When we first visited Cairns last year we heard a lot about the Atherton Tablelands: how lush and fertile it was on the other side of the range, how it was the food bowl of north Queensland, how they could grow almost anything over there (with the exception of wine grapes). Yet when Grant and I ventured over from Kuranda we didn’t see any of that. What we saw were mango and avocado farms changing into savannah beef country the further north we went. Miles of scrub with massive anthills. Interesting country, yes, but definitely not the green food bowl I’d been expecting.
I didn’t, therefore, know what to expect from this food tour – as it turned out (spoiler alert) the country we travelled through was very much as I’d hoped it would be.
After an early pickup we headed south out of Cairns before crossing the range on the Gillies Highway, known as the Gillies Range Road. With 263 bends (you can count them down on the post markers) and an 800m elevation in 19kms, it’s not a road for the faint-hearted.
Apparently it used to be just one way, with gates at the top and the bottom regulating the flow of traffic. Back then it would take over 2 hours to drive. Ugh. Anyways, it’s a nasty piece of road with a fabulous view (check the main pic and below).
Sunset Ridge Farm
Our first stop for the day was Sunset Ridge Farm where they specialise in growing native tropical fruits such as lemon aspen, finger limes and Davidson plum. It also has a beautiful outlook.
Here we sampled Greek yoghurt with Davidson plum, Davidson plum jam, finger limes and chia. This was followed by Davidson plum chipolata with zucchini and halloumi fritters – a delicious way to start our tour.
I bought some Davidson plum products home with me – the plum, ginger and chilli paste is so good with cheese.
Here our tea tastings (and very good tastings they were too) were paired with samples of the cheeses from Gallo Dairies (which we were visiting later in the the day – to taste chocolate).
I found their story fascinating – not only is Nerada Australian owned, but it’s among the world’s freshest tea. Plus, it’s grown under sustainable conditions without pesticides. If you want to learn more, you can do so here.
In the trees outside the cafe we saw tree kangaroos – something I’d never seen in the wild before – largely because they live up here in Far North Queensland and in the jungles of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. A close relative of the mythical dropbear… okay, I made that up, but tree kangaroos are not made up. A cross between a wallaby and a lemur, they’re quite endangered – mostly due to habitat loss. My photo isn’t a good one, but it is proof of sighting lol.
The Australian Platypus Park At Tarzali Lakes
While we only saw a platypus in the distance, the highlight here was lunch – and what a lunch it was. My goodness it was good.
On the platter was a skewer of kangaroo served on satay sauce, red-claw yabby, crocodile and chorizo sausage rolls, salad and some house-smoked chicken and fish. I was hard-pressed to choose a favourite taste, but think the crocodile sausage rolls might just have inched out the yabby.
Lunch was served with dragonfruit cider (or a local beer) and lemon myrtle tea. After lunch we tried some Murdering Point fruit wines – wine grapes being one of the few crops that can’t be grown here. The wines smelt amazing and were pleasant but I wasn’t over the moon about them – I suspect because they did taste so well of the fruit they’d been made of. Others on the tour loved them though.
A short drive brought us to Gallo Dairies where, due to Covid-safe practices we couldn’t taste the cheeses we’d tried earlier (although we could purchase them) but we did try chocolate – and it was very good indeed.
This was probably the only so-so stop of the day. While it was an opportunity to try tropical fruits and macadamias, it was more a chance to shop for locally produced food. I bought some macadamias – even though they’re also grown prolifically down here.
The landscape though is still changing and the dairy farms and tea plantations are being replaced by coffee, mango, peanut and avocado farms – avocado trees as far as the eye can see. It’s no wonder they’re as cheap as they are in the markets.
Brett, our guide told us that they’re capable of producing all of Australia’s coffee needs from this region, but we do, of course, import much of our coffee. Given that this is a politics-free space I stay quiet on the subject.
Mount Uncle Distillery
Now we’re talking. Included in our visit was two tastes of any of their products. Being a whisky lover I, of course, chose that and the Navy-strength gin. Both were good – really good – but (I thought) expensive. That’s not to say that I wasn’t tempted – especially by the whisky.
Skybury Coffee Plantation
Our final stop of the day is Skybury Coffee Plantation – where, in a good use of the land, they grow red papaya in between the coffee.
We finish up here with coffee (or, in my case, Daintree tea) and scones – which is always a good idea – before heading back across the range at Kuranda for Cairns.
Brett is passionate about the area and has learnt a lot about the agriculture of the region – something I was very interested in. As a solo traveller I was made to feel welcome (and got the prime seat in the front of the bus).
This small(iso) group tour is a great way of seeing the Atherton Tablelands which, down at the southern end, are as beautiful and lush as I’d been led to believe. They get a lot of rain down here – almost five metres a year in some parts of the region – and the result is a fertile food bowl that’s well worth exploring.
If you’re up that way, check it out. You’ll find more information here.