Call of the Wild: Mackay Highlands

Catherine Lawson — 21 March 2019
Encounter rare wildlife, cheap camping and chilled waterholes in the Mackay Highlands, the perfect destination to unwind.

High above Mackay, where clouds cling to lofty volcanic peaks, campers dare themselves into frosty waterholes and gather alongside tannin-stained pools to watch platypuses duck-diving at dawn. Eungella National Park is famous for its easily spotted platypuses, but for us, that’s just the start of a week’s worth of wild discoveries in one of the most underrated regions on the east coast. 

From Cape Hillsborough’s beachside camps, to the shores of fish-stocked Eungella Dam, to Mount Britton’s old gold mining townsite, the Highlands have it all. And yet, despite all that’s on offer, Mackay doesn’t draw a crowd quite like neighbouring Airlie Beach. But that’s good news for campers seeking quiet waterfront spots teamed with wildlife encounters, rainforest swims and some unexpectedly superb inland angling.  




BEACH GRAZING KANGAS

It’s the wildlife photo everyone wants to capture: kangaroos and agile wallabies foraging on the high tide mark as the sun rises over a stunning silhouette of rocky offshore islands. To put yourself in the picture, head 50km north of Mackay to Cape Hillsborough National Park and arrive at dawn to catch a mixed mob of bouncers lured onto Casuarina Beach by the mangrove seed pods and seaweed left behind by the night’s high tide. 

The roos linger for about an hour until the rising sun chases them away, but the first-light attendees stay on to explore the park’s exceptional, rainforested walking trails in the cool, comfortable hours. The best of these walks climbs to lofty island lookouts along the Andrews Point Track and drops down onto the sand where, if the tide is low, you can detour across the sand bar to explore Wedge Island. Watch for turtles feeding from Turtle Point Lookout and pack a picnic to sustain yourself for a couple of hours on your feet.  

Opposite Casuarina’s ‘kangaroo’ beach, you can plug into power at the Cape Hillsborough Nature Tourist Park or better yet, head 8km back the way you came for peace and more privacy at the national park-run Smalleys Beach campground. This beach is a top spot to unload that kayak you’ve been carting around and enjoy a long calm water paddle around the cape. You can beachcomb north with rods to fish in solitude, or kick back under eucalypts in one of Smalleys’ 11 big, shady camps. These are the best value on Cape Hillsborough at just $6.55 per person per night, yet they still provide toilets, tables and town water. 


WATERFALL SWIMMING

At the base of the Clarke Connors Range, 70km inland of Mackay, chilly mountain streams gather in rugged granite gorges, filling rock pools that lure walkers deep into the rainforest. Finch Hatton Gorge is the most famous of these and is the perfect place to cool off before (or after) you climb the hill to Broken River.  

Exploring on foot, it isn’t too long before you reach Araluen Falls, 1.4 kilometres upstream past giant granite boulders that divert pretty cascades. On our own journey, we wander on, distracted by the towering canopy stretching skywards, studded with epiphytes and draped with tremendous vines just perfect for swinging on. 

The deep rock pool beneath the falls is utterly icy but we plunge right in. The backpackers behind us take a different tactic, one toe at a time, and we already have pruney fingers by the time they steel themselves enough to get wet. Even late in the season, these falls flow swiftly, guaranteeing a good dip that is well worth the walk. 

Beyond Araluen Falls, the trail continues 700m uphill to an equally bewitching swimming spot beneath the Wheel of Fire Cascades. The walk itself is just a little more challenging, but the views en route are excellent. If Finch Hatton’s rock pools have you hooked, you can overnight close by at Platypus Bush Camp for $7.50 per adult (toilets, coldwater showers and a cooking shelter provided).

Finch Hatton’s forest harbours lots of tiny, rare critters with terrific names that impress the youngest traveller in our crew. You’re unlikely to spot all of them; we fail to meet the endangered gastric-brooding frog or the orange-sided skink, but just up the hill on the edge of Broken River, we are delighted to spot a dozen platypuses by day’s end. 


BROKEN RIVER’S PLATYPUSES 

High above Mackay, Eungella’s misty, high-altitude haven protects pristine rainforest and a stretch of wild river known as the best place in the state to spot platypuses. On the Broken River at dusk, these tiny, shy monotremes surface in tell-tale bubble streams, ducking and diving in deep, murky pools with a flap of their beaver-like tails.

With plenty of platypus viewing platforms, a top riverside campground and over 20km of walking trails, Eungella National Park is well set up and very popular. We camp just metres from the water’s edge, cross the river and stretch out along the Rainforest Discovery Trail just as the platypuses emerge to feed. While Broken River’s bush camp isn’t huge, its flat, grassy sites are generously sized and there’s a pair of big fire pits, composting toilets and water for hand washing.  

