Tropical touring: From Townsville to Cairns, Queensland

Miriam Blaker — 1 December 2023
From sleepy creek-side stops beside towering sugarcane and tropical beachside delights we uncovered some brilliant stops to park the van.

A stunning coastline boasting natural beauty and diversity typifies this unforgettable roadtrip in this North Queensland, which encompasses the colourful Cassowary Coast. The scenic 350-kilometer drive from Townsville to Cairns can be covered in about five hours, but why rush it? Give yourself a week, if not longer, to discover the detours, surprising destinations and scenic low-cost campgrounds, many of which are nestled within the rainforest or overlook rivers and beaches. Some places will require a detour off the main Highway but it’s here you’ll find the true gems. From sleepy creek-side stops beside towering sugarcane and tropical beachside delights we uncovered some brilliant stops to park the van.

Free camping around Townsville 

While there are few free campsites within Townsville itself on the northern side, you’re spoilt for choice with a number of well-maintained council-run campsites. 

The closest one is Saunders Beach, located off Saunders Beach Road, 10km off the Bruce Highway. There’s room for about six vans so arrive early to get a spot. Facilities include flushing toilets, barbecue facilities on the foreshore, water and a fabulous beach you can walk on for miles. Being so close to Townsville it’s a popular destination for weekend visitors. 

Not far away is Bluewater, with room for about 20 vans on spacious grassy sites and plenty of shade. Walk to the nearby Bluewater Creek with stair access or simply enjoy relaxing under the huge canopies. There are toilets, a dump point, barbecues, drinking water and plenty of space. 

Balgal Beach is perhaps the most popular of the council-run free sites. Boasting a beautiful beach just metres from camp with room for about 10 vans, there are toilets, water, picnic tables and barbecues on the adjoining foreshore and parkland with both shady and sunny spots. You can walk along the beach, fish on the jetty across the road or enjoy a light meal from the on-site kiosk. Each of the following, including Bushy Park, require bookings online and have limits of 48 hours … they can be organised here.

Vincent 'Bushy' Parker Park at Rollingstone is a peaceful campground that’s located off the main road. This is a huge area with plenty of room to enjoy peace and privacy. There’s plenty of shade, toilets, barbecues, a playground and a safe river nearby to enjoy. Walk towards the old Rollingstone bridge to admire the faded but amazing colourful art under the bridge.

Discovering paradise at Paluma National Park

Our days are short as we travel 15km from Rollingstone to reach the Crystal Creek Caravan Park, near the Mobil service station. It’s a small and friendly caravan park with grassed shady sites and perfectly positioned to explore the surrounding attractions. 

Take a drive to the misty mountain village of Paluma and enjoy an easy rainforest walk before heading to McClellands Lookout for panoramic views out to the islands. Paluma National Park is home to pristine waterholes, natural rockslides and waterfalls including Paradise Falls and Little Crystal Creek. Nearby Big Crystal Creek is a favourite with the big kids due to its natural water slide, and the beautiful stone arch bridge at Little Crystal Creek is a photographer’s dream.

Stop off at the seasonal roadside fruit stalls, making sure to use the honesty box. At The Frosty Mango, you can indulge in all things mango … there are super-light scones with mango jam, pancakes and many varieties of ice cream and sorbet. 

Ingham to Tully

Ingham is just under an hour’s drive away, a town renowned for its ingrained Italian heritage and the sugar industry that led the Italian migrants here. Wander down Mercer Lane to see a wonderful tribute to the history of the sugar industry and, if you’re around in the last week of October, check out the action of Ingham’s longest-running festival, the annual Maraka Festival. A great place to stay, especially for birdwatchers, is at the TYTO self-contained RV Park near the 90 hectares of wetlands with the art gallery and visitor centre next door. Ingham is the gateway to what’s known as The Hinchinbrook Way.

Don’t miss a visit to Wallaman Falls, the highest single-drop waterfall in Australia, about an hour’s drive away. Be aware that the walk to the bottom is steep and not for the faint-hearted, but wow, it’s an exhilarating feeling when you get there. There are also spectacular views of the falls from the top for those who don’t fancy the heart-pounding walk down.

On the highway south of Tully is Cardwell, boasting a dynamic waterfront activity trail and wetlands walk complete with views over the islands of historic Rockingham Bay. From Easter, markets are held every second weekend on the jetty. If you’re looking to stay overnight, just 5km out turn left into the Meunga Creek Caravan Park. Don’t be put off by the shabby entrance as down the back and right by the flowing creek are spacious, grassy sites all with river views and power and water. At $28 per night and with laundry and spotless amenities close by, it’s the cheapest place to stay in the area. Travel another 5km up the road to find the stunning natural spa pool. 

