From Cairns to Undara National Park
The dark red termite mounds along our path get bigger and bigger the further from the coast we go. Just when I think we've reached the end of the world, we suddenly pass a house. Someone lives out here. Far from everything. We are heading towards Undara National Park, in North Queensland's outback in Australia.
Basically all of Australia's Red Outback is outback, sparsely populated and wild. Thousands of kilometers of wilderness stretch across the continent from east to west and from north to south, but almost all of Australia's population lives along the verdant coasts. Here in the outback the climate is a bit harsher and drier, although here in the northern outback it actually rains quite a bit during the winter months and is a bit wetter than the central Australian outback.
We accelerate westward in our rental car, on straight paved roads. We are constantly warned by the road signs to watch out for road trains - fully loaded trucks with at least three trailers - which, like unstoppable projectiles, plow through the roads of the outback at an unimaginable speed. With road trains along the roads, it is important to check the rear-view mirror often and be prepared to stop and let them pass if they appear. On gravel roads, a road train can also kick up a big cloud of dust in its advance, so if you're afraid of the car (and yourself), you should stop and take a break until the monster truck has passed.
The 30 miles from Cairns takes its time, despite the lack of stops along the way. The only exciting thing that happens in the car is the discussion about which playlist should be played on the car radio. In addition to well-filled music lists, we have also stuffed the car full of snacks and a can of water. Sure, we meet some cars on the road, but if something were to happen, it might take a while to get help out here. It is important to be prepared. We had actually even intended to bring a bottle of wine to cover all possible eventualities, but it rolled out of the luggage and broke into a thousand pieces just before we were to leave the hotel in Cairns. So now we have learned our lesson. If you want to go out into the outback, you drink the vintage wines before you go.
The main attraction of Undara is Undara National Park and the old lava tunnels that are hidden here in the ground under the dry grass. During a volcanic eruption 190 years ago, large amounts of lava flowed out over the nearby landscape. As the surface solidified and the lava stopped flowing, hollow tubes were created that were eventually covered by soil and vegetation, forming tunnels. Lava caves are found in many places in the world, so it is not unique to Undara, but here is the world's longest lava tunnel.
We roll onto the exit to Undara Experience, the only place to stay within several miles. Here in the area there is both a campsite and a "hotel" with a restaurant. The campsite is filled with pick-up trucks that have all brought their large grills and outdoor furniture to sit outside at night with their smoky barbeque and drink cold beer. Camping without a caravan or mobile home is quite difficult, so we had made it easy for ourselves and booked the hotel. The hotel had two accommodation options: Either you live in a compartment in an old train carriage or you live in the newer settler cottages. Most popular is to stay in one of the compartments in the old train cars, so it was already fully booked. What remained for us instead was the slightly more "luxurious" option of having our own cabin. The cottage had a small veranda with a sitting area, a bedroom with a double bed, a sofa bed and a small kitchenette with a fridge and coffee maker and a toilet with a shower. The most luxurious thing about the cabin was that it had its own toilet, the interior was quite uninspiring and simple. But in some strange way, everything that is simple fits together with the rugged surroundings, you might not go to the outback to stay in a boutique hotel.
Our room is not quite ready when we arrive, so we take the opportunity to have lunch. The area has a large restaurant consisting of three old train carriages set up in a U in the direction of nature, with a large tin roof above. The tin roof proved not only to protect against sun and rain, but through an ingenious construction it collects all the rainwater from the roof into large cisterns, to then be used during the area's dry season.
We order some hearty portions of food and look out over eucalyptus, rubber trees and flowering bushes. In one of the trees very close to the restaurant, a bird starts to sound very loud and demanding. We see a large black silhouette among the leaves and soon get the explanation for the noise. A slightly disgruntled black cockatoo with magnificent red tail feathers finally looks forward and is probably not happy with what he sees, because he doesn't stay long. Everywhere in the trees a flock of rainbow loris chatter, who would have thought that so many birds would thrive out here in the outback?
We had previously booked one of the afternoon guided tours to the lava tunnels, so we are in no rush to rush off after lunch. We check into the room and sit down with a cup of coffee and some snacks on the veranda. It doesn't take long until we are joined by a snack-hungry Kookaburra, who carefully watches every hand movement in the snack bowl. Would there be any nut left for him? When he realizes we're not going to share the treats, he lets out a characteristic laugh that only a kookaburra can do and flies off.
Finally, it's time for us to explore the lava tunnels too, so we jump into the car together with our guide. You know, sometimes you get a guide who feels like he has only learned texts by heart and sometimes you get a guide who is really passionate about what he does and about sharing his knowledge. We got it later - a real nugget of a guide, who in a humorous way taught us a lot about the history of the tunnels and the flora and fauna of the area. There is something special about Australians and their humor. There is always room for a good laugh.
We begin our 2 hour hike down into the area where the tunnel roof has fallen, up and down through a number of stairs, rocks and wooden bridges, to reach the first tunnel opening. It's hilly terrain, but it's not a difficult hike, so the trip to the caves is recommended according to the brochure for anyone over 5 years old. The trees and all the vegetation hide the tunnels well, it feels like its own climate zone of rainforest down here.
There is a lot of rustling under most of the large cairns, probably some of the area's many rock wallabies (small "kangaroos") hiding when we passed.
The first thought that comes to mind when we approach the tunnels is how big they are. In places, the tunnel is almost 20 meters wide and 10 meters high, giving a perspective on how much lava actually flowed here long ago. In total, there are over 50 tunnels, of which only a few can be visited with a guide.
