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Spot that’s surprisingly better than the reef

I went to Cairns for the Great Barrier Reef, the poolside cocktails and a midwinter dose of tropical sunshine. I didn’t expect the biggest highlight would be found in crop fields and dairy farms an hour’s drive from the world-famous Pacific coast.The Atherton Tablelands, west of Cairns, is an agricultural powerhouse known as the food…

I went to Cairns for the Great Barrier Reef, the poolside cocktails and a midwinter dose of tropical sunshine. I didn’t expect the biggest highlight would be found in crop fields and dairy farms an hour’s drive from the world-famous Pacific coast.

The Atherton Tablelands, west of Cairns, is an agricultural powerhouse known as the food bowl of Far North Queensland – though I’d argue it’s more like the whole banquet table.

A vast region of lush rainforest, hills, valleys and dusty savanna plains, it produces tropical favourites like bananas, mangoes and limes, pantry staples like potatoes, peanuts and coffee, and native wonders like Davidson plums and lemon aspen.

And I found the very best way to explore the region was to simply eat my way through it.

Brett’s Outback Tasting Adventures takes tourists to a selection of local producers in the Atherton Tablelands on a gastronomic safari that spans breakfast through to happy hour drinks.

I headed out recently with Brett himself, who arrived bright and early at our Cairns hotel in his mini-van and drove us along the snaking Gillies Highway – which features a remarkable 263 corners in just 19km of road – to begin our guided tour.

Our first stop was the family-run Sunset Ridge Farm, where we enjoyed a hot breakfast on the gazebo overlooking the dramatic scenery of the tablelands.

Breakfast was pork chipolatas and corn fritters served with relish made from the Davidson plum, known to local traditional owners as the ooray plum — a tart, delicious native fruit that’s one of the prides of the region, and grown on the property.

It was here I learnt two early lessons about Brett’s tours: show up hungry, and save room in your luggage for all the edible souvenirs you’ll be collecting from gift shops along the way.

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On our drives between stops, Brett delivered expert commentary on the region – the landscape, history, notable local characters and native animals, the triumphs and struggles of agricultural life. He’s formed great relationships with local producers on the tour over the years, which gives each stop the easygoing feeling of tagging along on a visit to a mate’s place.

Our gastronomic road trip continued at Rainforest Bounty, near the historic town of Malanda, which produces an impressive array of gourmet conserves, chutneys, pickles, syrups, vinegars and even Thai curry bases that make heroes of locally grown native produce — the Davidson plum (called ooray plum here), lemon aspen, Cape York lilly pilly and Boonjie tamarind.

We sampled them all on a tasting plate with wine and cheeses as we learnt more about the wonders of those little-known indigenous ingredients.

But we turned out attention to a more recognisable native after a drive to the Australian Platypus Park at Tarzali Lakes.

While lunch was prepared at the local Smokehouse Cafe, Brett — whose many visits to the park has made him somewhat of a platypus-spotting expert — took us on a walk to the lake so we could catch a glimpse of the platypus, one of the world’s rarest animals to see in the wild.

We weren’t disappointed, watching with childlike wonder as their small bodies bopped up and down among the lilypads on the water’s surface, close to where we stood. It was one of the surprising extra ways the food tour showcased many different parts of the fascinating tablelands.

An exquisite banquet awaited us on our return to the Smokehouse Cafe – satay kangaroo skewers, crocodile sausage rolls, smoked mackerel, mouth-watering local red claw and a refreshing tropical salad.

It was the kind of gourmet feast you’d expect from a fancy hatted restaurant with a three-month waiting list, rather than a lakeside cafe in a country town. We gobbled it up and washed it down with local boutique beers and ciders, and a tasting of tropical fruit wines from nearby Murdering Point Winery.

After lunch, Brett took us to Gallo Dairyland, a working dairy farm where the Gallo family produces a variety of cheeses and chocolates that are famous across Cairns. We sampled some of the best of both — it was very, very hard to find a favourite among them — although their award-winning blue vein Gallozola, made in the style of a gorgonzola, was a particular treat.

A flight home that afternoon meant we had to end our tour with Brett slightly early and skip two stops — The Humpy, a store that sells locally produced groceries, and Jaques Coffee Plantation, for a cuppa to end the day.

But we managed to squeeze in a visit to Mt Uncle Distillery, founded by 2017 Australian Distiller of the Year Mark Watkins, to cap off the tour with a sample of its award-winning tipples.

The distillery’s tasting room line-up offered something for everyone, from to the Sexy Cat marshmallow liqueur to the gold-winning single malt Watkins Whiskey, but the Bushfire Smoked variety of its Botanic Australis Gin, made with smoked native botanicals, was really something special — and the perfect way to end a day spent celebrating one of Australia’s most remarkable food destinations.

WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT THE TOUR

Brett’s Outback Tasting Adventures operates two itineraries, through the Atherton Tablelands as well as Port Douglas

• The Atherton Tablelands tour features seven stops, departing the Northern Beaches at 7am and Cairns at 8am, and returning at 5.30pm

• The tour is running to a slightly limited schedule due to COVID-19

• But it’s introduced a tag-along option for COVID safety, so guests can follow in their own car equipped with a CB radio to follow the guide’s commentary

The writer travelled to Cairns as a guest of Tourism Tropical North Queensland

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