Tully is recognised as the capital of white-water rafting, something my hubby Doug and I did when we were first married, 30 years ago. This time it’s more sedate and we merely pass through. Tully did, however, live up to its name as the wettest place in Australia as we photographed the giant Golden Gumboot under grey moody skies.

Kurrimine Beach to the scenic Canecutter Way

Mission Beach gets the glory and the hype, and we stay one night, however, it’s Kurrimine Beach 32km north that’s a real winner for us. At this laid-back coastal hamlet, it seems just about every home has a tractor. They’re needed to launch boats from the tidal boat ramp at the northern end of the beach, which we saw happen daily from our campsite. 

There are a number of holiday parks in town. While Kurrimine Beach Holiday Park on the south side was voted number one for families and nomads and has all the bells and whistles, our choice is the low-key council-owned caravan park located near the boat ramp. Next door, on the foreshore, is the unpowered camping area and at $16 with amenities nearby, we think it’s great value.

There’s plenty of room on shady sites with glorious sea views. On our doorstep is a quiet long beach that is perfect for sunrise walks, cracking fresh coconuts from the palms that line the beach and watching kite surfers. Within walking distance, there’s a motel that offers themed three-course dinners every night for $20 and within a five-minute drive is Murdering Point Winery. No grapes are used in their wines and ports, only tropical fruits, which makes for some intriguing flavours as we try them all. It’s a great place to stock up on some wines and ports for your travels.

The scenic Canecutter Way runs from Kurrimine Beach to Innisfail, 52km of inland detouring which is dubbed “the greatest detour in the north.” Our first stop before hitting the road again is a coffee from the permanently set-up van just near the turn-off from Kurrimine Beach — it’s the best in the area.

We drive through small rural communities, cane and sugar farms and the small town of Silkwood where you’ll find Australia’s only pepper farm and the country’s smallest National Australia Bank. Our destination is on the banks of Liverpool Creek in Japoonvale. This beautiful free RV stop is easily accessible for big rigs and is a peaceful place to relax, fish and enjoy the serenity. 

Mena Creek Falls and beyond

Less than 10 minutes away is one of the Cassowary Coast’s most notable spots, the Mena Creek Falls — a sight so stunning that in 1929 it inspired a Spanish immigrant by the name of José Paronella to settle there and begin creating what would become Paronella Park. With a dream to create a castle in the rainforest, together with a grand staircase, pleasure gardens, bridges and gardens amongst 7500 plants and trees, it’s a fascinating place and story of a dream fulfilled.

Although José passed away years ago, leaving his beloved park to fall into disrepair through time and a string of natural disasters, his dream remains alive, thanks to current park owners Mark and Judy Evans who have turned it into Queensland’s number one attraction. No driving tour to North Queensland is complete without a visit here.

Stay overnight in the caravan park, when you purchase a ticket, and be immersed in the magic. And if you still haven’t had your fill of rainforest wonder head out to the Mamu Tropical Skywalk just 15 minutes from Innisfail. A worthwhile detour is Etty Bay where you’re almost guaranteed to see the endangered Southern Cassowary patrolling the beach. The Etty Bay Caravan Park, Surf Life Saving Club and Kiosk have absolute beach frontage, where the cassowary roams freely. 

It’s here we meet Bailey Seamer, from Wondering Minds, an inspiring young woman who’s walking from the southernmost part of Australia, The Prom, to the northernmost point, The Tip, all to raise awareness of mental health and The Black Dog Foundation. By the time this goes to print she’ll have walked over 5000km solo and raised over $58,000. 

Bramston Beach is set about 6km off the Bruce Highway, a calm tropical oasis with a relaxed lifestyle and excellent fishing. Powered sites are limited at the Bramston Beach Caravan Park so ring ahead, otherwise, there are plenty of unpowered spots with most having a beautiful view of the water. From Bramston Beach you can access the Russell River National Park with a 4WD to camp or fish.

Boulders Free Camping ground

Our last stop before reaching Cairns is at the Boulders Free Camping ground, which sits in a fairy-tale landscape of lush rainforest, clear blue pools and unusual rock formations. Unfortunately, it rains for most of the two days we’re there so the walk to the boulders is wet, but still, it’s beautiful. In warmer weather you can swim or kayak in these clear waters and if you’re lucky you might spot a platypus. There’s no phone service out here making it feel blissfully secluded but in town, the free Rotary RV area has full phone coverage, plus there are art deco buildings to explore, a historic hotel and the Babinda Bakery, renowned for its delicious pies.

We’re now less than an hour from Cairns and it’s been a slow but wonderful journey to savour the 350km from Townsville. From here, for us, it’s going to get even more exciting as we head towards Cooktown and onwards, towards the Cape York Peninsula and to the very top of Australia. North Queensland just keeps getting better. 


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Miriam Blaker