It makes sense that the world’s oldest tropical rainforest might have a bit of life-changing wisdom to share. Sarah Reid dives in as a willing student.
There’s a decent body of research exploring what draws people to Tropical North Queensland’s World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest. For many, it’s simply to experience nature; to soak up the beauty and wonder of one of the most biodiverse corners of earth.
For others, it’s to spot the Daintree’s quirky endemic flora and fauna—from the ancient idiot fruit to the formidable southern cassowary just to escape ‘real world’ pressures. On that note, you may as well put your phone on flight mode (remember that?) because the reception is patchy at best.
Whatever draws us to this veritable ‘Jurassic Park’, where plants and animals from the age of the dinosaurs still thrive, the Daintree tends to give back more than we bargained for—and I’m not just talking about a new collection of insect bites. After exploring this verdant abyss for a few days with Intrepid Travel, it didn’t just remind me why the Daintree is so darn special—it left me with a few helpful lessons for navigating the jungle of life.
I don’t like to admit it, but I thrive on stress. I’m not a big fan of the cortisol spike it triggers, however, so I lean on exercise to keep stress hormones in check. Recently, I’ve also come around to the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku or ‘forest bathing’ as being beneficial for the body and soul. But when I stepped into the Daintree, I became a super fan.
Scientists say a chemical released by trees and plants called phytoncides have a stack of health benefits including reducing stress, boosting the immunity and enhancing sleep. Perhaps because the Daintree has such a high density of plant species (3,300 and counting), its healing properties are almost tangible. After just a few minutes in the rainforest, I could already feel my stress levels drop. These benefits can’t be bottled (yet)—you’ll need to make a date with the Daintree to experience them.
The Daintree is protected by Daintree National Park, which means you’re not supposed to touch anything. Given it’s home to plants so toxic they can take down a cow (cue the idiot fruit), it’s a smart rule. But it’s darn empowering to learn what you could eat, heal yourself with, or craft weapons out of, in order to survive in the rainforest. Or at least look good on one of those wilderness survival reality shows.
It’s rainforests like the Daintree that keep our planet healthy, and in the face of climate change and other threats that are seeing rainforests disappear across the globe, we all need to do our bit to protect them.
The Daintree’s Traditional Owners, the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people, are the gatekeepers of this knowledge. Along the walking trails of Mossman Gorge, in the southern section of the national park, interpretation panels explain how Kuku Yalanji people have lived in harmony with the Daintree for more than 50,000 years. But the best way to tap into this knowledge is to book a tour with a local Indigenous guide like Linc Walker, who runs cultural tours at nearby Cooya Beach, an important fishing place for Kuku Yalanji people.
“Just grab one and lick its butt,” Walker dares us after giving a green tree ant nest a gentle prod, prompting its residents to file out in a frenzy to investigate. As we delight in the burst of citrus sherbet excreted from the backsides of the angry ants in defence, Walker tells us about the versatility of a nearby pandanus tree, which can be used for everything from a hunting torch to a material for basket weaving. The seeds can even be soaked to remove their toxins before being pounded into a flour. Teaching me to appreciate the rainforest in a whole new way, it’s knowledge we’d do well to take on board.
Home to more than 700 of Australia’s vertebrate species including 30 per cent of its marsupials and 65 per cent of its birds, the Daintree is a wildlife bonanza. So, naturally, I arrived with a long list of critters I was keen to clap eyes on. But I quickly learned that a trip to the Daintree—or any rainforest for that matter—isn’t a safari holiday. Rainforests are so lush and dense, and its residents so savvy in the art of camouflage, you see, that it can be pretty challenging to spot the creatures that call it home.
The highlight, I discovered, is just getting amongst the greenery, from the giant fan palms to the furry mosses. Embracing—as the famous line from classic Aussie comedy, The Castle, goes—“the vibe of it”. It was a good reminder to stop and enjoy the moment, and avoid burdening myself with unrealistic expectations. Then if something cool happens—in my case spotting a dingo, an enormous saltwater croc, some beautiful butterflies and freaky spiders—it’s, like, the ultimate vibe.
“It’s pretty easy to avoid getting eaten by a crocodile,” paddleboat skipper Drew Weyand tells us on a sunset cruise through the mangroves surrounding Port Douglas, the gateway to the Daintree. “It’s not like they walk into the pub lookin’ for ya.”
All you need to do to stay safe in croc country, adds Weyand, is follow official ‘crocwise’ guidelines. In the Daintree, the key rules include staying five metres from the edge of coastal waterways, never dangle your limbs outside boats, and swim only in places designated to be safe for a dip. But while it’s important to be mindful of salties, Walker tells us at Cooya Beach, we needn’t fear them.
“Crocs are a Totem animal for Kuku Yalanji people,” Walker explains. “They are our ancestors. We don’t hunt them, but we keep a good eye on them.”
Every single element of the rainforest has had a role to play in its survival over 180 million years, says outdoor educator Neil Hewett as he leads our small group on a walking tour of his rainforest property adjoining the Cape Tribulation section of Daintree National Park. Responsible for dispersing the seeds of dozens of rainforest plants, the cassowary, Hewett says, is a keystone species. “If this bird dies out—and there are as few as 1,000 of them left—a number of plant species would cease to survive,” he adds.
A metaphor for the power of collaboration in any setting, the plight of the cassowary also highlights the role that humans have to play in this one. For it’s rainforests like the Daintree that keep our planet healthy, and in the face of climate change and other threats that are seeing rainforests disappear across the globe, we all need to do our bit to protect them.