Undara National Park is not simply a national park, but a volcanic national park. It boasts the world’s largest and best-preserved lava tube system, with a geological history dating back millennia.
Undara, an Aboriginal word meaning “long way,” is just that—a long way from Cairns. Some 275 kilometers southwest of Cairns, it is a four-hour drive through the Atherton Tablelands and then extending into the beginnings of the so-called Outback of Australia, where space and distance are changing all meaning, and you could easily keep on going on the same road for several days until you reach the west coast. Chances are, you’d meet only a few people along the way.
But, luckily, before the drive becomes too long, you’re there and can start enjoying the Outback, with its plenty of animals, such as the mob of kangaroos that comes every afternoon to feed on the grass by the pool, pretty-faced wallabies that sneak into the place at night and ogle you when you emerge in the morning, and kookaburras that steal your food if you don’t hold on to it. And those are only a few of the native residents. Then there is the distinctive bushland, scraggly trees, lots of grass, and undergrowth, all held together by a sky that simply seems larger out here, away from the cities. An amazing 164 extinct volcanic craters dot the landscape, adding something different to the walks you can take all around the national park.
Undara is not just a place where you can view some of nature’s quirky creations; it is an all-round experience that adds enormously to any visitor’s understanding and enjoyment of Australia. Don’t be put off by the distance and the fact that you should stay the night to really get the most out of the trip—it really is worth it.
The Undara Experience (tel. 07/4097-1900)—i.e., the entire operation, from access to lava tubes to accommodations, and the only way to explore this part of the country—is a family-run business, set up by the Collins family, who were the first white settlers in the region back in the 1860s, and who opened their amazing land to the public in the 1990s. Working closely with the national park authorities they work hard to make the entire operation have as little impact on the environment as possible, and they have won many awards indicating that they are doing well in their endeavors. You are most likely to meet Gerry Collins at the bush breakfast; he is a dab hand with the billy can.
The only way to see the lava tubes is with a trained guide. The Undara Experience offers many tours of varying lengths, such as the two-hour “Archway Explorer” tour (departs daily at 8am, 10:30am, 1pm, and 3:30pm, subject to numbers and availability, adult $52.50, child $26.25, family $157.50), which takes in three sections of lava tube—including the largest piece, the so-called archway, which stretches like a man-made bridge across some local plants found only in the fertile recesses of the lava tube—and the surrounding countryside. This tour is along good tracks, boardwalks, and steps, and requires only a low level of fitness. The “Active Explorer” tour (departs May-Sept. daily at 8am, 10:30am, 1pm, and 3:30pm, subject to availability, adult $52.50, child $26.25, family $157.50) also takes around two hours and involves some climbing over rocks and walking on uneven surfaces. You see three different sections of lava tube and the surrounding countryside and wildlife.
The “Wildlife at Sunset” tour (departs between 5pm and 6pm, depending on sunset, adult $60, child $30) is the perfect tour to take on the day you arrive, as it eases you into the surroundings, cheers you up after a long drive with some cheese and biscuits and sparkling wine, and allows you to appreciate the sun setting across the plains. You will see kangaroos, wallabies, wallaroos, birds, snakes, and, most importantly, at sunset, hundreds of thousands of tiny little microbats flying out of the lava tubes for their nightly feeding spree. Absolutely amazing.
The longest tour available is the “Volcano Valley” tour (departs at 8am, adult $95, child $47.50). This four-hour tour is longer, but of an easy-to-moderate fitness level, with mostly boardwalks but also a climb onto a rocky outcrop to appreciate what the lava fields and tunnels look like from above. Refreshments are included in this tour.
All tours set off from Undara Lodge by bus to cover the distance to the main tubes. Maximum capacity is 20 people, and early booking is essential to ensure you do not drive all this way and not see the lava tubes.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Sydney & the Great Barrier Reef.