Atherton Tablelands – History
The Atherton Tablelands rises from 500 metres to 1100 metres above sea level and these altitude variations give the area its appealingly cool tropical climate, a welcome respite from the heat of the Cairns coastal regions.
The region was once covered in lush rainforest but these areas have been repurposed over the generations and adapted for pastoral, cropping and residential activity. Some protected remnants of the rainforest survive in national parks enclaves.
There are marked differences across the Tablelands between seasons and between areas, from the high rainfall mountains of the coastal ranges in the east, to the green dairy country in the south and the open savannah woodlands out to the west.
Such topographical and climate diversity in a small region is unique and is reflected in the cultural differences displayed in the activities of each of its small communities. It is therefore fascinating to explore and to experience.
The region has a strong indigenous history evoking traditional Aboriginal land use and the abiding culture is maintained to varying degrees today.
The early European incursion into the area involved the Irish-born explorer and prospector James Mulligan (1875) who was closely followed by John Atherton (1877) after who one of the region’s two main towns is named.
Originally explored for its mining potential of tin and gold, one of the longest surviving industries became the mining of red cedar and other rainforest trees.
This activity supported many logging communities throughout the area, and the cleared swathes of land eventually made way for establishment of farming pursuits and the community centres they supported.
Agriculture and pastoral continue to be the prime economic drivers of the Atherton Tablelands, followed closely by tourism.
The Chinese were early settler pioneers in Atherton, moving rapidly from the remote northern Palmer River goldfields to dig wells for irrigation and set up market gardens to support the new settlements.
They were the region’s early pioneers of agriculture, including starting dairying, and established wide ranges of support services such as medical, general merchandising and food supply.
Their influence was a cornerstone of the region’s development through the late 1880s into the early decades of the 20th century but is relatively unsung today.
Vestiges of the town’s Chinese past can be explored at Hou Wang Chinese Temple and Museum.
In addition to its incredible beauty, the Atherton Tablelands have a diverse and interesting history.
More than a dozen Aboriginal tribes who thrived on rainforest animals, fish and lush vegetation called these highlands home, before they were forced to retreat to make way for the region’s more recent settlers.
The rich, red soil and fresh elevation provides the perfect environment for producing crops and raising cattle.
The Tablelands are regarded as the tropical food bowl of Queensland and produce grown today includes banana, sugar cane, corn/maize, avocados, strawberries, macadamia nuts and mangoes and citrus. Much of the annual harvest is exported to overseas markets.
Dairying, beef cattle and poultry farming remain stalwart activities however the dominant and lucrative tobacco industry is no longer.
Coffee is widely grown and the region is renowned for its development of biodynamic dairy products, including milk cheese and yoghurt.