Tropical North Queensland adventure with kids

If Mila's mother could see her now, dangling upside down 80 metres above the ground in the rainforest canopy, it is possible that this father-daughter bonding trip in Tropical North Queensland might be our last.

However, I couldn't be prouder of my eight-year-old daughter, who, on arriving at the Jungle Surfing Canopy tour in the Daintree rainforest, had been teary-eyed with trepidation.

"Daddy, I don't think I can do it," Mila told me, scanning the wires and pulleys high above as she was strapped into a harness and crowned with a red helmet emblazoned with the name "Madame Butterfly".

Yet, after coaxing from her dad and from the jungle surfing crew at Cape Tribulation, she allowed herself to be hoisted high into the tree-tops and the rest has been plain sailing, or flying, along ziplines looped across the ancient forest.

While Mum and our youngest daughter have embarked on a sedate holiday at a yoga retreat in Bali, we are on a week-long Dadventure, during which I'm attempting to indoctrinate Mila with my love of mildly life-threatening activities.

To be fair, with stays on Fitzroy Island, a family-orientated resort 45 minutes by boat from Cairns, and at Thala Beach Nature Reserve, a luxurious eco retreat south of Port Douglas, thrill-seeking is but one ingredient of this trip.   

At Fitzroy Island, soon after arriving, we are introduced to the Barrier Reef in the most undemanding way possible, joining other families on a glass-bottomed boat tour.  

Throughout our stay, Mila practises her snorkelling skills in the sheltered bays that front the resort while I fin along close by.  In time she is forging her own route around the rocky foreshore, chortling excitedly through her snorkel as she hones in on shoals of brightly coloured sprats, while I glance up occasionally to monitor her progress.

Although the 99-room resort is packed during our autumn school holiday stay, Mila and I quickly leave the crowds behind on two national park trails.  The first, a 45-minute return walk, takes us to Nudey Beach.

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Once an unofficial naturists hangout – public nudity is illegal in Queensland – the secluded, coral-encrusted beach is now "family-friendly", after developer John Gamble instigated a cover-up when re-opening the refurbished resort in 2010.  

In the late afternoon, we find it devoid of people, naked or otherwise, with the Coral Sea lazily rasping the shore and the dipping sun honeying the surrounding boulders.

Our second trek leads uphill to the island's summit, a challenging climb on a humid afternoon.  It is rewarded by wide-ranging views across the sea to the Queensland coast and, on our way back, by a drenching from a tropical squall.  

As my grimacing daughter ladles her sopping hair out of her face, I'm grateful that her more responsible parent is not waiting for us back at the resort.

Once we dry off, we add an educational element to our two-day stay by visiting the island's turtle rehabilitation centre.  

Here, we meet Ella and Squirt, two 12-year-old green turtles.  They are among 300 rescued by the centre since its main facility opened at Cairns Aquarium in 2000.  

Humans are implicated in most of their injuries, ingested bottle tops, hooks and plastic bags creating air blockages in the turtles' systems and causing them to float on the surface, unable to dive for food or to avoid predators or propellers. Ella had her neck and head split open after being hit by a boat and is nearing the end of an 18-month rehabilitation. For children and adults alike, seeing the result of carelessness underlines an important environmental message.

Our stay at Fitzroy Island is rounded off by casual lunches, on the beachfront, at Foxy's bar, a la carte dinners – including succulent scallops and roast duck – at Zephyr restaurant and by an afternoon watching the free kids movie Matilda at the resort's small in-house cinema.

Returning to the mainland, we take the curling coastal drive north to Thala Beach Nature Reserve, on the outskirts of Port Douglas.

Thala is among my favourite resorts in Australia, championing the environment since opening in 1998 and as relaxing as it is inspiring.  

Set between two beaches on a coastal headland shrouded in rainforest, the 60-hectare property has 83 beautifully crafted wooden bungalows spaced between the trees and tropical vegetation.  This ensures guests are treated to a humming, bristling soundtrack that includes birdcalls, whoops and cackles and the throaty chirrups of frogs.

