Australia is home to many spectacular national parks, but the Undara Volcanic National Park stands out for one major reason: the park protects one of the longest lava tube cave systems in the world. Geologically dating back millennia, Undara Volcanic National Park was also the site of Australia’s most recent volcanic eruption, more than 190,000 years ago.
Located in Undara, a town named after an aboriginal word meaning ‘long way’, the Undara Volcanic National Park is located 275 kilometres (171 miles) southwest of Cairns and can be reached via a four-hour scenic drive through the Atherton Tablelands.
Undara is an all-round experience full of great walks, guide-led tours and the opportunity to stay in a truly unique setting. Among its distinctive bushland, scraggly trees, grass and undergrowth lie 164 extinct volcanic craters and 68 sections of lava tubes.
During the last volcanic eruption, an estimated 233 cubic kilometres (56 cubic miles) of 1,200C lava flowed from the main crater at a rate of 1,000 cubic meters per second (35315 cubic feet per second). This would be fast enough to fill Sydney Harbour within six days. As the lava spread across the landscape, the streams started to cool and hard crusts formed on the outside, while underneath the lava continued to pour out. Eventually the lava flow stopped, and lava tubes and tunnels were left, formed with ceilings up to 15 meters (49 feet) thick.
The lava tubes found in Undara are up to 160 kilometres long (99 miles). Some collapsed a long time ago and others form perfect archways which are open for exploration, with the largest measuring more than 21 meters (69 feet) wide and 10 meters (33 feet) high.
The Undara Experience is a family-run business which works closely with the national park authorities to bring this natural wonder to the public with as little effect on the environment as possible. The only way to see the lava tubes is with a trained guide and the Undara Experience offers many tours of varying lengths. The two-hour Archway Explorer tour takes in three sections of lava tube, including the largest stretch.
The park is also a great place to see animals, best experienced through the Wildlife at Sunset tour, on which you’ll see kangaroos, wallabies, wallaroos, birds, snakes and, most importantly, hundreds of thousands of tiny micro bats flying out of the lava tubes for their nightly feeding spree.
To see all that Undara has to offer, you should stay at least two days, and preferably two nights. You can either camp or glamp in permanent tents, or alternatively stay in a selection of restored train carriages on-site. The Sunshine Express used to run from Brisbane to Cairns and the carriages are relatively basic, but beautiful with their old leather seats intact and baggage nets above, all joined by a wooden deck with plenty of quirky original features. To round off your Australian outback experience, enjoy a traditional bush breakfast while sitting on stumps of trees, with coffee and tea served from billy cans straight out of the log fire and bread toasted over an open flame.