Cairns to Daintree River and the journey will continue in my next post.
Cairns is the big tourist hub of Northern Queensland. All the flights come here, and this is the starting point of most cruises to the Barrier Reef. Cairns also serves as the starting point of bus tours to tourist attractions in the area.
You can take a bus tour to the attractions described in this blog post, but if you want to see more and stay longer than a day, rent a car or a camper van and head north.
Cairns has a good choice of hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops. It offers all the services a tourist might need – but imagine, there is no beach. That’s why they have built a huge artificial pool for the locals as well as the tourists, right in the middle of the city. What a good idea!
We didn’t have much time for Cairns so I’m sure we missed some of the sights. Our time was limited and the main purpose of our trip was to explore the reef, the rainforest and the wild nature north of Cairns.
To see Cairns we left our overseas luggage in the lockers at the airport, took a taxi, walked a few hours in Cairns and took a taxi back. The airport is only 6 km from the city, so you can easily do this.
Driving North from Cairns
We made our Northern Queensland road trip with a rental campervan. If I have to choose between renting a car and booking hotels or alternatively renting a campervan and sleeping in it I mostly prefer the campervan, an very much on my trips to Australia and New Zealand.
The Cook Highway is in a very good condition and easy to drive. The weather was sunny and not too hot since it was winter, so no problems at all. We first stopped in a big shopping mall and filled our fridge.
We enjoyed the great views of the Coral Sea and the rainforest mountains. This is what you can call freedom!
Driving Itinerary Cairns to Daintree on the Map
Our main destination where we spent most of our time was Cape Tribulation (Cape Trib). This blog post however is about the first part of the trip, driving from Cairns to Daintree River.
In another blog post I am telling about Daintree National Park, Cape Tribulation and the rainforest area behind Daintree River.
After following the coast and passing some scenic beaches and lookouts we came to Palm Cove which was the first place we stopped at. Palm Cove is very very pretty.
The beach is lined by palms all the way and the resort itself is clean and nice. Some of the houses are painted in tropical colours which reminds me of the Caribbean style and Key West.
It would have been nice to stay a bit longer in Palm Cove. There was nice a holiday park for camper vans and caravans right in the middle of the city, right opposite the beach.
We walked for a while along the beach and headed to the long pier where lots of people where fishing.
The Beach of Palm Cove
It was Saturday afternoon and there was a big school or life-saving happening on the beach. The children were running and there were competitions. The parents were serving refreshments and making meals.
What we didn’t know is that you are not free to swim here just where you want. There are stinger warnings everywhere. The stinger season is in the summer but even in the winter people only entered the water in the marked area between the flags that was protected by stinger nets.
And that’s not all – you also have to watch for crocodiles! There was not a word about this in my tourist books and brochures, and neither on the web.
Port Douglas is the busiest tourist resort north of Cairns. There is lots of accommodation and several holiday parks from which we chose the Tropic Breeze Caravan Park that was right in the middle of the city, a short walking distance from the main street.
Port Douglas main street is packed with restaurants, pubs and shops and a nice place to relax after the day’s activities. And you’ll find more restaurants in the harbour.
Reef Cruises from Port Douglas
We took a Great Barrier Reef Cruise with Quicksilver Ferries from Port Douglas, a very good cruise indeed. The reef cruise is worth another blog post sand you can read about it here: Great Barrier Reef Cruise: Day Cruise to Agincourt Reef
Here are some pictures of the sandy beach of Port Douglas. The sand is white and soft for sunbathing, but there are crocodile and stinger warnings everywhere. You can only swim between the flags in the middle area under lifeguard supervision.
Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat
Port Douglas also has a zoo, or a wildlife habitat, where you can see native Australian animals in their natural surroundings.
They have built here a small rainforest for local birds like cassowaries and kookaburras and there’s also a river area for crocodiles, an open grass field for kangaroos that you can feed, and in the corner they have small eucalyptus trees where you can see koalas.
Here’s more pictures and the location of the wildlife habitat >>
Mossman Gorge is one of the most famous attractions in the area. It’s a must stop location on your way to Cape Tribulation.
It is advertised everywhere that you can take an indigenous Dreamtime Walk to see the gorge. You can do that and you’ll learn a lot about the indigenous culture and habits in the area. But you can also visit the gorge without an organized tour. There are well-marked walking-paths that you can follow.
You are not allowed to drive all the way to the gorge. You park your car at the visitor center where you take a shuttle bus to the gorge, the bus fee is less than 10 dollars per person. We took the bus while some people preferred to walk all the way to the gorge (a few kilometres).
