Tropical North Queensland Vegan Road Trip
In September 2017 Tim and I packed up our new (secondhand) ute and headed up the coast to explore a new section of the Queensland coast to celebrate my 26th birthday. We were both born and raised in Queensland but for context, the state of Queensland is seven times the size of Great Britain... so there's a lot left unexplored. The return trip would end up covering over 3,000km of road over 12 days. As our second road trip of the year this would mean we have now covered Australia by road from Cape Tribulation to the Great Ocean Road, across four states or territories.
Port Douglas and the Daintree region had been on my bucket list since high school. Famed for being the only place where two World Heritage sites touch: The Daintree rainforest being the oldest surviving rainforest on the planet, and the Great Barrier Reef as the largest living organism on Earth. So it’s an environmentalist nerd’s dream destination. We had no plans after the first three nights and played the rest of the trip by ear, using the app WikiCamps to find somewhere to pitch our tent each night. Nothing on the agenda but having a good time.
The entire time being in Far North Queensland I was very aware that we were walking on the traditional ground of hundreds of Indigenous mobs that I couldn't even list here. We have a rich history of Aboriginal genocide and slavery of South Sea Islanders in this area, particularly in the sugar industry. So if you're visiting, I think it's important to take the time to listen to some of the Aboriginal history and their relationship with the rainforest (notably at Daintree Discovery Centre and Mamu Tropical Skywalk) and just be really conscious of how important this land is to so many people, and how serious the risk from climate change is to the oldest surviving rainforest that belongs to the oldest surviving human population on the planet.
As we were travelling to the tropics, we were so happy to be able to eat raw till 4 every day. Starting the day with fresh tropical fruit, and migrating to high carb vegan meals for dinner. Breakfast and lunches usually composed of locally grown bananas, mangoes, watermelon and even one glorious custard apple. Nothing beats local fruit when in the tropics. It's readily available, perfectly ripe and so affordable! For non-fruit snacks we ate a lot of avocado on quinoa crackers with hot sauce. Something quick and easy we could make on the side of the road. Our dinner was typically gluten free pasta with lentils or our speciality pasta dish, mushrooms and eggplant with low sodium tomato sauce.
But finding vegan meals to eat out turned out to not be the dilemma we expected it to be in North Queensland. Being primarily a tourist destination and having such an abundance of fruit in their diet already, it turns out people know all about the vegan thing! While few hits turn up on the HappyCow app, you can be assured you can always find an acai bowl or some avocado sushi. And when you’re traveling with an esky and a stove, there’s really no chance of going hungry at any point as a vegan.
Day 1: Bowen
Starting in Gladstone we did the massive day of driving to start our adventure in Bowen, home of the famous Bowen mango. Here we stayed at the Queens Beach Tourist Village, which I'd recommend. The people were so friendly it was like stepping into The Truman Show where everybody seemed so happy to see us, but without the creepy factor.
Day 2-3: Cairns
For the actual occasion of my birthday, I was gifted two nights at the five-star Reef House Resort & Spa, Palm Cove by my beloved. It was a long drive from Bowen, including a stop-in into Cairns itself for lunch at vegan eatery Cheeky Yam. But we made it for sunset over the famous beach, and picked up our first mangoes of the season at the local Coles. I was careful to choose a room with a kitchen to keep costs low after the splurge of the room, so had homemade Mexican in our waterfront private spa villa for dinner.
On my birthday we made use of the free bikes for hire and explored up and down the strip, gorging ourselves on tropical fruit from the included buffet, our own fruit and leftover Mexican for lunch. Reef House surprisingly offers a five-course vegan degustation, so I spent my birthday evening eating five courses watching the moon rise over the ocean and palm trees, before winding down the day in our spa. It was a day of pure relaxation and a free schedule, and I completely recommend both the area and the hotel for any interested travellers!
Day 4: Wonga
After checking out from Reef House (several plates of fruit and an acai bowl from downstairs later) we drove on to Stoney Creek Falls for a splash in the crystal clear water. There’s nothing like eating ripe local mangoes straight from the skin and letting it drip all over you, to be able to wash it straight off in a fresh water pool. From here we made the drive along the Great Barrier Reef Drive, stopping in Port Douglas for supplies and lunch on the beach, to Wonga for the night. Here we stayed at Pinnacle Village Holiday Park, a more expensive park but if you can get a powered site closest to the office then you may be able to get their free high-speed Internet from your tent. This caravan park was possibly the most scenic we stayed in, with just basic facilities but a short walk to a nice beach and plenty of beautiful shady trees. As a bonus, it was here that I saw my first ever bandicoot!
