It only takes five minutes to cross the Cairns and Great Barrier Reef region’s croc-inhabited Daintree River on the cable ferry. But as our minibus rumbles off the barge and into the Cape Tribulation section of the World Heritage-listed Daintree National Park, it feels like we’ve travelled a few (hundred) million years back in time.
The human eye can see more shades of green than any other colour. And this fun fact is put to the ultimate test in this swathe of coastal rainforest stretching from the Daintree River up to the Bloomfield River, around 70 kilometres to the north. Estimated to be some 180 million years old, the Daintree offers a window into the evolution of plant and animal life on Earth. Did I mention kangaroos live in trees here?
On my first trip to this next-level wilderness area near the resort town of Port Douglas as an independent traveller, I discovered that this window only reveals so much to an untrained eye. So I jumped at the chance to experience this ancient corner of Queensland with local guides as part of Intrepid’s small-group Australia Retreat: Queensland’s Daintree tour.
The only place on the planet where two natural World Heritage sites meet—the Wet Tropics (which encompasses the Daintree) and the Great Barrier Reef—this section of the Daintree could be the lovechild of Avatar’s Pandora and Jurassic Park (I’ll get to the scary bits soon). Just 10 minutes from the ferry, Mount Alexandra Lookout is a great spot to breathe in its beauty.
Gazing across the verdant canopy towards the Coral Sea as a metallic blue Ulysses butterfly flutters past, it’s difficult to believe that less than 35 years ago, the Daintree was still being logged. Lowland areas cleared for farming still form part of the landscape today, though conservation-driven buyback schemes have seen many properties returned to the rainforest.
Harnessing ecotourism to support the revegetation of his own property in upper Cooper Creek, Neil Hewett shares his encyclopedic knowledge on guided walking tours.
“Best you don’t touch that,” says Hewett, as a member of our group reaches for a deep blue egg-shaped fruit on the forest floor. “The cassowary plum is one of the most toxic species in the rainforest,” Hewett explains. “Cassowaries are the only birds that can digest them.”
With huge feet and dagger-like claws, the southern cassowary—only found in the Wet Tropics—looks like a dinosaur. Indeed, the large, emu-like flightless bird is a descendant from the Cretaceous period, when the T-Rex still terrorised North America. Like most visitors to the Daintree, I have high hopes of spotting a cassowary, but with fewer than 1,000 thought to be left in the wild, I know my chances are slim.
“When you walk on Country, you get to see the connections between living things.”
But there’s much more going on in the Daintree. I mean, who knew there was a spider that can camouflage itself to look like a bird poo? Listening to Hewett espouse the ecological importance of this age-old ecosystem, I almost miss the dingo. Sensing our presence, the caramel-coloured wild dog studies us for a few seconds before trotting off out of sight. While dingoes (and cassowaries) have been known to attack humans, if rarely, there’s a much bigger predator to be mindful of in these parts.
“We’ve got life jackets, but to be honest they’re not gonna be much use if the boat starts sinking,” Ernie Dillon says with a grin as we climb aboard the croc-spotting cruise he runs in the mangrove-lined lower reaches of Cooper Creek.
It’s not long before Dillon spots Barry. All five metres of him. Resting on a mudflat, the ‘saltie’—the world’s largest lizard—stares straight at us with Sauron-esque eyes finely tuned for stalking prey (including the odd human) over 200 million-odd years of evolution.
Fortunately, not all waterways are off-limits in the Daintree, which is threaded with a number of idyllic freshwater creeks safe for swimming. One gurgles past Heritage Lodge, tucked off the main road that slices through the park, where we lap up a local barramundi lunch before continuing north to Cape Tribulation.
Cape Tribulation is known as Kulki or ‘place of cassowaries’ in the language of the Daintree’s Traditional Custodians, the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people. The elusive dinosaur birds evade us yet again, but the sweeping views from the headland lookout make it worth the journey. This is the end of the road for most visitors, unless you’ve come to tackle the notorious 4WD Bloomfield Track linking Cape Tribulation to Cooktown. But we’re not done with the Daintree yet.
South of the Daintree River, the southern section of Daintree National Park is anchored by the Indigenous-run Mossman Gorge Centre. The next morning, we jump on its solar shuttle bus to the edge of the rainforest, where a raised boardwalk and a loop trail lead us through a splendid slice of greenery alongside the Mossman River—a swimming spot where gin-clear water tumbles between huge granite boulders.
The only place on the planet where two natural World Heritage sites meet—the Wet Tropics (which encompasses the Daintree) and the Great Barrier Reef—this section of the Daintree could be the lovechild of Avatar’s Pandora and Jurassic Park.
It’s possible to tour Mossman Gorge with an Indigenous guide, which gives you an advantage at spotting one of the Daintree’s most exquisite creatures, the Boyd’s forest dragon, a charismatic lizard that’s—you guessed it—another living dinosaur. But this afternoon, we’re headed downriver to explore another side of the Daintree region with Kuku Yalanji man Linc Walker, who runs Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tours with his brother Brandon at Cooya Beach.
“When you walk on Country, you get to see the connections between living things,” says Walker, after welcoming us to the birthplace of his ancestors with a traditional smoking ceremony. On a short walk along the coastline near the head of the Mossman River, Walker teaches us to see the tropical landscape in a new way, revealing everything from the culinary and medicinal uses of different plants, to the subtle cues in nature that have guided traditional ways of life for Eastern Kuku Yalanji people for more than 50,000 years.
“When the wattle flowers, it tells us that the mullet are fattening up,” Walker says, brushing the sand from a fallen wild plum and daring us to sample the native fruit (it’s very tart).
Trying to master a traditional-style fishing spear leaves me with an even deeper respect for how Kuku Yalanji people have lived in harmony with this landscape for generations. Proving you don’t need to see a cassowary to connect with the Daintree, it’s a fitting end to our adventure. But with hundreds of other bird species alone to spot in this ancient rainforest, I’ve got more than one reason to return.
Sarah Reid is an Australian travel writer, currently living out of a backpack somewhere in Africa. She specializes in sustainable travel and writes for a range of travel publications in Australia, the UK, the US and beyond.