This Cairns evening rainforest tour through the Atherton Tablelands will introduce you to the extraordinary biodiversity of the Queensland Wet Tropics. You’ll have the chance to spot some of the region’s shyest nocturnal animals and enjoy a delicious included dinner. Duration: 8.5 hours (approx.)
Today I’ll see a rare Australian mammal, eat schnitzel in a Swiss-Italian chalet, run around a cow paddock whisper-shouting ‘bubbles!’ and get up close and very personal with a green ant’s, err, rear end — none of which I can even remotely foresee, but all of which constitutes a regular day at the office for my host Paul McLellan.
I’m heading out on a Cairns evening rainforest tour with Wait-A-While Rainforest Tours and the 2pm pick-up time is a welcome relief from the usual un-holiday-like early starts on most tours of the region. This is one of the few tours that ventures into the rainforest after dark, and with 80% of our Aussie wildlife enjoying some pretty vigorous nocturnal activity, I’m excited about what’s to come. Our guide Paul is bang on time to pick me up and we make a couple more stops to pick up the rest of our small party of eight. The minibus evolves into a microcosm of nations, with Dutch, American, Japanese, and my companion and I the token Aussies of the group.
My slight surprise that this tour is led by an expat Brit is dispelled within 30 seconds of meeting Paul, whose passion for all things Australian is backed by a 20-year exploration of the country. He has a wonderfully warm personality and an encyclopedic knowledge of, well, pretty much everything!
The bio-diverse North Queensland region is home to the highest density of wildlife in Australia (and one of the highest densities in the world), and Paul explains that we’ll be travelling through a number of contrasting habitats.
Our first stop is an outer suburb of Cairns, where we meet a group of agile wallabies hanging out in a paddock and Paul gives us a lesson on using binoculars — the most important accessory for the trip. It’s also here that he convinces all of us (in varying states of squeamishness) to lick the aforementioned green ant’s posterior, assuring us it’s an indigenous delicacy. I’m here to tell you it didn’t taste half bad (citrusy) and no ants were harmed!
After conquering the twists and turns of the climb up the Gillies Range (263 of them!), we arrive at the Danbulla State Forest in the Atherton Tableland. It’s a short walk to see the magnificent 800-year-old Cathedral Fig. The calls of whipbirds fill the air, along with Paul’s very relatable blend of history, botany, geology and the odd bit of comedy.
Our next destination on this Cairns evening rainforest tour is Lake Barrine — a volcanic crater lake that was created some 17,000 years ago. Here, Paul serves us afternoon tea, which he conjures up from the back of the bus. He reveals that we’re sharing our picnic shelter with a colony of bats that live in the roof, and we’re able to get a very close look at them. We head into the rainforest along the trail that runs around the perimeter of the lake, before encountering the massive, mind-blowing bulk of the famous Twin Kauri Pines. These trees are estimated to have stood here for a millennium. A few of us enjoy a surreal swing on a massive hanging vine as thick as a leg.
We hop back on our little bus and drive on for a spell, before pulling up in front of a fragmented grove of rainforest habitat that you’d never look at twice. It turns out to be a highlight of the tour. Paul has spotted several rare tree kangaroos! Buoyed by that sighting, his contagious enthusiasm is in full flight by the time we reach our platypus viewing site (a private creek running through a paddock, complete with numerous cow pats).
Binoculars in hand we scurry around the banks following Paul’s shouted whispers of ‘over there, bubbles!’ — learning that platypuses have around 45 seconds of underwater time before emerging for a breath. Luck and the gods of the Tableland are on our side and we enjoy multiple sightings of these very cute animals, together with an absolutely breathtaking sunset.
After a delicious dinner at Nick’s Restaurant (itself a very different kind of microcosm of the Italian-Swiss persuasion!) we head off for our wildlife spotlighting. Firstly though, under crystal clear skies we’re introduced to another of Paul’s passions as he guides us through the Milky Way, planet by planet, star by star, with our feet planted slap in the middle of a dead quiet, deserted bitumen road in the heart of the rainforest. It is, for me at least, an absolutely magical moment.
We wander along the road and through the forest, Paul’s eagle-eyes and spotlight alerting us to active possums and other nocturnal wildlife for almost an hour, before calling it a night.
Paul’s commitment to providing an ‘experience’ rather than just a tour never wavers — and our journey back down the Gillies is set against a soundtrack of all-Australian music, which is hugely nostalgic for my companion and I and fabulously bemusing for some of the others!
As a North Queensland local, I thought there wasn’t much I didn’t know about this spectacular rainforest habitat and its wildlife. However, thanks to Paul’s knowledge, hospitality and generosity of spirit, this Cairns evening rainforest tour has left me with an understanding of just how much I still have to learn!
Julietta travelled as a guest of Wait-A-While Rainforest Tours.
Additional images: Bigstock
Julietta Henderson is a Melbourne-based travel and feature writer. Originally planning to visit London for six months, she ended up staying for ten years and now divides her time between her home in Australia and several months of the year in the UK, Italy and France. Julietta has travelled extensively through Europe, North America, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia and Russia, and believes the keys to a great travel experience are an open heart, an open mind and an open-ended ticket.