After our liveaboard on the Outer Great Barrier Reef, we needed one day before flying back to Brisbane. We rented a car and made our own Daintree day trip self-drive and went all the way up to Cape Tribulation. The 140-kilometre drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation is one of the most scenic drives you’ll find in the world. I wish we had a couple of days so we could have spent the night in this magical place, but a Daintree day trip to Cape Tribulation was still worth it.
The Daintree Forest is the only place in the world where two UNESCO sites meet: a lush tropical rainforest just next to the world’s longest barrier reef. It’s also one of the rare places to tick all four natural criteria on the Criteria for Selection to be a World Heritage Site (only 12 sites in the world do!).
And the more you look at numbers, the better you understand why this rainforest is so special. First, it is over one hundred and thirty-five million years old. And although it covers only 0.2% of Australia (which represents already around 1200 square kilometres), it is home for 30% of the frog, marsupial and reptile species in Australia, 65% of Australia’s bat and butterfly species and 18% of bird species.
Our one-day self-driving itinerary in the Daintree Forest
We came back from our liveaboard at the end of the afternoon and went straight to Cairns airport to hire a car. The airport office was the only one to be open late on a Sunday. We drove for one hour to spend the night in Port Douglas so we’d be a bit closer to the Daintree Forest for our day trip the next day. If you can stay in Port Douglas rather than Cairns before your self-drive trip around the Daintree region, I highly recommend it.
We found a good deal at the Mantra Aqueous on Port*, and we liked having our private spa on the balcony. If we could have arrived earlier at our accommodation, I would have booked one of the amazing options in the region such as the ECO Certified Thala Beach Nature Reserve*, Daintree Eco Lodge & Spa*, Daintree Wilderness Lodge* and Silky Oaks Lodge*.
If you don’t have time to organise a day trip to Cape Tribulation or don’t want to get tired with the long drive, there are tours going up there from Cairns or Port Douglas:
Our first stop was at Mossman Gorge.
I was a bit afraid of how touristy Mossman Gorge may be. Still, it seemed hard to miss considering all the good reviews we read and heard. We visited early in the morning before all the tours from Cairns arrive, and it was quieter than expected. We had an excellent time there. If we could have stayed longer, we’d have done a guided walk Dreamtime walk. It’s a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the local Indigenous culture.
After visiting Mossman Gorge, we drove north with two objectives in mind:
- spotting a cassowary
- reaching Cape Tribulation
Unfortunately, we never found a cassowary despite all the warning signs on the side of the road. But being in their environment was undoubtedly thrilling. Our friends were at Mission Beach the same weekend and saw a full family with babies.
The ferry to Cape Tribulation
Cape Tribulation isn’t on an island, but it’s quite remote. You can access it with a 2WD, but you’ll need to catch a ferry to cross the Daintree River.
There’s no need to book and the ferry operates all day, from 5 am to midnight. You may queue a bit during the peak season but the ferry can take about 30 cars though, so it shouldn’t be too long. If you want to avoid the peak hour, don’t cross at the end of the morning to go to Cape Tribulation, and before sunset to go back.
It cost just under $30 return for a normal vehicle for the ten-minute trip to cross the river. They accept card payments from 8 am to 4:30 pm, so bring cash if you’ll be crossing outside these times.
Why Cape Tribulation was a fantastic surprise – even just for a day trip!
There’s a lot to do up there, and you will only have time to scratch the surface on a day trip to the Daintree region. We tried to fit as much as we could.
1. The postcard-perfect beach
We spent time most of our time walking along the postcard-perfect beach. I’ve seen many beaches in Australia. I’m always happy to explore a new one, but it often looks like one I have already seen. Cape Tribulation felt different. I loved the wilderness.
Knowing that we were far away near the top of Queensland made it special. And the rainforest up to the sand looks amazing. As if it wasn’t already perfect, we also spotted dolphins passing by very close to shore. Don’t think about joining them though, it’s a bit too risky with the jellyfish and saltwater crocodiles in the region.
2. Cold drinks with the best views ever
Although you feel far away from everything, there are hotels and small bars a few steps away. Tourism development in Cape Tribulation was clever.
We enjoyed the opportunity for refreshments on this hot day after a long drive and short walks. At the end of Cape Tribulation Beach, the Cape Trib Beach House* has a stunning location next to the beach. You can relax while enjoying the beautiful views with a cold drink before heading back. It’s also where you’ll find the iconic and photogenic heart of the Daintree region.
3. Short walks
Hoping to see cassowaries and ready to stretch our legs after the drive, we explored the two most popular boardwalks in Cape Tribulation: Marrdja Boardwalk (half an hour) and Dubuji Boardwalk (one hour). Even on a hot day, I found it easy to explore the forest on these boardwalks. From Dubuji Boardwalk, you can reach the magnificent Myall Beach.
The short Kulki Boardwalk will take you to a lookout over Cape Tribulation Beach.
If you’ve got time for serious hiking, you may want to check out the views from the top of Mount Sorrow. The hike takes between four to five hours, so it’s hard to fit into a day trip really.
But if it’s too hot, you can drive to a lookout that also offers nice views: Alexandra Lookout.
They’ve got an amazing freshwater swimming hole if you feel like having a dip.
Responsible travel tip: In Australia, eating kangaroo meat is more sustainable than beef. On a road trip, the money you spend on food will support the local economy. When possible, avoid shopping at the supermarket and have lunch in a local cafe instead.