A Photographer’s Guide To East Palmerston And The Southern Tablelands Waterfalls. Story & Photography by Thomas-Liam Ryan

Not far inland from Innisfail in far north Queensland, Thomas-Liam Ryan discovers a rainforest refuge with plenty to attract the keen photographer, especially if you particularly like waterfalls.

 

A leisurely hour-and-half drive south of Cairns is the tropical wilderness of the Wooroonaran National Park near the town of East Palmerston. The area provides the chance to explore tropical rainforest, spectacular waterfalls, and an amazing array of flora and fauna in one of Australia’s wettest regions which experiences an average of over eight metres of rainfall a year.

I spent around two weeks exploring the fascinating inland region between the coastal township of Innisfail and the high-altitude village of Millaa Millaa. This area is less frequented by tourists than the coast, so it’s a great place to beat the crowds.

Innisfail
The original inhabitants of the Innisfail and East Palmerston region are the Ma.Mu people which have five distinct societal groups. The first Europeans arrived in 1872. Today, the township of Innisfail (population 8000) serves many of the outlying towns and farming communities and is a worthwhile diversion.

Farming produces a variety of tropical crops, including sugar cane and bananas. Innisfail claims to be the art deco capital of Australia and it’s not difficult to see why. Many of the period buildings have bold colours with geometric lines and shapes everywhere you turn. The Shire Hall – which is said to be the largest deco hall in Queensland – and the dominating , colourful Innisfail water tower are icons of the town worth photographing. The Shire Hall is best photographed in early morning light, while many of the town’s commercial buildings can be shot throughout the day, using the changing light to selectively highlight details.

(c) Thomas Liam-Ryan 2015
Nandroya Falls, East Palmerston National Park. (c) Thomas Liam-Ryan 2015

East Palmerston National Park
The Palmerston Highway begins as a gentle ascent just north of Innisfail and winds through fertile sugar cane, banana plantations and dairy farms. The farmlands provide photographic opportunities with Mount Bartle Frere (1622 metres, and Queensland’s highest mountain) and Bellenden Ker (1592 metres) dominating the skyline at every turn and providing an endless interpretation of photo possibilities.

The first European to explore this region was Christie Palmerston who was assisted by Aboriginal guides. East Palmerston was only ‘opened up’ by roads in the mid 1930s, connecting the tropical lowlands with the high-altitude Atherton Tablelands and opening the area to an industry of dairy farming, banana growing, forestry and mining. The social and environmental importance of the region was recognised when it was included as part of the Wet Tropics World Heritage in 1988.

Mamu Tropical Skywalk
The Mamu Tropical Skywalk is a 350-metre walk above the rainforest canopy and provides a variety of vantage points for photography that are nothing short of impressive. The highlight is a 37-metre high viewing tower which overlooks dense tropical jungle and the North Johnstone River. 

This climb isn’t for the faint-hearted as the structure supports itself by moving slightly. Being able to see directly down through the high, semi-transparent steel stairs can be nerve wracking at times! Overcast conditions on my visit provided opportunities to photograph plants and trees without the harshness of uneven light. I used my 50mm and telephoto lenses to capture the rugged rainforest-clad mountains. Using a shallower depth-of-field allowed me to isolate small ferns and vines clinging to trees. 

Crawford’s Lookout And North Johnstone River Trail
About one kilometre north of Mamu Tropical Skywalk is Crawford’s Lookout and it provides dramatic views, looking down to the North Johnstone River. During the wet season the river is a raging torrent and is popular with white water rafters. 

There are two walks from the lookout, providing more stunning views of the jungle and the Johnstone River. After winding about two kilometres down the path in a zig-zag fashion, the track breaks into two paths and here you can take the easy 700-metre walk to North Johnstone Lookout. The views are spectacular, giving an almost 180-degree panoramic view over dramatic rainforest clad mountains, with the North Johnstone River snaking through the jungle. An ultra wide-angle lens is essential to capture the entire sweeping vista. The lookout faces west so it was difficult to obtain an even exposure because of glare and haze. Shooting with a lens hood fitted is recommend and I found that taking a series of bracketed exposures (one for the land and water and another for the sky) allowed me to obtain a more even exposure by merging these images in post-processing.

