It is generally what you expect the least that sticks with you the most about a holiday. And last year when I was visiting Cairns for a conference, I was surprised to find my favourite experience was inland, far from the Great Barrier Reef and the rainforest. In the middle of the Gulf Savannah outback in far north Queensland, I was astounded to have the opportunity to explore the world’s oldest and longest lava tubes.
THE UNDARA EXPERIENCE AND LAVA TUBES – ACCESSIBILITY
Everything about Undara Volcanic National Park and the Undara Experience is a thrilling surprise. Sharing a bush breakfast by a fire at dawn. Sleeping in a restored railway carriage and having the opportunity to experience a vast and unpopulated landscape.
If you are visiting Cairns and have the time to extend beyond the local experiences, take the drive and be immersed in the uniqueness of the Aussie outback
WHERE TO FIND UNDARA
Privately owned by the Collins family for several generations, the Undara Experience is located four hours south-west of Cairns by car, via the Atherton Tablelands. It sits within Undara Volcanic National Park, which is Ewamian land.
Allow for a stay of two or three days, depending on how much time you want to leave to lounge by the pool. Peak season is June to August, as it is the mildest time temperature-wise. I visited in October and though hot it was quite manageable.
Famously, at Undara you can sleep in a restored Queensland rail carriage from the 1900s. Train carriages by nature are narrow but Undara has an option with some accessible features including ramp access and open plan bathroom with shower chair. It should be noted, space is limited due to the structure of a rail carriage and this accommodation won’t be suitable for everyone with access needs.
After staying in so many hotels, which often look fairly similar, it was fun going back in time and sleeping in a train carriage. While I slept in a standard train, I did find time to have a look at the more accessible train carriage.
Ramp access is provided to the train carriage and the door is step-free. Entry door clearance is 79cm.
Space around the bed is probably the most difficult aspect of access in the train carriage. Clearance on one side of the bed is 53cm and on the other side 32cm. Bed height is 55cm.
If you won’t be using the lounge in the carriage I’d recommend asking to have it removed to open up the circulation space within the room.
The open plan bathroom is a good size with room to manoeuvre for wheelchair users. Clearance on the bathroom entrance is 86cm, toilet height is 43cm to pan, 45cm to seat.
Lever taps, grab rails and a shower chair are provided for the comfort of guests. The shower chair is height adjustable.
NON- ACCESSIBLE TRAIN CARRIAGE ACCOMMODATION
As everyone has such differing needs, I’m also sharing photos of the train carriage I slept in which is one of the non-accessible carriages.
These carriages have had less work done internally so have narrow passage ways and a more confined bathroom.
I experienced warm nights when visiting in October so I appreciated the fans in the carriage. I also made good use of the kettle in the room for my many cup of teas that kept me going with a busy itinerary.
I was too busy exploring the area and socialising with my fellow travellers to use the lounge in the train carriage but it’s a nice inclusion.
If staying in the train carriages doesn’t suit, the air conditioned Pioneer Huts and their facilities may accommodate some visitors. Keep in mind, these are not specifically accessible but I’m sharing in case they suit someone researching a trip to Undara.
The Pioneer Huts are more spacious by design than the train carriages so allow for greater circulation space.
Each Pioneer hut is equipped with a bar fridge, kettle and lounge.
The bathroom is not open plan like the rail carriages.
UNDARA EXPERIENCE FACILITIES
Ramp access is provided to the common areas where guests can enjoy a drink from the bar, dinner or an outdoor movie by the fire.
A guest kitchen is available with tea and coffee available 24/7.
Dinner at Undara gets my thumbs up.
What makes the Undara Experience extra special is the way it’s been created to immerse guests in the Aussie outback no matter where they are on the property.
A dip in the pool is welcome relief from the warm temperatures that can greet you at Undara. Level access is provided to the pool.
Be warned, some of the local wildlife may look on while you take that dip in the pool though.
Breakfast at Undara is served around the bush fire with proper billy tea and toast crisped by its gentle flame.
A path leads from the accommodation to the bush breakfast area. Once there the ground is compacted dirt and should be manageable for most wheelchair users.
If you prefer budget accommodation, you can make use of the campground amenities – be sure to stipulate that you’ll need accessible bathrooms when you book. There are swag tents available – canvas glamping tents set up in advance – but they stand up on a platform. There is no wheelchair access to the twin or triple tents. The family swag tents have one small step up to the entrance which may suit if you are more mobile.
UNDARA LAVA TUBES
The lava tubes were formed 190,000 years ago, when 23 cubic kilometres of lava flowed for 160 kilometres across the landscape. That’s enough lava to fill Sydney Harbour three times over, and is the longest lava flow in the world from a single volcano. As the lava flowed, the outside cooled while the molten centre continued moving. The result is a series of tubes and caverns, containing pockets of lush rainforest growth.
You can enjoy the precious ecosystem of the Lava Tubes on a tour only. The knowledgeable, specially-trained Savannah Guides share the incredible story about the formation of the tubes. While the main Lava Tube can only be accessed by several sets of stairs there is another option. If you have a mobility restriction, contact Undara Experience prior to your arrival to arrange a guided tour of Road Cave (pictured below) which has ramp and chair lift access.
For those travelling with sensory needs, it is worth noting that while it does dim as you delve into the tubes, the wide cave openings and cracks mean that it doesn’t get completely dark. The temperature will cool inside – a welcome relief from the outback heat!
SUNSET AT UNDARA
I felt incredibly privileged to witness sunset and sunrise at Undara. They are quiet and stunning times of the day when the only sound is the local birdlife and wildlife. A sunset tour is guided by a Savannah Guide in a mini-bus (a couple of stairs to get on the bus)
Once we arrived at the base of the bluff it was a short step-free walk to the top for drinks and cheese and biscuits.
We were lucky to spot plenty of the local wildlife while driving to our viewing spot for sunset.
After we watched the sun go down, sipped on bubbly and nibbled on cheese we continued our tour to the mouth of a lava tube. Our guide used his torch to highlight the thousands of micro-bats who call it home and emerge at dark to forage for food. While the bats were on a mission to feed their bellies, we were told pythons and brown tree snakes sit optimistically awaiting a fly-thru snack of micro bat.
Boardwalks and stairs need to be negotiated for this portion of the tour.
OTHER AVAILABLE EXPERIENCES
The Bluff Walk is 1.5-kilometres return and rated easy. It’s not suitable for wheelchairs but those with young children in a hiking backpack, or some people with mobility restrictions may be able to manage it. It’s rocky in parts so I suggest discussing it with staff prior to giving it a go. This was a highlight for me but I wasn’t travelling with BJ on this trip. A TrailRider would be a wonderful addition to the Undara Experience.
When I was researching my trip I was impressed with the information provided on the Undara Experience website regarding accessibility. While there are limitations at Undara for people with a mobility restriction, there are accessible features which may make this possible for some visitors and I can assure you it will be memorable.
I was lucky enough to be a guest of the Undara Experience but as always my opinions are my own.
Big thanks to my friend Christine who captured many photos for me after my camera broke on the trip.