Some travellers stay overnight here just to see the platypuses, whereas others settle in for a week and savour time on every trail. We split the difference. After taking in a favourite riverside stroll to Wishing Pool (1.7km, 50 minutes return) and filling our quota of successful platypus encounters, we pack up and drive on. 


EUNGELLA DAM

Just 10 minutes beyond Broken River we discover a deserted camp at Credition Hall with more elbow room and a sheltered picnic area with barbecues, fire pits and toilets. Fees here are a bargain at five dollars per person, but when we peer through the window of this historical site’s namesake building, we eyeball an enormous python. No amount of reasoning entices our youngest camper to stay. 

Eungella Dam is a different story: a big open waterway with endless spots to camp and nothing but waterbirds and cattle for company. Just after the school holidays we find it all but deserted with not a water skier, tinny or paddler in sight. There’s an awful lot of room to claim on the lake’s endless shores, and the serenity is near-perfect as we join the cows cooling down in the sandy shallows. 

Camping here is dirt cheap: just $8 per couple or $15 per family, and conveniently, you can simply arrive, pay on site and stay for up to 28 days. There are boat ramps and toilets, and campfires and pets are permitted. The only ticket you’ll need is a stocked impoundment permit to fish the dam, which costs $10 per week or $50 per year (qld.gov.au/recreation).

 From the dam you could retrace your steps to Mackay or continue west over the range to explore the old gold settlement at Mount Britton. To get there, take Lizzie Creek Road (also known as Pipeline Road) for 17km, turn left onto Turrawulla Road, drive 39km to the Homevale-Mount Britton turnoff and continue to the camp at road’s end. 


MOUNT BRITTON

At the peak of Mount Britton’s 1881 gold rush, the impossibly scenic Diamond Cliffs ignited the dreams of around 1,500 prospectors and entrepreneurs who settled beneath its shimmering volcanic spires and weathered bluffs. They built homes, hotels and stores, raised families and established cattle runs, reaping golden rewards until the easy gold began to run out, just three years later. 

While the modest buildings are long gone, the old grid of streets is today studded with interpretive signage that remembers it all and gives visitors a sense of what once existed at Mount Britton. There’s a menagerie of old mining relics to unearth inside Mount Britton’s old School of the Arts hall – now a rustic picnic shelter – and a nearby pioneers’ cemetery to explore, too. 

A lookout 200m above camp provides better views of the landmarks that explorer William Landsborough named in 1856: Mount Britton, the Marling Spikes’ weather-beaten trio of rock spires, and the dazzling Sydney Heads with their sheer cliffs that glow with vibrant yellow and red hues as the sun rises and sets. 

The sparkling, star-like crystal embedded in the black rock face of the Diamond Cliffs shines brightest an hour before noon. To get a closer view, drive the rugged 4WD track that exits the camp to the east and climbs a steep ridge to vantage points beneath the cliffs. 

Mount Britton provides toilets, water and fire pits, and you can bushwalk or drive to an alternate camping area at Moonlight Dam in Homevale National Park, popular with birdwatchers. 

Rumours have it that Mount Britton’s big vein of gold has never been found, but its greatest value is as a relaxing retreat. That’s true of the Mackay Highlands in general (excepting the python encounter). After our wandering journey, we felt refreshed and rejuvenated, blessed by the rich landscapes, rare wildlife and chilled waterholes we encountered.


PLAN YOUR JOURNEY

Getting there

Mackay is 950km north of Brisbane on the Bruce Highway. Cape Hillsborough lies 50km north of this (turn off of the Bruce Highway 20km north of Mackay). Take the Mackay-Eungella Road 70km west to Finch Hatton and climb another 30km up the range to reach Broken River campground in Eungella National Park. From Broken River it’s 27km to Eungella Dam and another 75km to Mount Britton.

Best time to visit

Any time but for the hottest summer months. 

Camping

National park campsites at Cape Hillsborough (Smalleys Beach), Broken River (Eungella) and Moonlight Dam (Homevale) cost $6.55/person (free for kids under five and no entry fees). Platypus Bush Camp at Finch Hatton Gorge charges $7.50/adult; Eungella Dam costs $15/family, $8/couple or $5/person; and camping at Mount Britton is free. 

Other places not to miss

Stop for a quick dip in Boulder Creek, just north of Mirani, en route to Eungella. Beyond Mount Britton, spend time free camping at Lake Elphinstone, Central Queensland’s largest natural freshwater lake. The birdlife is beautifully abundant, there’s top fishing and paddling, and excellent facilities too (50km north of Nebo).

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mackay qld queensland destination travel camping