Where Next: Australia
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Australia Adventure Travel: The Queen of OzYou don't need a tall ship to follow Captain Cook's trail through Queensland—just a full tank of gas and a taste for Australia's wild coast.
Text by Christain DeBenedetti Photograph by Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis
Map by Steve Walkowiak
CROWN JEWELS: A view of the Whitsunday Archipelago, just off the Queensland coast.
When Captain James Cook first swept his spyglass across eastern Australia's emerald coast in 1770, he thought it looked like a nice spot for a prison colony. But first impressions can be deceiving: Now the state of Queensland—with some 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometers) of iridescent beachfront, thriving Aboriginal populations practicing their ancient ways, teeming tropical rain forests, and the Great Barrier Reef just offshore—is a much better place to roam free. Australia's northeastern state is more than twice the size of Texas, and four wheels are the best way to get around.
The Great Tropical Drive (www.greattropicaldrive.com.au), a 1,300-mile (2,092-kilometer), self-navigated loop officially unveiled in April 2006, lets you customize itineraries ranging from a long weekend to two weeks. From the languid beaches Cook first espied north of the town of Cairns and the tropical reaches of Daintree National Park to the ancient culture-rich isles of Torres Strait, road-tripping Queensland brings a sampling of an entire continent within range.
Drive the Wild Coast
(1 or 2 days)
Cairns (population 128,824), once a sleepy hamlet frequented by marlin fishermen, has gone modern, with pulsing clubs, high-end shopping—and crowds. But it's a fine launchpad for your road trip. Until 1933, driving north meant chugging inland to the Atherton Tablelands rain forest and then braving an ancient Aboriginal path known as the Bump Track (www.wettropics.gov.au), which has recently been converted to prime mountain biking, hiking, and horseback riding terrain. Today improvements to the beachside route have turned that once teeth-clattering journey into a joyride that traces 15 miles (24 kilometers) of white-sand coastline. After leaving Cairns, wend 35 miles (56 kilometers) north on the Captain Cook Highway through lush, steep coastal forests to Port Douglas. Just beyond the resort town of Palm Cove is quiet three-mile-long (five-kilometer-long) Ellis Beach, with sandside campsites ($30; www.ellisbeach.com) and oceanfront bungalows ($123; www.ellisbeachbungalows.com) set among mango and palm groves. On your way north again, park at Rex Lookout for views of the Coral Sea, with the Great Barrier Reef looming beneath the waves.
Plunge into Rain Forest (2 to 4 days)
The sleepy sugar town of Port Douglas (population 11,079), situated at the toe of a 135-million-year-old coastal range, is a perfect base for prowling the jungles of Daintree National Park (www.daintree-rec.com.au). Follow the clear-running streams of its waterfall- and fern-filled Mossman Gorge on your own, or hire Aboriginal guides from the Kuku Yalanji tribe, who lead custom treks ($20 for 90 minutes; www.yalanji.com.au). After hiking, repair to a sumptuous tree housestyle villa at the Daintree Ecolodge & Spa ($390, including breakfast; www.daintree-ecolodge.com.au) or overnight on primeval Cape Tribulation (so named by Cook after he ran aground here). Pitch a tent on Myall Beach ($19; www.capetribcamping.com.au) and hike into the rain forest in search of bright blue Ulysses butterflies and endangered, flightless cassowary birds, then swim or sea kayak to shallow reefs just offshore. Put some teeth in your day trip with a croc-spotting riverboat cruise with the Daintree Rainforest River Train ($16 an hour; www.daintreerivertrain.com).
Roam the Aboriginal North (1 or 2 days)
After romping through the Daintree, lock in the 4WD and tackle the steeps and streams of 50-mile (80-kilometer) Bloomfield Track, which passes the Wujal Wujal Aboriginal community (and namesake waterfall), two national parks, and Keatings Lagoon, a waterbird sanctuary. You're en route to the rugged Cape York Peninsula and Cooktown, not far from where Cook's Endeavor foundered in 1770 and his men discovered some 200 plant species. From there venture to the northernmost part of Australia—"the Tip," as locals call it. The town of Cape York itself is the jumping-off point for ferry trips to the islands of the Torres Strait—long ago the site of a land bridge to what is now Papua New Guinea, and today home to 20 distinct Aboriginal settlements. Tour ancient Nugal-warra tribe cave paintings with an elder from the clan at the Hope Vale Aboriginal community ($44 a day; www.guurrbitours.com).
Explore the Inland Outback (2 to 3 days)
Rolling south from Cooktown en route to Townsville, you'll drive the Mulligan Highway toward the Laura River Valley and, farther south, the Great Dividing Range, which cradles away much of the Daintree from mainland Oz. Stop in the tiny burg of Lakeland (where the lone café is stocked by Laura River Coffee, Australia's largest coffee plantation) before continuing on to Undara Volcanic National Park, home to one of the world's longest systems of lava tubes, 120 bird species including the rare Red Goshawk, and the Ewamian people. Spend the night in splendor in restored, turn-of-the-century railcars at Undara Experience ($60; www.undara.com.au). About 45 miles (72 kilometers) south, you'll hit the Oasis Roadhouse in Lynd Junction (population 3) before heading on to the bustling former gold-mining town of Charters Towers.
Dive the Wrecks and Tack Wildlife (1 or 2 days)
Cook's Endeavor wasn't the only ship to meet trouble off Queensland's shores. Townsville is the step-off point for the Yongala shipwreck, a 350-foot (107-meter) steamer heralded as one of the world's premier wreck dives ($172; open-water certification and some deep-sea diving experience required, www.yongaladive.com.au). Nearby Magnetic Island is a 45-minute car-ferry ride from Townsville ($17 per person; $112 per car; www.magneticislandferry.com.au), and miles of new trails link its 23 beaches, once home to the Wulgurukaba tribe, which left behind petroglyphs and stone tools. Peppers Blue on Blue Resort opens here in July, with marina-front rooms ($170; www.peppers.com.au/blue-on-blue). The islands are home to majestic stands of mangrove and eucalyptus, bounding wallabies, and one of northern Australia's largest populations of wild koalas.
Get in Gear
Here's what you need to know to navigate Queensland's byways.
HOP IN: Cairns Four Wheel Drive Hire Service ($1,025 for a weeklong rental; www.4wdhire.com.au) has Toyota Land Cruisers (seats six), Prados (seats eight), and Troop Carriers (seats 11) equipped with tow bars and disc brakes.
SIGN ON: Additional insurance isn't required for off-road drives, but at $30 a day (www.4wdhire.com.au), it's a worthwhile investment when rolling among sticks and stones.
STOCK UP: Supply stations dot Northern Queensland, but in case of an unexpected night on the roadside, pack along food, a first aid kit, four liters (one gallon) of water a day per person, a towrope, a shovel, two spare tires, trash bags (to leave no trace), and a satellite phone ($17 a day; www.4wdhire.com.au).
MOVE OUT: While at first it may be alarming to the uninitiated, visitors will quickly adapt to the fact that Australians drive on the left. Keep up to speed on road conditions (www.racq.com.au), weather forecasts, and flood warnings (www.bom.gov.au).
MAP IT: To stay on-course, bring along a Hema Maps 4WD Atlas ($26; www.hemamaps.com.au) and the "Survive the Drive" brochure from the Queensland Government Department of Main Roads (www.mainroads.qld.gov.au).
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