Living The New Australian Dream - Undara Lava Tubes

In the early 1990’s my father ‘discovered’ Undara. Being in the eco-tourism business himself, he was fascinated by the resort’s concept and the lava tubes and returned here several times on visits through north-western Queensland. Despite his descriptions and recommendations, it took me 20 years to come and experience it for myself.

No matter what people tell you about Undara nor the pictures and TV shows you may see, nothing really prepares you for the ‘Undara Experience’.

Gone is the dirt track leading to the resort and national park – replaced by decent 2 lane bitumen road, along which grey kangaroos, pretty face wallabies and the occasional wallaroo entertain you as you drive. Several were so unconcerned about our passing that they merely sat beside the road munching on their mouthful of dry grass as we passed.

12 kilometres in, the resort appears laid out before you. The famed railway carriages are strung out on the left as you travel through to the reception area. It is mid October, and it has not rained since March but surprisingly, the lack of green grass adds to the atmosphere of this magnificent camp-oasis in the middle of the bush.

Undarra Railway Carriages night

Undarra Railway Carriages night – courtesy Undara

Being their ‘Green Season’, the resort is in low-season mode and despite having pre-booked our tour for the day, the reception is closed.

Friendly signage redirects us to the bar and restaurant area to our left. Rounding the corner into the restaurant and bar area, is a major WOW! Refurbished railway carriages form a U around a huge 2 level fully covered deck which could spaciously seat at least 200 people. The massive arched steel roof is flanked by two canvas wings providing coverage for all and the view is out into the open savannah scrubland. Magnificent.

There is a logged fire-pit where evening sing-alongs happen, and the covered pool table and bar area are on the other side of the bar carriage providing separation between it and the restaurant. Many fun evenings could be had right here …..

I’m torn as to whether to try and book in for the tour or grab my camera and start taking photos!

There is only 10 minutes till the tour starts so I err on the side of caution and front the bar.Living The New Australian Dream - Undara Restaurant The friendly attendant welcomes me and takes my money. No tickets required here – they already know me by first name.

Back out front with sunscreen applied to all, shoes & hats on and cameras to the ready – Simon our Savannah Guide appears and introduces himself. Soon we are on the mini bus and headed for the lava tubes. There are 16 of us tourists. As it turns out, ourselves and another couple are from Australia and the others are from overseas.

During the short drive to the tubes we are visiting today, Simon informs of the history of the Collins family – who owned the surrounding land since 1862 prior to its being reclaimed as National park and who started and today still run the resort. He talks about the geology and natural history of the area pointing out the striking granite and basalt landforms as we pass.Living The New Australian Dream - Undara8

The tubes are accessed via a flat gravel pathway and a boardwalk suitable for anyone who can easily negotiate a set of stairs.  Stairs descend from hot savannah bushland into cooler remnant rainforest. Dry grass and sparse fire-marked trees give way to green-velvet moss covered rocks and boulders, vines and large emergent fig trees. The rainforest environment made possible only by the collapse of the lava tube roof  a hundred thousand years ago. A scrub turkey scratches a hole in his nest to check it is the correct temperature while his female friend waits nearby. According to Simon, the boardwalk was constructed by inmates from the Mareeba Prison – hard yakka indeed – and hopefully in the cooler months of the year!


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The Archway is the first cave we visit. Earthquakes have caused the roof of the tube on either side to collapse. The boardwalk climbs down and through to the second cave on the other side providing many picturesque photo opportunities. Simon explains the morphology of the volcanoes and how the tubes were formed by slow moving lava from a string of volcanoes over a period of 300,000 years. Flows from the nearby Undara crater formed around 190,000 years ago – a baby geologically speaking. Undara is a local aboriginal word meaning – ‘a long way’ and one of the tubes stretches for 160 kilometres to the northwest.

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The Archway – Undara

The history of the formation of Undara is fascinating for anyone even mildly interested in natural history. Year-round the caves remain around a comfortable 22 degrees Celsius. In places tree roots from above hang through the ceiling like stringy chandeliers and the colours and patterns of the ‘rock art’ formed by hundreds of thousands of years of water seeping and dripping through the caves is tremendous. Descending into them is like visiting another world.

The caves are a haven to several species of microbat with one cave alone – the Bayliss cave, which is the longest single tube extending over extending over 1.3 kilometres – home to an estimated 40,000 bats! During the green season, three of the caves generally toured by the public are closed due to it also being bat breeding season.

Our tour on the boardwalk provides easy access to the longer and deeper second and third caves we visit today and we spy a few tiny horseshoe bats whizzing over head as our passage and the light disturbs them. Simon explains that pythons also frequent the caves searching out a feed of bat, but we don’t see any today.

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The tour takes around 2 hours and too soon we are returned for our airconditioned bus for the short drive back to the resort.

We take the best part of an hour or so to take photographs, relax and enjoy refreshments in the restaurant area. Dean is fascinated by a piece of ‘bush mechanicing’ he spies – the cold water cooler – an old bar fridge fitted with a tap at front. Opening the fridge door provides a view of coiled copper pipe circling water through the interior of the fridge. He thinks he could build one of these himself. (I wonder how much solar power it will draw).

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The boys want a swim and we enquire whether we may use the pool. “Of course” is the friendly response. The pool is a cool oasis surrounded by pink granite boulders and green grass. Birds, bees, butterflies and kangaroos entertain us while we take a dip. Being off–season, we are the only ones there.

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Undara truly is an experience but unfortunately we cannot remain and enjoy it over night as we have our faithful Jazz (dog) awaiting us back at our motorhome parked in Mt Surprise. The beautifully restored railway carriages becon as do the ‘pioneer’ huts and swag tent village for a relaxing over-nighter, and maybe a guided sunset walk to enjoy more of this spectacular part of Australia.

From the friendly hospitality and the myriad of things to see and do, to the lure of a quiet drink and dinner in the unique restaurant, as we drove away, I couldn’t help but feel that we were missing out on some of the best parts of the ‘Undara Experience’. We will be back!

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Getting There: Undara is a 45 Minute drive from Mt Surprise or around 2.45 hours from Innisfail. Undara Experience Offers a complete accommodation, meals and tours resort style solution with accommodation ranging from bring your own tent or van to Deluxe Tent and Carriage Accommodation on site. You can book direct at: undara.com.au

Other accommodation and van parks are available in Mount Surprise. The Savannahlander Train Tour from Cairns to Forsayth offers a daytrip from Mt Surprise or an overnight stay at Undara and the tubes tour as part of its tour options – I personally would definitely choose the overnight at Undara option!

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