Mila seems instantly at home here, stretching out on a sofa in the open-sided resort lounge and splashing about for hours in the sculpted tropical pool.  

On our first night we have dinner at Thala's Osprey's restaurant, delivered by head chef Luukas Trautner.  It includes chicken wontons with a pumpkin and tamarind chutney for me and a homemade eclair oozing with mango mousse and accompanied by coconut sorbet for Mila.

Breakfast back at Ospreys is high on atmosphere, as vividly hued parrots dart between the nearby treetops and the sunrise reveals sparkling views over the bays below.  

Lest our Dadventure become too lackadaisical, I now launch plans for an active exploration of the 900,000 square kilometres of World Heritage-listed rainforest that hug this coastline.  

We begin at Thala, with a guided walk around the headland with ranger Emma Dunson, one of the free educational offerings that make the resort stand out.  

Thala is so enmeshed in its surroundings that we need only step a few metres from reception for the tour to begin.

That wasn't always the case, this promontory being formerly given over, like so much of north-east Queensland, to sugar cane.   

But showing admirable prescience, Thala developer Rob Prettejohn replaced the crops with natural species, helping to create and maintain a variety of habitats including rainforest, open woodlands, mangrove swamps, grasslands, a creek system and even its own coconut plantation.

Dunson's captivating tour takes us gradually down to Oak Beach, which fronts the property, with regular pauses along the way to identify different species of flora and fauna.  

"Sadly," explains Dunson, as a palm-sized butterfly arcs by, "most of the 100 butterfly species we have here were named by the English and they gave them really boring names.  That was an orchard swallow tail and this one is a blue traveller."

On the palm-fringed beach, we discover the skin of an amethystine python, around five metres long if its mesh-like covering is anything to go by.  We also find fragmented pumice stone scattered across the foreshore, part of a big raft washed over from New Zealand following the eruption of an underwater volcano.

After lunch at the bustling Salsa bar and grill in Port Douglas – creole jambalaya with prawns squid and crocodile sausage for Dad, crumbed calamari, fries and an activity book for Mila – we embark on another beach tour.

This time it is a Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat tour at Cooya Beach, north of Port Douglas. Led by Lincoln Walker, one of two Aboriginal brothers who devised this walkabout through the coastal mangroves, it's an experience I've had before alone and really wanted to share with Mila.  

But while the tour explores the three ecosystems around the mudflats, this afternoon feels more like a jog along the beach chasing Lincoln as he spears fish and unearths mudcrabs among the mangrove roots.  

The others on the tour, an English family and cricketer Brett Lee's ex-wife and children, seem to enjoy learning to throw spears and hunting for crabs but I'm disappointed by the lack of cultural and environmental information.

The same could not be said about our dreamtime walk at nearby Mossman gorge, far away from the hordes that arrive in coaches merely to ogle the boulder-strewn scenery.   

I love the look of curious uncertainty that crosses Mila's face as we experience an initial smoking ceremony to cleanse our spirits, and trek to a ceremonial site with our young guide announcing our presence by calling to his Kuku Yalanji ancestors, who've inhabited this echoing rainforest for 50,000 years.  

Even better is her broad smile as we swim in a sweet-tasting emerald pool, fed by rapids, and she learns how to create paint and soap from natural elements against a backdrop of some of the planet's oldest rainforest.  

That night, my valiant eight-year-old keeps her eyelids open long enough for a stargazing tour back at Thala Beach, with resident astronomer Rose Wyatt.  With a giant, powerful telescope trained on the firmament, we zero in on the ring of Saturn, adding another dimension to Mila's learning on this trip.

Another day, another Dadventure, and again, I fear I'm overplaying the pushy parent role.

"Daddy, I'm scared," says Mila, bottom lip trembling, as we stand ankle deep in the Mossman River and I zip up her wetsuit.

