Tropical North Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef Drive is the road trip equivalent of a Bunnings sausage sizzle on a Sunday morning. It just doesn’t get much better.
The iconic journey north from Cairns along the Captain Cook Highway follows an impressive coastline, winds through the ancient Daintree Rainforest, and passes crystal-clear freshwater swimming holes that are waiting just for you.
We were given a chance to take the Jeep Compass S-Limited for a spin, Explorer style. Turns out it’s the perfect ride for this trip, with plenty of space for all your gear and mates, sat-nav, and an insane speaker system for road trip tunes.
Best of all, it’s off-road-ready, so pack your snacks and buckle up for an epic weekend away.
Day 1 – Cairns to Cape Tribulation via Port Douglas and Daintree Village
Distance: 140km Time: 3 hours’ drive time
Cruising the Coastline and Connecting With Country
Hit the Captain Cook Highway early, leaving Cairns behind for the palm tree lined boulevards of Port Douglas. Walk up to the lookout for sweeping views over 4 Mile Beach before enjoying a coffee and breakfast along the foreshore. Shift gears from the blues of the ocean to the green hues of sugar cane fields as you continue north.
Make your way to the must-visit Mossman Gorge to join their Dreamtime Gorge Walk.* After a welcoming smoking ceremony, learn stories of the Kuku Yalanji culture and traditions with an Indigenous guide while wandering through the stunning Daintree Rainforest. Cool off in the gorge’s swimming hole, but be careful of strong currents.
Stock up on fuel and road trip snacks in the town of Mossman, before cruising toward Daintree Village for a classic Aussie pub lunch feed and a cold beer. If you’re feeling daring, jump on a Daintree River cruise and snake your way down the mangrove estuary in search of some saltwater crocs.
*Currently not running due to COVID-19
Exploring One of the Oldest Rainforests on Earth
Drive onto the ferry to float over the river and go deeper into the rainforest, where you start to get some serious Jurassic Park vibes. Stretch your legs and get a snap at the Mount Alexandra Lookout for a view of the river meeting the ocean, or pop down to Cow Bay Beach to hang out on the rope swings in the palm trees.
This is where the hectare of Daintree Rainforest that We Are Explorers protected through crowdfunding can be found!
The humidity packs a punch up here, so head for an afternoon dip with the resident turtles at the Emmagen Creek Swimming Hole, about 15 minutes past Cape Tribulation Village. Walk upstream along the creek for about 400 metres through the lowland rainforest until you reach the deeper pools, as crocodiles are known to hang out in the lower pools.
While you can reach Emmagen Creek in a 2WD, an off-road capable 4WD SUV like the Jeep Compass is perfect for tackling the short, dirt road drive, especially in wet season! To travel any further up the Bloomfield track, you’ll need that 4WD capability and a fair bit of off-road experience up your sleeve.
Back in Cape Tribulation village check into your accommodation for the night or set up camp and take a few beers down to Myall Beach (where beach campfires are allowed!) to enjoy the sunset.
Day 2 – Cape Tribulation to Cairns
Distance: 140km Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes’ drive time
Delving Deeper Into the Daintree
Day two is for exploring more of the magic of Cape Tribulation. Enjoy sunrise over Cape Tribulation Beach before taking a short hike up to the lookout to see where the Great Barrier Reef meets the rainforest. David Attenborough was right when he said this is his favourite place in the world. You can’t argue with the man!
Follow it up with a walk through the Dubuji and Marrdja boardwalks which loop through rainforest mangrove swamps and spring-fed creeks. Make sure you keep an eye out for the ever-elusive cassowary. But keep your distance as they know mixed martial arts.
An Adventurer’s Reward
Grab some lunch at Mason’s in Cape Tribulation village. Try emu, kangaroo, or another local meat in a famous Mason’s burger at the café. While they do have crocs in their burgers, the secret swimming hole out the back is croc free. It’ll cost you a gold coin donation for a swim in the cool, clear creek waters, but it’s worth it. If you’ve got a snorkel handy, you’ll be able to spot plenty of fish in the creek too!
As the afternoon burns on, head back down the coast to Thornton Beach. A measured drop of the tyre pressure and the Jeep Compass S-Limited handles like a dream down on the sand. Time to drive on the beach!
Time your stop for low tide to explore the rock pools of Struck Reef at the northern end of the beach.
The trip isn’t over until you’ve popped into the Daintree Ice Cream Company for a wattle seed, davidson plum or chocolate fruit ice cream. Journey back over the river and make your way back to the Captain Cook Highway to get back to Cairns.
For adventurers, the beachfront powered and unpowered sites at Cape Trib Camping are ideal. They have all the amenities you need and a bar on site slinging beers, and takeaway pizzas, to enjoy around your own campfire on the beach.
For some extra comfort, Ferntree Rainforest Lodge is perfectly situated with a range of air-conditioned rooms to suit every budget. Surrounded by lush rainforest, the eco-friendly lodge has two swimming pools, an onsite restaurant, and a bar.
- Insect repellent
- A hat
- Comfortable walking shoes
- Snacks and supplies, as there’s no supermarket as such past Mossman
- 4WD or an SUV like the Jeep Compass S-Limited for comfort and dirt or sand driving, highly recommended but not essential
The walks and short hikes on this trip are easy, though they can be hot in the middle of the day. The ocean and some rivers and creeks up here are full of crocodiles and stingers so please don’t swim anywhere unless it’s signposted as safe!
The Queensland tropics can be subject to flash flooding in the wet season. The best time for a Great Barrier Reef Drive trip is from March to October during the dry season.
Photos by Fin Matson and Jaime Wilson