Day 5: Cape Tribulation
Using Wonga as a springboard, the next day we drove up to Cape Tribulation, population of 330. First step was crossing the Daintree River by ferry as there are no bridges across. But be warned, you lose all reception a few hours before you reach the river and it doesn’t come back until you come back down. We were a bit unprepared to lose reception so early and to have no access at all for over 24 hours so hadn’t booked anywhere to stay and hadn’t researched activities ahead of time – so it was amusing when every activity we read in the tourist pamphlets we picked up involved calling ahead since that simply wasn’t an option. Our first stop was Daintree Discovery Centre to learn about the world’s oldest rainforest followed by the Jindalba board walk where we found fresh cassowary poo (the closest we came to a sighting all trip), before driving onto Cape Tribulation Camping. This place fills up and we got the second last spot even in low season so if you can, book ahead! We took an unpowered site under the trees. The campsite has three access points to an absolutely stunning beach where you can see how Cape Trib got its slogan, “Where the rainforest meets the reef”.
Day 6: Millaa Millaa
The next day we explored more of Cape Trib by driving beyond the end of the paved road (it’s only 4WD from there the rest of the way up the cape) and exploring a swimming hole. We stopped in at the look out from my post's cover photo on our way out, before making the journey back over the ferry and down south back into civilisation. This meant stopping for that aforementioned custard apple in Mossman and a quick scoot to Millaa Millaa so we could rush to the famous Millaa Millaa falls before sunset. While the rest of the trip was scorching hot, this dip in the waterfall plus the overnight camping at Millaa Millaa Tourist Park led to an absolutely freezing night. Probably not a part of the trip I’d recommend unless it’s the dead of summer.
Day 7: Mission Beach
The next day we were up early and drove down into Mission Beach to meet our friend Jenny for a day of hanging out on the beach, eating our fruit. After two tiring days of lots of driving, we took the opportunity of beautiful Mission Beach to stay right there at Mission Beach Hideaway Holiday Village, as the free camping across the road at Cassowary Council Mission Beach was full. We hung out at the campsite, did our washing, and caught our breath.
Day 8: Paronella Park
The next day we had a slow start and eventually made the trip up to Paronella Park, a heritage-listed tourist site. A series of concrete castles built in the 30s by a Spanish immigrant, it’s now a photographer destination and really the dream wedding destination. It was also the first place in North Queensland to have electricity, producing their own hydro electricity 15-years before the rest of the region got power. Included in the price of the entry ticket is a free night’s camping, so we pitched there at Paronella, did some grocery shopping in nearby Innisfail, and did two tours of Paronella in the afternoon and after dark.
Day 9-10: Townsville
As we got to Paronella Park late the day before, in the morning Tim did the hydro-electricity tour and we snapped some more photos around the park before heading to the nearby Mamu Tropical Skywalk, with a 37m high lookout and an audio tour full of information about the Mamu Indigenous people that were once the largest mob of the region. From here we drove onto Tim’s family in Townsville, stopping into Frosty Mango for vegan icecream, getting there around dinner to make our famous Mexican with corn tortillas. The second day we spent recuperating (long drives are tough!) and spending time with family.
Day 11: Airlie Beach
On our final night away from home we made the trip from Townsville, stopping in only briefly to the city itself for acai bowls at The Beet Bar and a quick look at the beach, before the long-haul down to Airlie Beach. Here we stayed at Island Gateway Holiday Park which was only OK. There were several vegan or vegetarian places to eat, that all happened to be closed by the time we arrived in the afternoon. We took that as a great opportunity to pull up a patch of grass by the water, read a book and cook our typical pasta for dinner.
Day 12: Gladstone
On our final day of holiday we had a pretty drab drive ahead of us. Breakfast was our final acai bowl of the trip from Café One 3, and we were back on the road home to Gladstone by the afternoon.
So that was it. 3000km. 12 days. Two vegans. One ute. Countless pieces of fruit. Zero crocs or cassowaries. Beaches, mountains, waterfalls, creeks and rainforest. We're truly lucky to be so close to some of the world's oldest and most sacred land.
Any questions on our vehicle, itinerary or other things you may need to know? Leave a comment and I'll get back to you!
Find more travel pics on my Instagram @jaclynmccosker