The entire track is graded as difficult because of the long and steep winding path that eventually leads down to the North Johnstone River itself. There are plenty of photographic opportunities along the way, including tropical flowers and foliage like wild banana leaves that can make for interesting abstract images.

Carrying on from the Johnstone River Lookout, it’s a steep 700-metre descent down to the river itself but, if anything, it’s worth walking down just to go for a swim. Once at the base of the North Johnstone River, its rainforest surrounds provide photo opportunities including the river and several large sprawling fig trees with their buttress roots.

Henrietta Creek Camping Ground
Driving around two kilometres northwards takes you to the Henrietta Creek Camping Ground. Tenting or caravanning is available. It’s an excellent place to set up base as there are several enjoyable walking tracks.

One of the most spectacular waterfalls in the park is Nandroya Falls, reached via a 4.4-kilometre return walk. The falls plummet spectacularly over a massive cliff face into a deep pool. The cliff walls support an immense variety of ferns and mosses. The smaller, but still photogenic Silver Falls provide good photo opportunities as do the massive buttress root systems dotted throughout the walk. Both Silver and Nandroya Falls are well sheltered by the mountain ranges and dense rainforest, and this creates more even highlights and shadows for photography. You hear the roaring of Nandroya Falls before you see them and once you witness the sheer size and surrounding environment, the steamy walk to get there is soon forgotten. I looked out for foreground interest, including rocks and plants to help frame the waterfalls and give them a sense of scale and depth. There’s an alternative return six-kilometre loop track which, if you have the time, is worth the trek to get a feel for what much of the wet tropics region would have looked like only just over a 100 years ago.

Another of the walks from Henrietta Creek takes you through even more rainforest and several impressive waterfalls. This series of waterfalls involves getting your feet wet as a part of the track is submerged. Wallicher Falls – about a four-kilometre trek from the Henrietta Creek camping ground – can be best captured up along the track through the rainforest, using the foliage to create a natural border. The falls are open to light most of the day so a polarising or neutral density (ND) filter is advisable to cut down on glare while also allowing for a longer exposure to create a silkier waterfall effect. 

Around 500 metres on is Tchupala Falls. At the time of writing, the track to the bottom of the waterfall was closed due to cyclone damage, but photographs can still be achieved at the top of the track by using the surrounding foliage as a feature.
 

(c) Thomas Liam-Ryan 2015

Zillie Falls, Southern Atherton Tableands is best photographed in overcast conditions or late in the evening. (c) Thomas Liam-Ryan 2015 

Southern Tablelands Waterfall Circuit
The steep ascent of the Palmerston Highway winds up to the Southern Tablelands, and the rainforest gives way to green dairy farming pastures. Here I found there were excellent opportunities to capture some stunning views of Bartle Frere with the rolling green hills used to introduce foreground interest.

The Southern Tablelands is mountainous and compared to the coast several degrees cooler and it’s not uncommon for the area to get frosts in winter. There are three easily accessible waterfalls along this 15-kilometre self-drive ‘Waterfall Circuit’ on the edge of Millaa Millaa.

All the waterfalls are unique and impressive in their own right. Because of the easy accessibility they are visited regularly, this especially being so for Millaa Millaa Falls… reputedly the most photographed waterfall in Australia. Going late in the day or in the early morning allowed me to avoid the crowds and get photographs free of people. Standing my tripod knee-deep in water at Millaa Falls also ensured an absence of people in the shot.

Millaa Millaa Falls has such perfect symmetry with the tumbling cascade central to the rainforest-clad surroundings, you could mistake it for a Hollywood movie set.

All three waterfalls are no further than a few hundred metres from their car parks. Zillie Falls plummets over a massive cliff and has a true wilderness feel with the water crashing onto the massive boulders below. Ellinjaa Falls, by contrast, is small, but picturesque nonetheless. All three waterfalls are best captured in the late evening when the sun is low. Most days that I visited were sunny so waiting until the sun had dropped enough to cast a shadow over the waterfalls allowed for more even exposures.