Most people travel to far north Queensland for the Great Barrier Reef but end up discovering that there is so much more to this tropical haven.
They uncover the beauty of the rainforest and everything it has to offer.
Despite being annually hooked to I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here…, (which for those unaccustomed to this British reality TV institution involves a group of “celebrities” spending up to 3 weeks camping in the jungle or rainforest just outside the Gold Coast) before I arrived in Australia the idea that it has these vast rainforest systems just didn’t really cross my mind.
Yet they do and spoiler alert but the rainforest system up near Cairns is just breathtakingly beautiful and full of things looking to seriously maim you.
And that’s just the plant life.
The other thing about a tropical rainforest is, well, it rains.
All that water has to go someplace. The vast amounts of water that gets dumped on the rainforest during the wet season is funnelled into streams and rivers.
Luckily for us, all that water also means waterfalls.
Not just one huge, powerful, magnificent waterfall but a plethora of them. All different, all unique and all magnificent in their own right.
In fact, there are so many of them that there is an official waterfall trail.
Don’t worry, before you go into full-blown research and planning mode I’ve got you covered. While yes, you can definitely go and explore all the many waterfalls yourself, in your own vehicle. If like me, you don’t have access to a car but still want an affordable way to see all the best bits then jump on one of many day tours that run from Cairns.
Personally, I can’t recommend Uncle Brian’s tours enough. I joined 2 of their tours while in Cairns, the Cape Tribulation day trip and the fun falls and forest day trip.
It’s the latter one that shows you the best of the Atherton Tablelands and all its secrets.
Here is just a taste of what to expect on your adventure;
Uncle Brian is Family
Originally started over 20 years ago by Brian and his wife the tours still retain that family day out vibe which has made them so popular.
Despite its popularity Uncle Brian’s tours are small group tours meaning that it isn’t long before you get to know everyone else on the tour with you. Which just makes the day more enjoyable when you are travelling alone.
I was lucky enough to have Sid as my waterfalls tour guide for the day. Within minutes of picking up everyone, he had us introduce ourselves to each other preventing any awkward silences for the rest of the day.
We were all family now (well at least for the day).
The Tour Guides are VERY knowledgeable
Australia is a big place and even though the waterfalls are near Cairns there is still a fair amount of driving. Uncle Brian’s guides fill what could quite easily be a boring bus ride with music, banter and lots of knowledge.
These guys know their stuff.
Whether they are explaining about the rainforests, the waterfalls or retelling aboriginal histories and stories you come away at the end of the day feeling like you have not just seen some amazing sights but learnt some cool stuff too.
Sometimes they even throw in a personal story or two but whatever they are talking to you about the passion for imparting their knowledge to us was clear. It was never something that they had to tell us (apart from perhaps the odd safety tip) but something that they really enjoyed sharing.
Take for example the stinging tree.
Now I knew that there was dangerous stuff in the rainforest. What I didn’t know was that it was the plants that were more likely to be my downfall.
Sid was kind enough to point out a small plant off the side of the path at Babinda Boulders that looked a little like a stinging nettle plant. Turns out it is much worse than a nettle sting.
Touch that bad boy and you’re going to be in pain for a long time.
The stinging tree (or Gympie-Gympie in aboriginal which incidentally roughly translates to pain-pain) is covered in silica hairs which when touched break off and are injected into the skin.
It’s described as like being attacked by wasps and can be extremely painful. The pain can last for a few days up to decades. In long-term sufferers, the pain can often be triggered by a change in temperature as the pores in the skin tighten and loosen.
Don’t worry too much though, if you stick to the paths and give the rainforest the respect it deserves you won’t have any issues.
You are very well fed
From morning tea, coffee and cake to a cosy hot mug of hot chocolate in the afternoon. There is no shortage of sustenance for your action-packed day.
Lunch though is something else.
After working up an appetite chasing waterfalls all morning a hot, home-cooked meal was everything that we needed.
Stopping at the Falls Teahouse for lunch we were treated to some very tasty and hot food. Just what we needed after swimming in the cool water holes that can be found at some of the waterfalls. Whatsmore there was pudding!
Tip: Do not feel like you need to bring your own snacks to an Uncle Brian’s tour. You will not need them.
Uncle Brian takes you to all the best swimming spots
Up in far north Queensland swimming in natural sources of water such as the sea, rivers and lakes is not something you do lightly. Unless you want to be attacked by a crocodile that is.
Luckily there are several swimming holes created by the waterfalls that are too far upstream for the crocs. Which means they make the perfect place to cool off on those balmy summer afternoons.
I did not visit during the summer months.
I went at the beginning of winter.
Granted it was still pretty warm and nothing like the winters back home but it was still cool enough to rethink jumping into the refreshingly cold waters of the various swimming spots.
Only for a split second though.
I have no doubt that if I had gone by myself and not on a tour that I would not have gotten in the water.
Kind of strange for someone who spent their entire school years in various swimming pools right? As those of you who know me will attest, I don’t do open water swimming. I mean why would I when there is a perfectly good, clean and warm swimming pool to go instead?
