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Down under and way up north; tropical adventures in northern Queensland.

Forget the stereotype of a dry and sunbaked outback when you enter northern Queen sland. This part of Australia, at the northeast tip of the island continent, is a land of weather extremes, and unfamiliar animals and glorious birds abound in its scrub landscapes and tropical rain forests.

More travelers are learning about this area first-hand as more of them enter Australia through the airport at Cairns, 2 1/2 air hours north of Sydney and gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. But you may not realize that you can round out a Barrier Reef vacation with a journey up Cape York Peninsula touching the northernmost tip of Australia's northernmost state in a four-wheel-drive safari as memorable, in its way, as the beauty that flickers before a snorkeler's mask.

There are many options, but all require advance planning; you can work with a local travel agent who specializes in adventure travel. Here we discuss a range of guided excursions from Cairns, some one day and some two weeks long. Costs (including transportation, food, and lodging) run $80 to $200 per day. It's best to tour this area during the Australian winter (May through September), when rain is tapering off, roads are drying, and temperatures are in the 80s. During the rest of the year, monsoon rains flood much of the peninsula, turning primitive tracks into muddy lakes- and jellyfish endanger swimmers in northern Queensland's waters. Year-round, however, swimmers must beware of estuarine crocodiles that live in still, deep water.

You don't have much time? Cape Tribulation is a day outing from Cairns

This cape is where Lieutenant (later, Captain) James Cook ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef in 1770, while charting eastern Australia. Today, aboard small four-wheel-drive buses, touristexplorers follow a marginal road on their way to Cook's infamous but still beautiful beach.

North from Cairns, you pass cane fields with a mountain backdrop, then cross the Daintree River by vehicular ferry Next you reach wide and sandy Tribulation Beach, a fine place for strolling and swimming. If you drive on north to Cooktown, you'll pass through a densely beautiful stretch of rain forest in one of the most mountainous parts of Australia.

Day excursions cost about $65.

History buffs: don't miss Cooktown

This is where Lieutenant Cook and his men spent 48 days repairing his ship, Endeavour. The town reached its zenith and peak population during the Palmer gold rush of 1873. Now it has the air of a quiet Western town, with tin roofs, shaded wooden sidewalks, and 3 bars instead of the former 65.

The James Cook Historical Museum contains a fine collection of Cook memorabilia, and pioneer and aboriginal artifacts. Visit Grassy Hill Lookout for glorious views of the town, the purple sea and its treacherous shoals, and the Endeavour River twisting its way through mangrove swamps, The Pioneer Cemetery includes a Chinese shrine and historical grave sites. A Cooktown outing can take one to three days from Cairns. A one-day outing by sea costs $80 round trip. A two- or threeday overland expedition costs $200 to $265 and includes a stop at Cape Tribulation. Or go overland and return by sea, taking two days, for $280.

To Quinkan Reserve for aboriginal art Caves containing aboriginal paintings done in ocher on sandstone walls were discovered near the town of Laura in 1959. Their site may have been used during the last 10,000 years. Created in 1977 and named for the spirit-beings (quinkan) of the aboriginal "Dreamtime" represented in the paintings, 400-square-mile Quinkan Reserve now protects the not fully explored rock galleries and their art. Two- to four-day trips from Cairns to the rock galleries cost about $500. Four- and five-day outings that include Quinkan Reserve, Cooktown, and Cape Tribulation cost up to $700.

All the way to the tip

The journey to the northernmost tip of Australia is slow and rough. The rewards are the animals and birds, bush walks and swimming holes, delicious campfire meals with new-found Australian friends, and an escape from "civilized" life.

You travel with a driver and cook, taking self-contained vehicles over ungraded trails. You ford bridgeless rivers (or wade across shallow ones), bathe in streams, carry supplies for cooking over an open fire, and help with campsite chores. Most vehicles carry short-wave radio for emergencies, but you won't get any tunes or news over the airways. You stay in modest bush lodges, or in tent camps under a starstudded sky. The camps are always near water, and you can swim in pristine waterfall pools.

Once you pass the Great Dividing Range, the landscape is mainly gray box eucalyptus and melaleuca trees, with 8-foot-tll anthills and termite mounds, and little grass. You'll see cycads, blackboys, and other primitive plants. At the tip and along the eastern coast, rain-forest vegetation predominates.

We glimpsed dingos and brumbies (wild horses), and saw wallabies, kangaroos, goannas, and frilled lizerds. Birds included royal spoonbills, jaibirus, emus, brolgas honeyeaters, and glorious cockatoos, galahs, and lorikeets.

Highlights along the way might include a bouncy boat ride across the Arafura Sea to windy Thursday Island (named by Captain Bligh as he rowed to Timor after the mutiny on the Bounty), a visit to the ghost town of Somerset (founder John Jardine expected his settlement to compete with Singapore), a walk to the tip of Cape York, and a stop at Weipa to see how Bauxite is mined. The aboriginal cave paintings, Cooktown, and Cape Tribulation are usually on the itinerary.

A 14 to 16 day round trip overland by four-wheel drive takes in the major attractions and costs $1,500.

If you don't have a couple of weeks for touring Cape York, consider these less time-consuming options:

Eight or nine day overland trips ($800) zip you up and back, but omit many stops.

To enjoy fishing and sightseeing cruises, birds, and rain forests, fly from Cairns to the tip of the peninsula and spend several days at Cape York Wilderness Lodge.

Where to learn more

Ask for the Adventure Holidays brochure from the Queensland Tourist and Travel Corporation, 611 N. Larchmont Blvd., Los Angeles 90004; (800) 333-6050. Travel agents for adventure vacations can help plan and book your trip.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sunset
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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