Tropical North Queensland

Tropical North Queensland isn’t at all infested with giant snakes, giant crocodiles, giant mosquitoes and mad politicians in giant hats. Oh, okay… you may see some large crocs from a distance but chances are you won’t bump into Bob Katter – his electorate is twice the size of the UK, so chances are he’ll be busy elsewhere. But, while TNQ has been doing it tough in recent times on the tourism front, it is a great holiday destination and caters well for visitors with disabilities.

Cairns is the main centre for the Tropical North and it is a modern, cosmopolitan, colourful city. It’s an ideal base to explore the reef, rainforest and Atherton Tablelands but, personally, after a couple of days, I’m heading north.

The Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is, of course, one of the world’s great natural wonders and can be explored above and below. Cairns Dive Adventures is a friendly, professional outfit that is disability friendly. As a diver with MS, I find the most daunting thing is now the gearing up and gearing down. I don’t want to look clumsy getting my wetsuit on or embarrass myself struggling with the BCD, weight belt and tank. The dive part is a breeze because I’m weightless and can just relax and enjoy the surroundings.

Cane & Able Travel has had a great chat with the guys at Cairns Dive Adventures and they understand these concerns – so they are more than happy to help you gear up on the side of the boat and give you a gentle push or get you ready in the water – and then be there to make life easy on return. If you haven’t tried scuba, intro dives are easy – and maybe it is just me, but after a dive I feel fewer MS symptoms. Could that just be because of the stress release or the intake of oxygen?

The Reef, however, doesn’t just sit off the coast, you have to make an effort to get there. And, as rewarding as diving the Reef is, one of the drawbacks with diving is that you may have a limited time to explore. There’s so much accessible wonder on the reef, snorkelling can give a lot more for a lot longer. And, for those who don’t want to get wet, you can see it from underwater viewing platforms, glass-bottom boats and semi-submersibles.

On the disability front, Quicksilver cruises are partially disabled friendly. The Outer Reef cruise (Quicksilver VIII to Agincourt Reef) is wheelchair–friendly. The Low Isles cruises are not suitable for wheelchairs. At Agincourt 3 there is a ramp from the vessel to the platform and there is a wheelchair access toilet on board the ship (it is through the door marked ‘Crew Only’ – that ensures the ‘abled’ passengers don’t use it!). There is a specially designed power lift for wheelchair users to gain access into the snorkel pool – and it is a great ‘pool’, teeming with coral and fish. Access to the underwater observatory, the snorkel platform and the semi-submersible craft is by stairs only – not a lot of them, but no chair access. Quicksilver goes from the marina in Port Douglas – 9:00am embark, return around 4:30pm.

Back to Cairns:

A couple of ‘must do’s: the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway is a gondola ride with boardwalk stops through the rainforest to Kuranda.

It’s about an hour and a half one way and two and a half hours including the return.
Skyrail gondola cabins can accommodate most standard type wheelchairs. However, due to size restrictions and loading requirements, some types of wheelchairs cannot be carried on the cableway and they can’t be carried on the coach transfer service. If you have some mobility problems but no chair, Skyrail has complimentary use of wheelchairs (subject to availability).

Skyrail caters for wheelchair passengers with the following: Optional use of ramp, to assist with loading and unloading from gondola cabins on the cableway… Ramp access to all boardwalks at Red Peak and Barron Falls stations… Access to the CSIRO Interpretation Centre at Barron Falls Station… and wheelchair accessible restroom facilities at all stations.

The width of the wheelchair cannot exceed 610mm and he length of the wheelchair cannot exceed 950mm. Wheelchairs must be capable of being tilted backwards to enable loading into the gondola. To load a wheelchair, the wheelchair will need to be tipped backwards raising the front wheels and then gently pushed into the gondola. The combined weight of the wheelchair occupant and the wheelchair must be of a manageable weight to allow cableway operators to load the wheelchair. Wheelchairs must have handles to ensure easy lifting into the gondola cabins.

The excellent Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park is traditional and innovative and can captivate an audience with the simple lighting of a fire. There are day tours that include demonstrations of traditional hunting, didgeridoo playing, bush tucker and dance and night tours that take guests into Dreamtime for a night of entertainment.

BTW Tjapukai entertained Queen Elizabeth and her husband in 2002 and, when Phillip took one foot from his mouth to change feet, he remarked, “Do you chaps still throw spears at each other.” Good Lord, when will Australian become a republic?!

Most of Tjapukai is wheel chair accessible. There is some uneven ground that would require either someone quite strong or with a helper to get over but most is just fine.

