The Cairns region is known for its connection to the Great Barrier Reef and the rainforests of the national parks but few people realise that Cairns is an excellent gateway to the Australian Outback as well.


Just west of Cairns city on the Atherton Tablelands is Mareeba which offers a way into the interior and a number of interesting Outback experiences.

About an hour’s drive from Cairns, Mareeba is known for its Italian immigrant population and the Mareeba Rodeo held annually in July.

From Mareeba, travellers can head north to Cooktown, Weipa and the tip of Cape York or south to Atherton, Malanda and Millaa Millaa.

>> See Atherton Tablelands section for more information

Mareeba is also the home to the Cape York and Gulf of Carpentaria cattle industries and every week sale yards are full of animals brought in by road train from outlying properties.

The annual rodeo is one of the largest in Australia and is visited by thousands of people every year.


Just west of Mareeba is the township of Chillagoe. Home to a remarkable underground cave system, Chillagoe is an old mining town that is heaven for fossickers and geologists.

With its ochre red landscape and scrubby trees, Chillagoe is a fast introduction to the Australian Outback famous around the world.

This region is usually described as north Queensland’s Gulf Savannah and is located between the Great Dividing Range and the Northern Territory border, covering an area of about 186,000sq km.

For years known only for its extreme isolation and the cattle industry, it has become a Mecca for adventure tourists looking for something off the beaten track.

There are huge empty spaces, seasonal wetlands home to a remarkable collection of birds, beaches, islands and crocodile-infested rivers with great fishing.

The region is accessible from Cairns on the Peninsula Developmental Road which is completely sealed but other roads in the area can be less reliable. It’s worth checking ahead for the road conditions if you are driving, especially during the summer months and the “wet season”.

undara lava tubes

The Undara Lava Tubes, formed by volcanic eruption about 190,000 years ago, are located in the Undara Volcanic National Park and are just one of the things the region offers for visitors to enjoy.

The Undara Experience is a resort at the tubes that offers visitors accommodation and tours of the region.

Some other attractions in the area that shouldn’t be missed include the Cobbold Gorge, Tallaroo’s hot mineral springs and Lawn Hill Gorge, an oasis of rainforest among the dry plains.

The Lawn Hill National Park also includes the Riversleigh Fossil Fields that are world heritage-listed but a small area is open to visitors.

<b>Remarkable:</b> The spectacular Cobbold Gorge is home to a vibrant wildlife population and visitors to the region have the opportunity to stay with the Terry Family on their unique private property, Robin Hood Station. Image by Tourism Queensland

gulf savannah & northern outback

A fun way to experience the region is by train – the Gulflander is run by Queensland Rail and brochures can be picked up from the train station in Cairns Central, while tickets for The Savannahlander, run by local company Cairns Kuranda Steam, can be obtained by visiting the Savannahlander's website.

The Gulf Savannah and the Northern Outback begin just west of Ravenshoe in the Atherton Tableland, and extend across Queensland to the Northern Territory, and north to the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Cape York Peninsula.

After climbing the Great Dividing Range the landscape changes dramatically from rainforest to the distinctive Australian scrub (bush); eventually morphing into the arid grasslands of the Gulf Savannah.

This is a remote and isolated area with few towns or settlements. Remnants of the mining booms of the 19th century, these settlements are becoming ghost towns but offer visitors a unique look at the past.

Although the sheer expanse of landscape can be daunting to visitors the splendour of the mountains, plains and wide open sky are a photographer’s dream.

To truly experience the harsh, yet beautiful, environment visitors can choose to stay on a working sheep or cattle station. Stays can be as short as overnight and as long as a couple of weeks.

Visitors will experience the daily life of the station and enjoy a number of authentic experiences like rounding up cattle, shearing (depending on the season) and other chores.

The land can be harsh and if visitors are looking to organise a self-drive tour detailed planning should be undertaken.

The wet season from December to April can see many roads under water and settlements cut off for weeks at a time. The dry season from May to November is the best time to travel with more reasonable temperatures.