Anyways I digress. Before I knew it I was in the water with the others and it wasn’t as cold as I thought it was going to be. It was actually quite pleasant even for an Autumnal day.
The first stop of the day is in the foothills of Mount Bartle Frere, Queensland’s highest mountain.
The site where 3 streams meet forming a waterhole perfect for swimming before being swept between large boulders down the cascading falls.
Also known as the Devil’s Pool, there is a somewhat sinister side to the falls which some attribute to the aboriginal legend of Oolana the lovelorn spirit.
Oolana, an aboriginal tribeswoman was married to the tribal Elder Waroonoo.
However, when the tribe welcomed another tribe who were travelling through the valley, Oolanaa falls in love with one of their men. They run away together knowing that theirs is a forbidden love.
Eventually, they are found by their tribes at the site now known as Babinda Boulders. As Oolana’s tribe drag her away she manages to break free and throws herself into the waterhole knowing that she will never see her love again.
At the very moment, she hit the water a great upheaval of the earth occurred. She cried out as a great rush of water came spilling over the boulders and took her away.
Some say that her anguished cries can still be heard calling out for her lost lover.
Interestingly since 1959, there have been 17 people die at this spot.
Only one of them was not male.
So be careful boys. Oolana may mistake you for her long lost lover.
My favourite stop of the day, the Josephine falls are not only spectacular to see with the sheer power of water on full show but also the most fun swimming spot there is.
Its ranked as one of the most beautiful waterfalls in tropical north Queensland and has even been the backdrop to many tv adverts!
The Josephine falls are actually a series of cascading waterfalls, each one becoming bigger and more powerful.
As I stood on the viewing platforms the roar of the water as it shows its full might had me mesmerised. I just stood there watching it, the same way that the dancing flames of a fire hypnotise your gaze.
At the bottom of the falls, there is a small swimming hole. You have to clamber over several rocks to get to it (and there is not really a graceful way to do this by the way) but the swimming hole isn’t the exciting part.
The Josephine Falls in all of nature’s glory has carved out a natural waterslide! Yes, that’s right a waterslide.
Did I have a go?
Hell, Yes I did.
Would I have known about it and felt safe enough to do it if I wasn’t on a tour? Nope.
There’s a sweet spot on one side that is perfect for sliding while the drier rock on the opposite side makes it easy to climb up. You just have to be careful not to slip as you walk from one side to the other.
After the first go, I was hooked. Like a child at a water park, I queued up patiently again and again and again.
The Milla Milla falls
Milla Milla translates to water water in English. There definitely is a lot of that. Unlike the other 2 waterfalls that you visit on your Uncle Brian’s tour, Milla Milla has a more traditional waterfall feel to it.
What I mean by that is that the water drops over the top of the rocks from up high and falls into a pool below. It doesn’t cascade over rocks and boulders like the other 2 waterfalls.
It was definitely the coldest water of the day. So much so that I only got in up to my waste.
You can swim behind the waterfall if you can brave the cold (perhaps if you visit on a warmer day?) and even swim through the raining water too.
Although be warned this waterfall is still quite powerful and if you’re thinking about getting some glamorous shot or video of you emerging through the waterfall? Reality might not match up to expectations.
If you think you recognise this waterfall from somewhere well you’re probably right. It is most famous for being the backdrop to the Herbal Essence TV advert. You know the one with the hair flick.
Uncle Brian’s tour guides, and especially Sid, are well trained in being able to capture your own version of the hair flick. That includes males as well (this includes those of you with no hair so there’s really no excuse).
We must have looked so ridiculous to the other visitors to the falls.
Standing about while Sid very patiently gave us all a little photo shoot of our own. It was pretty fun though and the resulting photos look really cool. Definitely, something I would not have been able to do on my own.
While the last stop of the day was not a waterfall but a lake it was still equally beautiful. Lake Eacham is a volcanic crater lake with an average depth of 65Km. That is 3 times the height of the Milla Milla waterfalls.
It’s that clear blue colour that you only ever really see in magazines and on TV. Motorized boats are banned from the lake which means that it is a very peaceful place. It has been described as like plunging into a liquid sky.
There are bushwalking tracks around the lake and BBQ and picnic facilities meaning you can make a full day just hanging out by the lake quite easily.
There’s also lots of wildlife here. From birds to turtles its a place I feel would be perfect on a hot summer’s day.
Lake Eacham was also the spot for our afternoon tea, or rather I should say hot chocolate. Just what we needed to warm ourselves up after a busy day chasing waterfalls.
There was one last little adventure for the way home. That was watching the sunset as we descended down the very winding road back into Cairns.
Yes, there are many more waterfalls in the waterfall circuit that are definitely worth viewing.
Yes, you could hire a car (or use your own) to go and explore on your itinerary.
However, an Uncle Brian’s tour gives you that little bit extra. It takes the stress from planning, introduces you to new friends and sends you home with a full belly. Plus you get to see the best bits of the Atherton Tablelands without having to do all the driving yourself!
Until next time