The parched scrub crunched underfoot as dozens of yellow-winged grasshoppers flitted between peeling eucalyptus trunks, while a pair of raucous white cockatoos bounced noisily among the branches of a jacaranda tree. From here to the horizon, waist-high wisps of khaki grass swayed in the breeze, creating a rustling carpet.
“Stay on the track,” said my guide, Mick, from under his mandatory wide-brimmed leather hat. “There are taipans and eastern browns in there.” As he curled his index and middle fingers into the shape of snake fangs, my bare ankles had never felt so exposed.
Some 125 miles west of Cairns, on the outskirts of the sprawling but sparsely populated outback town of Chillagoe, we were entering the Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park. Above ground, the area resembles a golden savannah studded with thousands of knee-high termite mounds, but as I descended below its surface on a steep metal ladder, I entered a different world. Cool and dimly lit, it gave me goosebumps.
“These caves have their very own ecosystem,” said Mick, as a skittish sheath-tailed bat, weighing just half an ounce, zoomed through the limestone tunnel like a tiny bullet train. “The bats’ guano provides food for the cockroaches and insects, and they in turn become prey for spotted pythons. All the animals are slightly smaller in here than out there. They’ve adapted to this environment and there is nowhere like it in Australia.”
Formed from ancient coral reefs 400 million years ago, these caves (400 of them mapped, with hundreds more uncharted) are a little-heralded alternative to the Great Barrier Reef that attracts the vast majority of Queensland’s 850,000 visitors per year. A handful of the most visually impressive caves can be explored by tourists, accompanied by a local guide.
In summer, this region of North Queensland swelters in temperatures of 40C-plus, but 250ft below the pearly limestone surface the mercury rarely rises above 23C. Away from the stifling heat, subterranean animals are more energetic than their relatives above ground. Agile Australian swiftlets darted among the mineral-rich stalactites while twitchy huntsman spiders the size of side plates clung to the refrigerated surface of the cave, patiently awaiting a tasty passing invertebrate.
As I drove from Chillagoe, pushing deeper into the outback along powdery tracks the colour and consistency of ground turmeric, it felt like I had Queensland’s 715 million square miles to myself. A 90-minute drive south lies the 85,000-acre Crystalbrook estate. As my 4x4 shuddered along its rust-coloured main thoroughfare, a pair of whistling kites soared high above against a matt sapphire sky. Here, one of Australia’s little-known luxury bolt-holes clings to the side of a 300-acre freshwater lake that provides an outback oasis for fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds.
Surrounded by eucalyptus trees and myriad species of migrating wildfowl, Crystalbrook Lodge feels more like an African safari retreat than it does an Australian guesthouse. From the infinity pool overlooking the lake, guests can spy Albert, a docile 6ft-long freshwater crocodile. As dusk falls, the cackling of kookaburras and the warbling of butcher-birds rises to a crescendo. If you’re lucky, you might see one of a pair of white-bellied sea eagles divebomb an unsuspecting black bream and carry it off.
To the west, Australia’s scorched landscape continues for 400 foreboding miles before reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria. To the east, however, a band of rainforest skirts the coastline, creating a fertile belt of tropical pastures where mangoes, avocados and bananas grow alongside huge plantations of coffee and sugar cane.
- The best hotels in Queensland
Fifty miles south-west of Cairns, at Rose Gums Wilderness Retreat, I watched a rowdy mob of more than 200 rainbow lorikeets swarm in the canopy at sunset. From the vantage point of my very own tree house, I could make out Mount Bartle Frere, Queensland’s tallest mountain.
Here, the thick undergrowth provides shelter for one of the planet’s smallest marsupials, the musky rat kangaroo, while the creek plays host to a family of platypuses. When I came face to face with a wild cassowary – a flightless bird, 6ft tall and weighing 60kg – I scampered like a petrified child into the tennis court to observe it from the safety of a tramline.
My exploration of inland North Queensland reached an exhilarating climax with a dawn balloon flight over Mareeba, an hour’s drive north of Rose Gums. With our wicker basket swaying gently over swathes of aromatic eucalyptus, Neil, the pilot, fired a plume of flame into the 10 storey-high nylon chamber above our heads. “Look closely at that creek and you might see a croc,” he said. “Beyond Africa, there is nowhere on the planet where you can get this close to the local wildlife.”
Just before 7am, the sun’s first rays penetrated the gloomy atmosphere, like tubular barrels of light illuminating the ground like theatrical spotlights. Silently we floated in the 5mph “Nor’Wester” as the lush vegetation buzzed into life.
Centre stage, a mob of wallabies lazed in a thicket of long grass – not bolt-upright and on high alert, as we normally see them, but lethargically catching the sun’s rays on their cheeks like sunbathing holidaymakers. It was just another candid, life-affirming glimpse of a country that never fails to surprise and inspire.
Philippine Airlines has return flights from London Heathrow to Cairns from £705.Where to stay
Crystalbrook Lodge; from £513 per person per night, including a day visit to the Chillagoe caves. Rose Gum Wilderness Retreat; from £196 per night for a one-bedroom Treehouse sleeping two.What to do
Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park; ranger-guided tour £15, three caves £30, purchased in advance from The Hub in Chillagoe. Other caves can be accessed via self-guided tours. Hot Air Balloon Cairns; scenic flights over the Atherton Tablelands from £117 adult, £103 child.More information
Australia travel guides