Reef, rainforest or outback? It’s a question 2.7 million people ask themselves every year while planning a trip to Tropical North Queensland. Here, we help you with the life-changing quandary.
You can combine reef and rainforest at Port Douglas, reef and outback at Seisia on the tip of Cape York, or see all three by driving along the 1000 kilometres of corrugated roads connecting the two. But there’s an often-overlooked place in the north that offers easy access to all three and it happens to be the sunniest place in the state of Queensland with an average of 320 rain-free days each year. Welcome to Townsville, a former mining town turned army town turned university town, and the unofficial capital of TNQ.
History of Townsville, Queensland
Townsville began as a port in the 1860s to service various nearby goldfields including Charters Towers, then the richest mine in the continent. It only became a city in WWII when the Allies built an air force base in Townsville, then the biggest in the world, with 22 buzzing airstrips. The commotion didn’t escape the attention of the Imperial Japanese Air Service, which bombed the city thrice during the war.
A great way to see Townsville’s sights and learn about its colourful past is on a military and scenic tour with ex-army man Toby Dean of Tour Townsville. Dean’s tours take in sights like the Brandon Heritage Precinct, Strand Waterfront Precinct, the Perc Tucker Regional Gallery, Old Brandon Church and maritime, army, air force museums. They culminate on top of Castle Hill, a 268 metres high rock with 360-degree views of the city and across the Coral Sea to nearby Magnetic Island.
“Most people who come to Townsville have already been to Cairns and end up here by accident because they didn’t think of Townsville as a touristy place,” Dean says. “But the first thing they notice is that it’s bigger than Cairns with lots of art galleries, museums and restaurants. The other thing visitors all talk about,” he says, “is how pretty the coastline is. All the other cities in Far North Queensland have extensive mudflats, but Magnetic Island shelters the harbour here and keeps the sand on the beaches.”
Charters Towers in Outback Queensland
Beyond the city limits, adventure awaits. Take a step back in time and into the outback at Charters Towers, one and a half hour’s drive south of Townsville. Today the former gold town is one of the largest cattle producing areas in Australia. Rowdy live cattle auctions are held every Wednesday at the Dalrymple Sales Yard and visitors are welcome. There are a few good pubs in town and they’re pretty serious about their steaks, though it’s hard to best the T-bone at Cattleman’s Rest Steakhouse.
Wallaman Waterfalls and Herbert River Gorge, Queensland
Two and a half hour’s drive north of Townsville is Wallaman Falls, also known as Queensland’s Niagara Falls. At 268 metres high, this is the largest single-drop waterfall in Australia. There are several hiking trails that offer spectacular views of plunging gorges and prehistoric rainforests of the surrounding Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. But nothing beats seeing it from the air with helicopter pilot Josh Liddle of Hinchinbrook Adventures. Liddle, who’s based in Ingham, 50 kilometres east of the falls, also offers heli-fishing tours in the remote wilderness of the Herbert River Gorge.
Magnetic Island in Tropical North Queensland
No trip to Townsville is complete without a stopover at Magnetic Island. Only a 20-minute ferry ride from the CBD, the island has 23 bays and beaches, 25 kilometres of walking trails, northern Australia’s largest population of koalas, plenty places to eat and drink, plus a series of old hilltop forts that were built to protect Townsville during WWII. “Magnetic Island is almost like a movie – that’s how beautiful it is,” says Melia Hinks, whose parents, Steph and Adam of Aqua Scene Charters, run daily snorkelling from Magnetic Island to nearby coral cays crowded with turtles and tropical fish. “I don’t think any photograph can truly capture its beauty.”