"You'll be fine," say our River Drift Snorkelling guides Barney and Dan, demonstrating how to throw ourselves into the shallow current and run with it downstream.

"You can grab a lilo and surf down if you prefer," adds Dan, "but there will always be one of us ahead to help you out if you have any trouble."

Within minutes she is hooning down the pure river, mask down and tummy flat, in far more graceful fashion than her hippo-bottomed father.  

Along the way we spot freshwater fish and shrimp and at one point, stop at a riverside lagoon to meet a tiny terrapin.  But we save the best for last, turning onto our backs and gliding down like Baloo the bear in The Jungle Book, as the forest canopy flashes by above us.

It's priceless watching my offspring grow with every experience in Tropical North Queensland, and underscores to me the value of exposing a child to active travel.  If it instils in Mila the spirit that I've always held dear, expressed by the remarkable blind and deaf teacher Helen Keller that "life is a daring adventure or nothing", then her life will be blessed with exhilarating escapades.  If not, then vive la difference, our children are meant to find their own paths.

However, on our final fling, a snorkelling trip on Mackay Reef, off Cape Tribulation, there are signs are that my brainwashing is beginning to work.  

Entering the water as a group, we immediately see a reef shark swimming below, and while everybody else turns and fins in the opposite direction, Mila immediately sets off in pursuit of it, unfazed by the deep blue ocean and desperate to connect with the big toothy fish beneath her.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

queenslandholidays.com.au

GETTING THERE

Virgin and Qantas fly to Cairns from both Melbourne and Sydney. Virginaustralia.com; Qantas.com.au

STAYING AND TOURING THERE

Thala Beach Nature Reserve, Port Douglas, has 83 bungalows set among rainforest.  From $254.00* p/night, (*based on a Stay 4/Pay 3 package @ $339 p/night in a Jungle Walk Bungalow). Thalabeach.com.au

Fitzroy Island, family resort, 45-minute boat ride from Cairns, with pool, adventure centre, restaurant and two bars.  Activity packages from $256 p/n. Fitzroyisland.com

Jungle Surfing Canopy Tours at Cape Tribulation, $95 pp. junglesurfing.com.au

Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tours, Cooya Beach, $75 adults, $45 kids. kycht.com.au

Dreamtime Walk at Mossman Gorge, family pass $155. mossmangorge.com.au

River Drift Snorkelling Tours, three hours exploring the Mossman River with Back Country Bliss Adventures. $99 pp. Backcountrybliss.com.au

Half-day snorkelling tour on Mackay Reef, off Cape Tribulation.  Family ticket $415. Oceansafari.com

FIVE MORE TNQ ACTIVITIES WITH KIDS 

Wildlife Habitat, Port Douglas

Excellent wildlife park with behind-the-scenes tours, the chance to meet rare cassowaries, the world's third largest birds, all manner of other tropical species and enjoy "lunch with the lorikeets" in the restaurant.  Open 8am-5pm, family entry (two adults, two kids) $85. Wildlifehabitat.com.au

Sleep on the reef

Live aboard luxury boat moored on the outer reef with 21 cabins and stays ranging from one to four nights. Reefencounter.com.au

Hartley's Crocodile Adventures

Located 25 minutes north of Port Douglas, Hartley's has boardwalks and wetland cruises to see crocodiles and tropical birds.  Open 8.30-5pm, family ticket $92.50. Crocodileadventures.com

Scenic train trip to Kuranda

Take the scenic railway up into the mountains behind Cairns to the rainforest village of Kuranda, passing through hand-made tunnels constructed in the late 19th-century and past waterfalls. Ksr.com.au

Skyrail cable car

Return to Cairns on the 7.5 kilometre Skyrail, skimming the treetops and giving giddying views of the coast below.  Skyrail.com.au

 Daniel Scott and his daughter were guests of Tourism and Events Queensland. 

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