Daintree Rainforest, Far North Queensland
From the Palm Cove apartment I could see the route ahead. The tantalising prospect of the road heading north. For the next few days it wouldn’t just be sailing over the top of the rainforest, it would be exploring deep within it.
The Mossman Gorge
Enjoying the rare treat of a hotel on this leg of the trip we were perched in a treehouse high above the Mossman river with glorious walks straight from the door. Crystal clear waters and the low level of the river provide further evidence that the rainy season had yet to take hold.
The overwhelming sounds of the forest, during daylight hours anyway, come from cicadas. Only the male makes the call, to draw the attention of a passing female. A loud call counts for everything in male cicada world. Should a female make an appearance the nearest male starts to vibrate ‘tymbals’, structures attached to the exoskeleton of his abdomen. His chums nearest him, not to be outdone, vibrate too and so on up the forest. The call requires a tremendous effort on the part of the cicada and can’t be maintained for long. As the first males fall silent an aural Mexican wave proceeds through the canopy, the cacophany at its peak enough to stop you in your tracks.
Much of the Daintree Rainforest falls within the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Site, listed by UNESCO in 2015 and therefore now protected, along with the many unique species which thrive there. The Daintree contains 3% of the frog, reptile and marsupial species in Australia and 90% of Australia’s bat and butterfly species. 7% of bird species in the country can be found in this area, along with over 12,000 species of insects (Source: wikipedia here). Sadly much of the rainforest has already been lost, trees felled to make way for agriculture. Vast fields of sugar cane pretty much dominate the landscape around the remains of the forest, as indeed they do throughout North Queensland.
Sugar cane trucks stand ready for the next harvest season
It’s not all good news for the farmers though. Through a phenomenon known as Cloud Stripping the rainforest trees contribute a significant volume of water to the region, over and above that provided by rainfall. As low cloud, mist and fog drift through the canopy water vapour condenses on the leaves, running down the branches and trunk or dripping down to the ground. It has been estimated to account for as much as 30% of all the water reaching the ground in high altitude sites. The trees use only a small portion, most of the runoff feeds into the streams and rivers for the benefit of the ecosystem as a whole, as well as providing water for irrigation and urban water supply.
But get this.. the forecast 2° warming of the Wet Tropics region through climate change is predicted to cause a rise in the altitude of the cloud layer. Fewer trees with their heads in the clouds means a much smaller area over which Cloud Stripping can occur.
It’s hard to convey a sense of how dense the forest is once you are within it. Stray from the path and you might easily never find it again.
A strangler fig begins life as a sticky seed left on a high tree branch by a bird or a bat which then germinates on the tree’s surface. As it grows long roots develop and creep down the trunk of the host, eventually reaching the ground and entering the soil. The fig creates a nearly complete sheath, in the form of a latticework, around the host’s trunk. The host tree’s canopy becomes overwhelmed by the thick fig foliage and its own root system forced to compete with that of the strangling fig.
Competing with a strangler fig is quite often fatal for the host. Here you can see that the original tree has died and is rotting away.
Nothing much is wasted in the grand circle of life
But if we were to go as far into the forest as I really wanted to go I’d have to confront an obstacle.
Water. I’d carefully planned this trip to avoid any passage over it except in an airplane which, in the circumstances, is somewhat unavoidable. For years it’s been this way. It hasn’t restricted life too much in the big scheme of things. There may never be a holiday in the Maldives but there are other tropical islands. Ones that have runways, albeit grass ones with bumpy landings in tiny planes with those criss crossey things where the jet engines ought to be. I’d truly love to go to Antarctica and that is more of a regret.
So then. If I was to challenge this boat phobia thing where would be the best place to start? A boating lake in an English park maybe? Just a couple of feet deep so I could wade back to dry land if needs must? Or perhaps take a punt over the river at the bottom of the garden.. all of 5 feet across? Nope.
Here. The Daintree river. Deep. Wide. Fast flowing. And infested with crocodiles.
Apparently the Daintree is the second most crocodile infested river in Queensland. (The first, the Proserpine river in the Whitsundays, was by sheer good fortune the place we would be going on to next). I read a story once, from Bill Bryson I think, about a woman who’d just been idly running her fingers through the water somewhere in Australia. Seconds later she’d disappeared without trace. A crocodile grabbed her arm and dragged her down, drowning her in the murky depths.
Our quest was to drive to Cape Tribulation, the most northerly place one can get to on the east coastal route of Australia before the road turns to mush. And the only way to do that is to put yourself, and your car, on a boat. I held my breath all the way. Rules are you must stay in the car. To guard against the possibility of finger dipping. Obviously.
You’ll notice the cables tethering the ferry to the shore at each side of the river. It was the promise of this extra stability that swung it. As long as it didn’t. If you get my drift. Doh.
The view from the north side, where the Daintree meets the sea.
The indigenous name for this idyllic spot is Kaba-Kada (Rain A Lot).
Simply glorious. And still we had these beaches almost to ourselves. Do they know something we don’t?
In what seemed like just desserts, or entrees as it happens, I tried crocodile for dinner on our last night up here. I was intrigued. I’d imagined something like salty beef. It’s actually more like chicken and not at all unpleasant.
A familiar sight in the rainforest, buttressed trunks. Possibly to provide stability, or to hold water around the roots, their function is unknown.
Scrub fowl nest
A rather odd looking chicken of a bird uses its vertically aligned tail to brush the leaf litter into heaps into which it lays its eggs. This particular heap was over four feet high, I could barely peer into it. We tried on many occasions to get a decent photo of the bird, they’re just too skittish. Once the eggs are laid the birds vacate the nest, leaving the offspring to dig out and then fend for themselves.
At intervals up this stretch of coast there are places to stop and delve deeper into the forest on boardwalks.
The Marrdja Boardwalk
A strangler fig again, with the host tree having died and completely rotted away leaving only the latticework of the fig.
The Marrdja Boardwalk takes us deep into mangrove swamp. If you were going to see crocodiles anywhere, surely this place would be it. Sadly it was not to be.
Prop roots hold the mangroves fast against tides, waves and wind. Red mangrove seeds germinate while still attached to the parent tree. The seedling drops off, floating away on the tide to take root where it washes up.
Almost at journey’s end. The ultimate prize, Cape Tribulation.
And I have to tell you folks, it is gorgeous.
These patterns in the sand are made by ‘Bubbler Crabs’ as they feed. All this was created within the space of just one tide.
Check out the incredible video (here) of the Bubbler Crab at work from David Attenborough’s The Blue Planet.
Mangroves on Cape Tribulation beach
And this is it. The end of the road.
Beyond here the Bloomfield Track to Cooktown and then it gets seriously hairy. It’s possible to drive all the way to the tip of Australia but really only in an organised group with serious off road drivers. And only in the dry season. Major rivers need to be forded. In the car. No ferry. Not even a raft.
As if to emphasise the point, this was the sight around the next bend.
For me, turning around to face the return crossing of the Daintree river was excitement enough for one day.