During the Australian summer, it can rain in such large amounts that the tunnels become waterlogged, making it difficult to visit Undara without having to swim in the tunnel's cold water. However, the summer months (the wet season) are a perfect opportunity to meet some of the tunnels' true inhabitants – the bats. When the sun goes down for the day, thousands of little blunt-nosed bats fly out of the cave, as if in a great black whirlwind, to go on a nightly hunt for food for their young. However, the bats attract not only human observers, but also other animals. At the same time as the bats wake up, so do the brown tree snakes and pythons that live in the trees closest to the tunnel entrance. Even though the bats are fast, the snakes manage to catch the flying bats with incredible lightning speed.
We walk into the cave together with our guide and his bright flashlight. It's significantly colder here in the tunnel than outside, so we zip up the hooded jacket. The further into the tunnel we wander, the clearer it becomes that this is no ordinary cave. The walls are almost smooth and not a single stalactite hangs down from the ceiling. The slow flowing lava seems to have almost polished the ceiling in some parts. Something that hangs down from the ceiling everywhere, are large tree roots. It is no wonder that the roofs of the tunnels are undermined and sometimes collapse.
We have time to visit two tunnels before it is time to return to our camp. Filled with a sense of wow and humbled by the forces that hide beneath our feet, we make our way to dinner at the hotel's Fettler's Iron Pot Bistro.
The fire is lit, the sun is going down and all the sounds of the outback are getting louder as the light gets weaker. Sitting here in the wilderness, but a cold beer and a warm fire is a really good end to an eventful day. We order food, hearty Australian steaks with a bottle of red. The prices are more than affordable and the restaurant fills up quickly with both campers and hotel guests. It's pretty quick to realize that we are the only foreigners in the place and many are interested in knowing how we got here. We start talking to a nice retired couple at the next table. They turn out to be on a big tour around Australia with their motorhome. After traveling around Europe, the US and Asia a lot when they were younger, they had finally realized that they actually have the world's most amazing nature right around the corner here in Australia - but that they had barely traveled in their own country. Now they were on their way from the east coast to the west coast, a real adventure through the whole of red Australia. I can't help but be a little jealous of them. Imagine being able to call this fantastic nature "home".
There's a campfire quiz tonight and we feel compelled to join in. Old Trivial Pursuit lovers that we are - this should be an easy win! Tonight's topic turns out to be Australia. How hard can it be? We are terrible at geography! But judge our surprise when, after only a few questions, we realized that this was really not a topic for a Swede. "What is Australia's highest mountain?", "What is Australia's longest river, and through which states does it flow?". But we feel quite happy and satisfied in any case. The fire is cozy, the air is filled with jokes and laughter and everyone is simply having a good time together here in the dark. In addition, we didn't come last in the competition, we actually had a pretty good grasp of many of the areas in Australia that we traveled around.
Early morning and walk to our breakfast in the open air. The morning air bites the bare legs, but the smell of the fire and crispy bacon makes the heat rise along the path. The breakfast is like a more luxurious camping breakfast, with bread that you toast yourself over the fire, tea in a tin pot that is boiled over the fire (so-called Billy tea), eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, wood-fired coffee, fruit, juice and yogurt with muesli. The entire breakfast is overseen by a family of kookaburras who curiously record every movement. Anyone who leaves their breakfast plate unattended will quickly lose both bread and fruit. In the sky above us, a bird of prey circles and three wallaroos (smaller kangaroos) hop by just a few meters from us. Think that food always tastes a little better when you're outdoors!
After breakfast, energy levels are at their peak again, so we head out on one of the area's many bush walks. We chose to walk the circle to Atkinson's lookout and back via Rosella plains, a total of about 1,5 hours of hiking. Although it is the dry season, the outback is in full bloom. Bushes and trees are filled with exotic flowers and butterflies. The path goes through granite country, with some sections requiring light climbing and balancing on the rocks to pass. Not a difficult hike at all, but sturdy shoes and a lot of water are required. We see large numbers of birds and several rock wallabies spying on us well camouflaged by the tall grass, but we see no snakes or lizards. Maybe just as well.
Once up on Atkinson's lookout, we are greeted by a lovely view of the flat landscape around us. However, the volcano in the distance reminds us of the dramatic nature that lies beneath our feet.
On our way down towards Rosella Plains, we are suddenly joined. Two wallaroos approach with a little too much determination. Kangaroos and wallabies may look harmless, but their hind legs can kick up some serious damage if they feel threatened. These two wallaroos are also quite large, about as tall as our daughter. Not really any that we feel like mucking around with. So we scare them away with a little noise and walk a little faster towards our cabin. Our wallaroos follow us for a short distance, but then get tired. They were probably just curious, if they had been in the mood to muck, they would have run after us without a problem.
Time to check out and leave Undara, We throw the luggage in the car and roll off towards the coast and civilization again. Determined that this was not the last time we visited Australia's red outback.
Things to think about if you want to go to Undara
- Bring covered walking shoes, sunscreen and a hat against the sun. Bush walking means really strong sun with almost no shade.
- Water bottles are a must. Preferably a can in the car for unforeseen events.
- The mobile phone works a bit like that out here, don't rely on reception
- Drive carefully and watch out for road trains!
- It's high season during the Swedish summer months, so book your accommodation and guided tour as soon as you can! We had to change our travel plans, as Undara was fully booked on the weekend we wanted to go there. Please note that it is NOT possible to visit the lava tunnels without a guide.
Do you want to read more about Undara and Australia?
- Undara Experience – accommodation and guided tours (extended link)
- Queensland Government Department of National Parks (external link)
- Movie about Undara by Australian Geographics (external link)
- Min Australiapage here on Rucksack
Have you been here? What did you think of the destination?
Travel blogger, gastronaut, photographer and family adventurer with over 55 countries in his luggage. Eva loves trips that include beautiful nature, hiking boots and well-cooked food. On the travel blog Rucksack she takes you to all corners of the world with the help of her inspiring pictures and texts.