In the Atherton Tableland

Termite mounds, rock wallabies, and canoeing in the dark

In between our time on the Great Barrier Reef and in the rainforest, we took a detour to an inland plateau in northern Queensland called the Atherton Tableland. From the name I was expecting flat-topped red rock mesas like in the American Southwest. But the area is a mix of gently rolling grasslands, large farms, lakes, and remnants of the forests that brought loggers to the Tableland in the late 1800s.

Our stops included a beautiful woodworking gallery in the village of Tolga (run, appropriately, by a man named Allwood); Lake Barrine, a small volcanic crater lake with a teahouse and gardens; and one of the oldest Chinese temples in Australia, built in 1903 in the town of Atherton to serve a community of Chinese farmers and tin miners.

Boulder-size termite mound

The Atherton Tableland is noticeably drier—though no less relentlessly sunny—than the rainforest or the coast. Among the grazing land and farms growing strawberries, bananas, nuts, and other crops, we saw big termite mounds that looked like ochre-colored boulders.

While driving, we passed a small wildfire in progress. Orange flames leapt up three or four feet high in the grass verge between the road and farm fields. The flames were approaching several homes, where fire crews were waiting, presumably only willing to use precious water when property was threatened. The fire would have made for dramatic pictures, but it seemed too ghoulish to stop and take any, with people’s houses in danger. (When we drove past the same place the next day, the flames were out, and we didn’t see any property damage.)

Chris and Melissa at hostel

Our lodging in the Tableland was a great little hostel in the town of Yungaburra called On the Wallaby. The name is short for “on the wallaby track,” a traditional phrase that means traveling. We look the name literally and went looking for wallabies, which resemble small kangaroos. At Granite Gorge outside Mareeba, a parched riverbed of tumbled boulders, we got a close-up view of a small colony of rock wallabies. As we sat quietly on the rocks, they slowly emerged. Once they realized we didn’t have any food for them, they ignored us as they hopped around and groomed each other.  

Two rock wallabies grooming

We had less luck at a platypus viewing spot by a creek in Yungaburra. Although we waited for an hour in hopes of seeing one of Australia’s most unusual animals, all we spotted were two small tree lizards (grandly named Boyd’s forest dragons), some songbirds, and a pair of ducks.

Our hostel offered an outing that was too intriguing to pass up: a night-time canoe trip. Along with a young woman from Basel, Switzerland, and a couple my age from Boise, Idaho, we went to nearby Lake Tinaroo, a flooded river valley dammed for hydropower. The stars were out in full force; the Milky Way was visible, but we didn’t know any of the Southern Hemisphere constellations. (It’s a strange feeling to look at the night sky and not see anything familiar.)

At first, paddling in almost complete darkness seemed impossible. But since we began by crossing open water with nothing to bump into—and we could tell where the other two canoes were by the sound of voices—we quickly got used to it. The calm and quiet were complete, out on the still water under a wide black sky flecked with stars. It was peaceful and utterly beautiful.

When we neared the far shore, we listened for wildlife sounds as our guide, Paul, scanned the trees with flashlights looking for eyes. We spotted several kinds of possums foraging in the trees, a small sugar glider (similar to a flying squirrel), and a rare Lumholtz’s tree kangaroo. (Kangaroo-like creatures fill every ecological niche in Australia, from grassland to boulders to tree tops.)

Sign with silhouette of tree kangaroo

Paul said that few Australians have laid eyes on a tree kangaroo, so we were lucky as visitors to see one. We didn’t have our camera in the canoe, so we had to settle for a picture of a “watch out for tree kangaroos” road sign we saw later on.

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