River Circuit Pathway
From the place where the bus leaves you begins an easy, accessible elevated boardwalk that goes to a place in Mossman River that is good for swimming. The River Circuit Pathway makes a loop walk and there are four or five different lookouts where you can stop and watch the river. This is a short walk, only about 400 metres.
Rainforest Circuit Track
After the last lookout comes a path that leads to a suspension bridge. This is the start of another circuit track that leads you in the real rainforest.
This path is not accessible, it’s steep in some places and there are tree roots, but it’s quite easy to walk and above all the walk is picturesque. The walk is 2,7 km long.
To begin with you walk on a high a ridge between Mossman River and another river Rex Creek. After that you descend to the rainforest.
There is a short side walk to Wurrumbu Creek that is also worth trying. These pictures are from Wurrumbu Creek:
Watch the trees and the roots when walking! The trees have very high roots that look very different from what I’ve seen before. No wonder this is a favourite spot of the local indigenous people. Mossman Gorge is a nature experience and if you participate in an arranged tour you’ll get things explained.
Here are some more pictures of the roots on both sides of the path:
Mossman Gorge is a great experience. The first 400 m walk is pretty touristic and there are crowds, but on the second walk you can leave the crowds behind and walk in your own pace.
You can read more about Mossman Gorge on Mossman Gorge official website.
When you return from the gorge to the Coral Sea coast you will soon come to two long sandy beaches, the first is Newell Beach and after that comes Wonga beach. Both are pretty and worth stopping at. We had booked a powered site at Wonga beach.
Wonga Beach is a 7 km long beach backed by palms. The place is very peaceful and there is a camping area right on the beach with only some palms between the beach and the camping.
The camping is a cozy place and the surrounding rainforest provides a good shelter from the tropical heat which is very good. And there is a refreshing breeze from the sea so it didn’t get too hot at night time.
Wonga Beach camping staff had lost our reservation and the place was fully booked. Finally they found a small site for us. Most people seemed to be here for a longer time and there was a long dinner table where people gathered at night. We instead used the camping equipment that came with the van.
Towards Daintree River
After Wonga Beach the road turns inland. This is a farming area and there are sugar cane fields on both sides, lots of cane everywhere. We saw farmers harvesting the canes and there was a small railway line for cane transportation.
After a while we reached the Daintree River and there was a sign like this. There are a few companies arranging croc tours on the river.
There are lots of crocodiles in the area. So we wanted to see crocs…
Daintree River Croc Cruise
We took Bruce Belcher’s 1 hour river cruise. You can find the place right after turning towards Daintree Village (2856 Mossman-Daintree Road, Daintree), daintreerivercruises.com.au.
There was a pretty shop where we got the tickets, around AUD 50 for two. A huge collection of tropical souvenirs and art work was on sale in the shop. They also have a garden cafe where we had tea and sandwiches that were included in the cruise price.
They told us that crocs are spotted on 98 % of trips but it’s not guaranteed. Let’s see… So we walked down to the pier through a lush tropical garden. Here are some pictures of the tour.
The boat was small and not many people came on our tour so we could ask questions any time we wanted to learn more. The guide was very professional and told us a lot about what we saw.
Daintree River Wildlife
We saw water-birds and lots of mangroves that were all growing in the deep water. That’s why mangroves need to have air-roots reaching above water level. The roots are needed to provide the trees with oxygen.
The other common plant was hibiscus that had yellow flowers.
But the main thing here was, of course, the crocodiles which we saw many of, all of them were lazing in the sun.
Grown-up crocs eat very seldom, maybe once a month or even less often. They save energy as much as they can and just lie on the riverbanks. The females lay eggs in a nest they make in the spring.
Despite that there are so many crocs in the area there have only been two fatal attacks by crocs ever and only three times crocs have caused injury.
When you drive some kilometres inland from the ferry crossing you will reach the small Daintree Village. The road to Daintree Village winds through hilly farmlands. It’s quite a pretty road.
There is a general store with a bottle shop (not so many of them in this area), a tourist information office, a cafe and a simple campsite by the river.
But be careful. There are crocodiles around. There are some organizers of crocodile tours in Daintree Village.
The village has originally been a logger settlement. Logs of red cedar were floated down the Daintree River to the Coral Sea.
Daintree River Ferry
To cross the Daintree River you have to take a ferry. The ferry ride costs about AUD 20 return for a car and you don’t have to book in advance. The ferry departs every 15 min during the whole day. The ride itself only takes ten minutes but reserve time for waiting. Daintree Ferry is an old one, it is one of the only cable ferries left in Australia.
After the ferry ride you really start feeling like being in a tropical jungle. The nature gets wild and the road gets narrow.
We are entering Daintree National Park, the destination of our self-drive trip from Cairns to Daintree. I will tell you about our Daintree National Park driving itinerary in my next blog post: