12 things to do on the Atherton Tablelands

Additional content by Christina Pfeiffer

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Head inland from Cairns and discover the many attractions of the Atherton Tablelands, where the climate is cooler and there are interesting and quirky villages and towns to explore. Here are the best things to do on the Atherton Tablelands.

While there are a number of things to do in Cairns, the Atherton Tablelands region is worth spending a few days exploring on a Queensland road trip.  

atherton tableland
Atherton Tablelands views are breathtaking.

Atherton Tablelands attractions

1- Hasties Swamp

things to do on the atherton tablelands
Hasties Swamp is an Atherton Tablelands attraction for bird watchers.

Hasties Swamp National Park is on the outskirts of Atherton.

It’s a delight for bird watchers and provides a glimpse of the rich variety of wildlife to be seen in Tropical North Queensland.

Magpie geese, herons, ducks, pelicans and more flock to this oasis just outside the township.

There’s a two-level hide on the edge of the water, with plenty of information about what you’re seeing.

Take your binoculars and camera and settle in to observe nature on the wing.

Related post: 40 things to do in Queensland

2- Fig Trees

cairns tablelands
Seeing the giant fig trees is awe-inspiring on the Atherton Tablelands.

The magnificent Curtain and Cathedral fig trees are highlights of a trip to the Tablelands.

The Curtain Fig is just outside Yungaburra and is well sign-posted.

The Cathedral Fig is in the Danbulla State Forest and is believed to be around 500 years old.

Both trees are surrounded by boardwalks to give the best views and have been overtaken by strangler vines that create the curtain effect.

3- Hou Wang Temple

hou wang temple
Hou Wang Temple in the Atherton Tableland is national trust listed.

The National Trust-listed Hou Wang Temple was built in 1903 and is a reminder that Atherton once had a large Chinese population during the gold rush days.

It is now one of only two of Australia’s remaining temples constructed of timber and tin.

During years of disuse, three or four “gods” – including Hou Wang himself – were stolen or destroyed over the years by vandals and souvenir hunters.

Today, with a volunteer guide, you can now visit the temple and adjacent museum, former community hall and caretaker’s room, where dioramas recreate life as it once was.

If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else – Confucius

Whether the Chinese settlers who flocked to north Queensland in the 1880s knew where they were going is a matter of conjecture now but visitors to the region today certainly do – and a new addition to many itineraries is a vivid reminder of those days.

Atherton has a rich and colourful past. Just outside the town, the Hou Wang Temple is a captivating reminder of the 1880s to mid-1900s when Atherton was home to a thriving Chinese community.

The Chinese who settled here came directly from China, or via the Pine Creek goldfields of the Northern Territory, initially to mine at the Palmer River Goldfield and later to farm in the area.

Although the Chinese population of the area has now dwindled, the remnants of Atherton’s Chinatown are now considered of archaeological significance.

As one of only six temples around the world dedicated to Hou Wang, and the only surviving timber and iron Chinese temple in Australia, the Hou Wang Temple has great historical significance.

Built in 1903, it is the second oldest temple in Queensland and was used as a place of worship until the early 1970s.

The oldest temple, in the Gulf Savannah town of Croydon, was built earlier the same year.

Now owned by the Queensland National Trust, the Hou Wang Temple has been conserved and restored, with most of its fittings, including the carvings and items used for worship still intact.

Guided tours take visitors through the temple, which is now part of a complex including a Chinatown museum.

Atherton Tablelands Chinese history

atherton australia
The Atherton Tablelands is a region with rich history.

Rice wine bottles, opium tins and pipes, teapots and cups, rice bowls, dominos (wei chi), counters and gambling tokens speak volumes about the lifestyle of the people who lived in what was once known as Cedar Camp.

The Atherton settlers, most from the Sze Yap or Zhongshan districts of China’s Guandong province, joined the rush after gold was discovered at Palmer River, near Cooktown, in 1872.

But the 1878 Queensland Goldfields Act amendment banned Chinese miners from working new mines in Queensland for the first three years after arriving, so they turned to timber and market gardening, particularly maize, for their living.

The museum features a collection of original artefacts – including musical instruments – donated by James Cook University. Interactive displays, dioramas and exhibits recall the journeys, hardships and triumphs of the Chinese pioneers in north Queensland.

The temple is all that is left of a once thriving community.

By the late 1920s, Atherton’s Chinatown was almost deserted but the temple was used until 1975 and in 1979 the National Trust took over the 30 acres (12ha) and began rescuing small pieces of the temple.

The pagoda blew away in a 1956 cyclone and was rebuilt in 1986.

Vandals and souvenir-hunters also took their toll, with three or four gods – including Hou Wang himself – stolen or destroyed over the years.

In life, Hou Wang was Yang Liang Chieh, Commander of the Bodyguard of Ti Ping, last Emperor of the Sung Dynasty.

Hou Wang is not a name but a title translated as `Prince Marquis’, one which also belongs to the Commander of the palace guard of the Jade Emperor, ruler of heaven.

Many of the gods worshipped at Chinese temples were once real people who were deeply revered after their deaths and eventually worshipped as deities.

The wide path from the museum to the temple – once Chinatown’s busy main street – is lined with small contemporary stainless steel sculptures created by local sculptor Hans Pehl.

Carvings, incense burners and statues of the gods decorate the small interior of the temple, which is dominated by an ornate altar panel, hand-carved in China a century ago.

At the back of the temple are two more tin structures – the community hall with the caretaker’s room at the back, and the community kitchen, where dioramas recreate life as it was.

4- Spy & Camera Museum

Spy museum room in Atherton Tablelands
The Spy Museum in the Atherton Tablelands is a quirky place to visit.

The quirky Spy & Camera Museum at Herberton is owned and operated by photographer Michael Petersen, who offers guided tours of his treasure trove of strange and interesting cameras and spy equipment.

Each one has a story. The collection was started by ex-special forces operative Roy Jaques and includes such interesting items as the “mousetrap camera” and the world’s smallest camera, The Petal. Be amazed.

5- Historic Village Herberton

atherton tablelands historic village
Another Atherton Tablelands attraction is the historic village of Herberton.

The Historic Village Herberton is a tin-mining town where restored buildings dating back to the 1870s are filled with memorabilia.

There’s a pub, bank, chemist shop, grocer, printer, school, dress shop, jail and more.

Around 50 buildings make up this slice of pioneer life, and on weekends and school holidays working exhibits are on show.

Once a year (May 2-3, 2015), there’s a re-enactment weekend with demonstrations of blacksmithing, tin panning and more, with horse and carriage rides and entertainment.

6- The Lakes

atherton qld
Lake Eacham on the Atherton Tablelands is a tranquil spot.

Two volcanic crater lakes, about 65 metres deep and thought to be around 10,000 years old, are popular places to cool off.

Take a dip in Lake Eacham or walk the 3.5 km track around the lake, which takes you through the rainforest and grassy areas.

It offers all year swimming and has picnic grounds on the shore with barbecues and tables. Nearby Lake Barrine offers boat cruises from outside the historic tea-house, and a 6km circuit walking track.

Lake Tinaroo is a recreational dam, created in the 1950s, and a great spot for camping.

7- The Avenue of Honour

atherton tablelands
Check out the Avenue of Honour on the Atherton Tablelands.

The Afghanistan Avenue of Honour is a memorial to Australia’s fallen soldiers in Afghanistan.

The catalyst for this moving memorial was the death of one of the Tablelands’ sons, Private Benjamin Chuck, who was killed on active service with other commandos in Afghanistan in 2010.

Dedicated in 2013, the Avenue of Honour is located on the shores of Lake Tinaroo, 3km from Yungaburra.

8- Lake Eacham Hotel

things to do on the atherton tablelands
Take a step back into history at the historic pubs of the Atherton Tablelands.

The most famous of several great pubs on the Atherton Tablelands, the historic Lake Eacham Hotel has been serving thirsty travellers since 1910.

Also known as the Yungaburra Hotel, this lovely Federation-style hotel is known for its cedar and oak interiors and has an Art Deco extension.

There’s a popular beer garden and guest rooms upstairs.

9- Take Tea on the Atherton Tablelands

atherton tablelands tea plantation
The Atherton Tablelands is famous for tea.

Throughout the Atherton Tablelands, tea plantations dot the landscape.

At the Nerada tea plantation, the sight of several rare Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos high in the branches of trees is as welcome as the tea and scones served in the café.

The elusive creatures are regular visitors to the plantation.

Just 10km outside Malanda, the tea plantation runs tours of the factory, and the chance to relax in its garden or cafe over a cuppa.

10- The Waterfalls

atherton queensland
The Atherton Tablelands is home to amazing waterfalls.

The Waterfall Circuit starts near Millaa Millaa on the Palmerston Highway.

Follow Theresa Creek Road to Millaa Millaa Falls – good for platypus spotting – then continue to Zillie, Ellinjaa Falls and Mungalli Falls.

On the way to Ravenshoe, visit Souita and Pepina Falls, making sure to stop at Australia’s widest waterfall, the Millstream Falls, just 5km outside the town.

Continue to Little Millstream Falls.

Dinner Falls is in Mount Hypipamee National Park, and Malanda Falls is another place where you might be lucky enough to spot a Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroo. Malanda Falls also has an inviting pool to swim in.

11- Visit wineries and distilleries

atherton tableland
Mount Uncle distillery on the Atherton Tableland

Boutique wineries and distilleries dot the hills of the Atherton Tablelands. Taste fruit liqueurs at Mt. Uncle Distillery, where ingredients are sourced straight from the farm. 

Golden Drop creates mango wine from their 17,500-tree Kensington Red Mango plantation and Murdering Point winery uses lychee, mango and pineapples to make wines, ports and liqueurs.

Other wineries to put on your list are Rainforest Heart and de Brueys.

12- Ride the steam train

atherton tableland
The Atherton to Herberton historic railway is one of the historic attractions on the Atherton Tableland.

Operated by volunteers, the Atherton-Herberton Historic Railway operates as a not-for-profit organisation. 

This team of railway enthusiasts are preserving the railway history of the region for future generations to remember.

The railway travels beside the Wild River and over Prospectors Gully, where tin ore was first discovered, to Herberton Village.  

Train rides are every Sunday from 10 am to 2 pm. Tickets are $5 (adults) and $3 (child). 

13- Hike Mount Bartle Frere

Serious hikers might want to try hiking up Mount Bartle Frere from the Atherton Tablelands to Josephine Falls. 

Mount Bartle Frere is the fourth highest mountain in Australia and a challenging hike that only experienced hikers should attempt. 

For more places to go in Tropical North Queensland read these posts:

12 things to do on the Atherton Tablelands
12 things to do on the Atherton Tablelands

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