Atherton Tableland Explained

The Atherton Tableland is a fertile plateau which is part of the Great Dividing Range in Queensland, Australia. It is located west to south-south-west inland from Cairns, well into the tropics, but its elevated position provides a climate suitable for dairy farming. it has an area of around 32,000 km² with an average altitude between 600 and 900m AHD. The fertility of the soils in the region can be attributed to the volcanic origins of the land.

The principal river flowing across the plateau is the Barron River, which was dammed to form an irrigation reservoir named Lake Tinaroo.

The area was originally explored for its mining potential where deposits of tin and a little gold were found.


This area is a distinct physiographic section of the larger North Queensland Highlands province, which in turn is part of the larger East Australian Cordillera physiographic division.

Towns on the Atherton Tableland


Atherton was first explored by JV Mulligan in 1875, but it was John Atherton who settled near the town which now bears his name in 1877.

Originally a pioneering pastoralist, John Atherton was the first to find tin deposits in Northern Queensland. Local legend has it that Tinaroo Creek received its name from Atherton who shouted, "Tin! Hurroo!" when he first made his discovery. Atherton and his friends, William Jack and John Newell, discovered the famous lode, which became the Great Northern Tin Mine. A rush of miners from the Hodgkinson’s Goldfields followed. The construction of a dray road through the Tableland brought a secondary rush, this time timber cutters to mine the red gold (redcedar) of the rainforest. Redcedar cutters camps were at Rocky Creek, Prior Pocket, Oonda Swamp (Carrington) & Ziggenbein’s Pocket. Although tin was a major part in the Tablelands, timber is what Atherton owes its existence to with large areas of redcedar, kauri, maple, black bean, walnut, white beech and red tulip oak being milled for buildings.

Before the town of Atherton developed, a full-blown Chinatown sprang into existence. The Chinese had moved from the Palmer River Goldfields to the Atherton area, where the big timber stands had been cleared to make way for farming. The Chinese were considered pioneers of agriculture in North Queensland as 80% of crop production on the Tablelands was grown by them and they played a vital role in opening up the area for settlement. After the crops, they turned to dairying. As the population of Chinatown increased, small shops appeared, wells were sunk to supply water, there were cooks, herbalists, doctors and merchants etc. The rough straw huts were replaced by sawn timber houses with verandahs and corrugated iron roofs. By 1909, Chinatown had become the largest concentration of Chinese on the Tablelands with a population on 1100. Today, the Hou Wang Temple remains as one of the few reminders of the former Chinese population of the Atherton Tablelands.The attack on Pearl Harbor changed the world for many and Atherton felt the full thrust of this event’s far-reaching impact. Panic-stricken coastal dwellers began to arrive in large numbers and then moved further inland. Fortunately, the only invasion to reach Atherton was by the Australian Army who considered the Tablelands an ideal staging post for the war in the Pacific.

In the Second World War, Australian troops were camped around the district prior to being sent to the front and then again on their return. Many soldiers were interred at the war cemetery in Atherton.

Crops grown in and around Atherton include sugarcane, corn/maize, avocados, strawberries, macadamia nuts and mangoes and citrus. Tobacco was also grown for many years. Dairying, grazing and poultry are also present on the Tableland.

Tourism also contributes to the Tableland economy, with Tinaroo Dam being the focal point. Yungaburra is also becoming a tourist destination with a number of restaurants and Bed and Breakfasts.

Places of interest

See also