The Tablelands

On our last day in Cairns, we traveled to the Tablelands, a highland region about an hour and a half west of the city. The relatively short trip was extended by a somewhat harrowing section of the drive traveling over the Gillies Range. About a third of the way to our destination I saw what appeared to be a piece of cooked spaghetti coiled over my phone. It turned out to be just the upcoming road, which twisted, bent, and turned back on itself enough times to make you dizzy, all with the threat of a plunge off the mountainside if you made a wrong turn.

Two well-known trees are highlighted on most maps of the tablelands – the Cathedral and Curtain Figs. The trees are both green (strangler) figs, and grow when a seed is deposited in the upper canopy of a tree, typically by a passing bird or fruit bat. When conditions are favorable, the fig shoots a cluster of roots down to the ground, eventually encompassing and killing the host tree. While these strangler figs can be seen in any hike in the region, the Cathedral and Curtain fig trees are at least 500 years old, and are significantly larger than their nearby brethren.

The Cathedral Fig is an enormous, towering structure, standing nearly 50 meters tall and 44 meters around. Named for the shape of the trunk(s), the intricate weave of the base is home to many small animals and the figs themselves are a vital source of food for the local birds and bats. Curtain Fig is similarly impressive, at 39 meters wide, but with a more unique shape. As the host tree was dying under the burden of the Curtain Fig vines, it toppled over and landed on a neighboring tree. The fig vines continued to grow vertically, and eventually the host tree rotted away, leaving the veil-like shape behind.

Further up the road we visited the town of Yungaburra. As we drove through the town looking for lunch, Jenn pointed to the Whistle Stop Café, reminding me that an identically-named café was a central location in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes. Indeed, the interior could have been plucked from the movie, if you substituted Australian accents for Southern ones, shouting at each other behind the counter. Also in Yungaburra was a great little walk along Peterson Creek. We initially visited the creek because of the platypus viewing, but found our way along a pleasant little path that followed the water as it meandered through the countryside. A laughing kookaburra sat in an old gum tree and his cackling call echoed along the riverbank, affording us a great view of an iconic Australian bird.


We then headed a few miles from Yungaburra to Hasties Swamp, a well-regarded birding area Jenn had read about. After a drive down a poorly marked dirt road, we found a large and well-maintained two-story building that served as a hide for watching the local wildlife. The woods and surrounding grasses were alive with birds. A spectacular red-browed firetail was hopping from grass stalk to grass stalk, bowing them over and plucking seeds from the tops. We watched a white-cheeked honeyeater and a rainbow lorikeet nibble on the flowers of nearby trees, while a red-backed fairy wren busily preened himself and flitted from perch to perch. In the distance, Eurasian coots and hardheads dotted the glistening brown water. It was a beautiful, tranquil spot, and even our departure was marked by purple swamp hens and glossy ibis stalking through the muddy banks.

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