Cruising the Cassowary Coast: a road trip from Cairns to Townsville

Man and woman sitting on rock looking out over a bay, Hawkings Point, Magnetic Island, Townsville, North Queensland

It’s a spectacular part of North Queensland. And for intrepid road trippers, Chris and Sarah, there’s plenty to see – waterfalls, cassowaries and tropical islands among them – along the way.

Ah, the tropics… When Queenslanders say beautiful one day, perfect the next, they are not kidding. We’ve flown north to Cairns Airport and, after picking up our rental car at Apex Cairns, spent a few days exploring the region – hello, Kuranda Skyrail. Now, we’re heading south to Townsville over the course of four days. Sure, we could have done it quicker, but a day trip to a tropical island beckons.

On A Mission: Cairns to Mission Beach

Women sitting on a rock in a clear pool of water, Babinda Boulders, Cairns, North Queensland

We’ve put our swimmers where we can easily get to them because south of Cairns is Babinda Boulders. These mega rocks create pools of clear water in Babinda Creek and, despite it being a hot day, the water is freezing. Once feeling returns to our extremities though, it’s absolute bliss to float with the rainforest canopy folding over the pools.

We’ve heard there are some incredible waterfalls not too far away, so it’s back in the car for a little detour. Seeing the water crash over the edge of Nandroya Falls into the pool at the bottom (yes, you can swim here, too) is awe-inspiring. It’s a 60-metre drop, but also do the circuit walk, which takes you past smaller waterfalls hidden in the rainforest.

Our last pitstop of the day is Etty Bay Beach, just south of Innisfail, to see its star residents. Southern cassowaries love this patch of sand and make regular appearances. When we get there, we find a spot to sit and wait, and it’s not too long before three of these wild, prehistoric birds saunter past. They are fairly used to humans here, but you still have to give them plenty of space.

Our destination is not too far off and we can’t wait to get to Mission Beach.

Island Time: Mission Beach to Lucinda

Aerial view of two women swimming in a pool of blue water surrounded by rainforest, Cardwell Spa Pool, North Queensland

From the top of Mount Kootaloo, shimmering vivid blue, dotted by an occasional tiny green island, is spread out before us. It has taken three hours to walk to the summit, but it was worth every step. We decided to park the car for the day and catch the local water taxi service from Mission Beach to Dunk Island. The luxury resort here was destroyed by cyclones, so now it’s a day trippers’ paradise.

Back down at the beach, we pull on snorkels and immerse ourselves in reef. Tiny silver fish flash past in front of us, jewel-coloured parrot fish gnaw on the coral and we even spot a sea turtle in the distance. There are a few campsites near the beach, and anyone who stays here must feel like a castaway. Maybe next time…

After a long, relaxing walk along Mission Beach early the following morning – all the better for spying the cassowaries here – we head towards the Cardwell Spa Pool. It changes colour depending on the time of day, but the sun is hitting its surface when we arrive and it’s a pleasing baby blue. A few other visitors have immersed themselves, but there’s plenty of room to spread out.

Back in town, we stop at the Seaview Deli Cafe and order the local specialty, mud crab sandwiches. They’re stuffed with sweet meat and do not disappoint.

Although Ingham is the obvious choice for an overnight stop, we head instead to Lucinda. It’s home to the world’s largest bulk sugar loading facility. After checking in at the Lucinda Point Hotel Motel, Chris retrieves his fishing gear from the car boot. Apparently, you can sometimes snag a golden trevally from the six-kilometre-long jetty.

Water Everywhere: Lucinda to Townsville

Wallaman waterfall North Queensland

We’ve spied plenty of birds on this trip already, but take a punt on TYTO Wetlands. This sanctuary has boardwalks snaking through wetlands and lagoons. Plenty of long-legged spoonbills and egrets are wading through the water and jacanas balance on lily pads. Back in the branches on dry land, there are colourful kingfishers, wrens and finches. Bird lovers are giving their binoculars a solid workout following our feathered friends’ progress.

It’s a big detour, but one we know we have to do. In North Queensland, everyone’s attention is turned to the Great Barrier Reef, but Chris and I think Wallaman Falls almost matches it for pure wow factor. At almost 300 metres high, it’s Australia’s largest permanent drop waterfall and it’s a stunner. If you can manage it there’s a steep path from the lookout to the base of the gorge. As you get further down, the roar of the water gets louder, until you come out of the rainforest and into the mist. Ten out of 10, would do again, as they say.

The rest of the route to Townsville is marked by small towns and beaches. The expansive pineapple farms around Rollingstone are an impressive sight, and Balgal Beach is a great place to stretch your legs and go for a dip.

We’ve taken four days to do the journey from Cairns to Townsville, but if you’ve got time up your sleeve and an eye for a hidden gem, you could take a week or more and explore it all.