Another fun activity can be a hot-air balloon flight. There are a number of scenic balloon options that can include champagne, breakfast. This is gentle adventure with spectacular views over the Atherton Tablelands.

Port Douglas

The 73-kilometre drive north from Cairns to Port Douglas is a superb coastal drive. Palm Cove is on the way and has a beautiful tropical beach with a selection of good accommodation, boutiques and art galleries. There are also some delightful restaurants.

Port (as the locals call Port Douglas) is becoming a bit ‘busy’ for some (it’s got a real supermarket now!), but it still feels like a delightful fishing village. Cosmopolitan Macrossan Street has lots of eating options.

In town, attractions include Ben Cropp’s Shipwreck Museum and the Courthouse Museum in Anzac Park and the charming little church. Who needs stained glass when you can have a window showing nature’s glory? Sunday markets are held in Anzac Park. On the outskirts of town there’s the excellent Rainforest Habitat – breakfast with the wildlife is a treat.

Four Mile Beach is great for a walk. I’m checking with some locals on whether the sand is wheelchair-friendly but when my daughter was in a pram aged 12 months, we would hit the hard sand near the water’s edge each morning for a stroll. Do obey the signs in stinger season and only swim in the fenced areas. The water may look inviting, but some of the jellyfish are barely visible to the naked eye and their stings are horrendous.

The marina is a top spot for shopping and dining. There are heaps of specialist shops and boutiques, many of them quite stylish and surprisingly ‘non-touristy’ and there’s some nice alfresco dining with the ambience of clinking masts. A nice spot for breakfast or lunch is Lure – it won 2010 and 2011 Best Restaurant/Café in north Queensland in the Restaurant Catering Awards (and was nominated for Best Breakfast).

From Port Douglas, you can take tours to the Outer Barrier Reef and the Low Isles, go horse riding or take four-wheel-drive safaris to Mossman Gorge, Daintree National Park and/or Cape Tribulation. Mossman isn’t really wheelchair-friendly but there are boardwalks through the Daintree Rainforest.

I recommend taking a snorkel and mask, and braving the cold water of Mossman and creeks in Cape Tribulation to explore the freshwater fish. Best to stay in the boat up the Daintree though, because crocodiles are plentiful. There’s a local vine (called ‘wait-a-while’) that has small barbed hooks that catch passers by. If you see one of these underwater, don’t do as I did and pull yourself upstream to stay with the schools of fish. There was no pain while in the water, but it took weeks to get all the tiny thorns out of my hands.

The rainforest here is one of the ancient environments on earth and has the world’s greatest concentration of primitive flowering plants, known as ‘green dinosaurs’. I wonder if a Muttuburrasaurus was ever pulled up by a ‘wait-a-while’? Not to mention the shy dinosaur, ‘Doyouthinkhesaurus?’… Sorry. Resuming normal programming now…

ACCOMMODATION

There’s an almost overwhelming choice of accommodation up north, and many properties cater well for disabled visitors. As mentioned, Cairns is good if you want to take in some of the local attractions like Kunanda Skyrail, Tjapukai Cultural Centre or perhaps an early morning balloon flight.

I am biased towards Rydges properties and there are three in Cairns – the Plaza, Tradewinds and The Esplanade and they all have rooms for guests needing wheelchair access and accessible bathrooms.

There are also a number of Accor properties in Cairns – the Pullman Cairns International, the Pullman Reef Hotel Casino (photo), the Cairns Harbour Lights, Novotel Cairns Oasis, Mercure Cairns Harbourside, and the Ibis Styles Cairns Colonial Club Hotel.  Each property has disabled facilities and access and rooms for guests with reduced mobility.  Here is a link to more on the properties at our first ‘spin-off’ specialty site, Cairns Disabled Travel.

As an actual holiday destination though, you may want to head up the coast.

Heading north from Cairns to Palm Cove…

The Reef House Boutique Resort & Spa at Palm Cove is a lovely spot across from the beach. There are 69 spacious guest rooms including a special access Verandah Room on the ground floor.

The original Reef House was built in 1958 by a Cairns bookmaker and used as a family home. According to an article in a 1972 issue of The Bulletin, a swimming pool proprietor was allegedly heavily indebted to the bookmaker, but managed to repay his debt by offering to build ‘the best swimming pool in North Queensland’.

In Port Douglas you can find B&Bs, studios, two and three bedroom self-contained apartments or go the posh end to stay at resorts like the Sheraton Mirage (which has disability rooms). Rydges Hotels owns the super-chic QT Resort.