Port Douglas is the only place where two UNESCO World Heritage Sites meet. Having seen the Great Barrier Reef on Sunday, I set off to find the land-based natural wonder on Monday: the oldest rainforest in the world.
While the Daintree Rainforest is only 0.1% of the landmass of Australia, it’s sufficiently big enough that it’s only accessible by car or tour. Since I wasn’t inclined to rent a car, I signed up for a small, highly-recommended, eco-tour. There were seven of us: an older couple from Tassie, another older couple from New Zealand, and a young couple originally from Europe but currently living in Sydney. I was pleasantly surprised by how knowledgeable and scientific the tour guide and the entire group was.
In about 8 hours, we managed to make it all the way from Port Douglas to Cape Tribulation and back. Before we even hit the national park, I had already learned quite a bit about the local area, including the identity of the tall crop that my train from Townsville rolled through. Along the road to the park, there were fields and fields of the same plant: sugarcane. Connecting each farm was a quaint little train, which was, quite brilliantly, used to transport cane to the main co-op building and processing facility.
But I digress. The national park trip started at Mossman Gorge, which is basically a small river. It was quite pretty, but I was more interested in the plant life and park management. The short trail we took introduced us to both the trunk of the trees and the middle canopy, as our tour guide explained that the Daintree is between 100 and 180 million years old and contains prehistoric plant life. Given that, ecotourism is booming across the region. Mossman Gorge, specifically, is the center of tourism for the indigenous community in the region. The Mossman Gorge Centre is managed and predominantly staffed by members of the Kuku Yalanji and other indigenous communities. This centre controls access to the gorge, ensuring that indigenous communities retain some control over the lands that they traditionally occupied.
From Mossman, we headed farther up the coast to the Daintree River. We stopped for Morning Tea, or in my case Elevenses/Second Breakfast, before going on a crocodile tour. Initially, I wasn’t particularly excited about the croc tour as I tend to find wildlife tours to be exploitative. This tour, however, exceeded my expectations. We hopped a boat with Griffin, who works for a local, small, family-run company. Griff and his faithful dog, Duke, took us down the river in search of crocs. We managed to spot five monsters basking in the sun on the bank, the largest being four-meters long. Supposedly there is a five-meter croc in the area, but I was quite happy not to meet that creature in our six-meter long boat. Over the course of thirty minutes of croc spotting, I learned a lot of important things:
- Crocs are big.
- Crocs can eat people.
- The “Salty’s” in Australia are technically salt-water creatures, but they live in tidal estuaries and have been found 60 km upstream from the ocean.
- Crocs can be found on the beaches in Australia if they’re moving between rivers.
- If the river is murky, don’t get in it.
- In Queensland, it’s illegal to feed or hunt them (thank goodness). In the Northern Territory, it’s not. My fellow tourists told me a horrifying story of going on a croc tour near Darwin where they were chumming for crocs next to the boat.
- You can train a dog to focus on fishing for sticks in croc infested waters.
After staring at dinosaurs and absorbing this life-saving information, we were deposited on the other side of the river in the northern part of the park. We rejoined our tour guide who had taken the bus across on the ferry and were quickly whisked farther north to check out a piece of private property. By the time the Daintree National Park was created in 1981, a lot of the rainforest was privately owned. Some of it was, and remains, farmland for sugarcane and bananas. Some of it, however, was privately owned but relatively undeveloped. The government and preservation societies slowly bought back quite a bit of this land and added it to the national park. The rest of it is still private property. The park has simply grown around these parcels, much like the national and state parks in the US. These people live entirely off the grid, as there are no electricity lines between the Daintree River and Cape Tribulation. Some of these private property owners have taken advantage of the boom in ecotourism, such as the one where we stopped for a hike, swim, and food. In the mid-20th century, the owner bought over 600 acres of rainforest, but never did much with it. Since most of the land was pristine, the government wanted to add it to the national park. Instead of selling it to them, the owner agreed to make it a world heritage reserve but retaina ownership. Now, his estate allows ecotours access, earning an income and preserving this biodiverse landscape.
On our short hike through part of the property, my inner arborist got to geek out over two huge Strangler Figs. (Side note: I had no idea how many types of fig trees there were before I came to Australia. Unsurprisingly, they’re huge here!). Strangler figs are quite fascinating: they grow on top of the trunk of another tree, eventually fully encapsulating their host and killing it. This parasitic growth is quite beautiful to behold.
On our way from the hike to lunch, we spotted a Cassowary, the tropics version of the Emu and Ostrich. The bright colors and the keratin helmet look almost cartoonish. We were lucky enough to see a papa bird with four chicks. (The females lay the eggs and the males raise the chicks.)
After lunch, two of us jumped in the clear, cold creek. My fellow tourist hopped out pretty quickly, but I found it quite refreshing. It reminded me of swimming in Makuya, South Africa, when we had to stay in the rapids to avoid the hippos and crocs. The similarities became even stronger after our guide explained that they regularly spot crocs about one km downstream where the waters get deeper and murkier.
Our last nature stop was Cape Tribulation, which is the farthest you can get without a four-wheel drive car. Once again, we can thank Captain Cook for the name. In 1770, Cook ran aground on the reef. They managed to float the boat farther north to what is now Cooktown, where it took them almost seven weeks to make repairs. Cook named this spot Cape Tribulation because, in his words, “here began all our troubles.” In the modern era, Cape Tribulation is quite beautiful and peaceful. It’s a lovely big beach sitting between bright blue water and a deep green rainforest. All too quickly, our tour guide beckoned us back to the bus for the most important stop of the day: Daintree Ice Cream Company. This small company runs an exotic fruit orchard in the middle of the rainforest. They only sell one thing: a cup of the four different ice cream flavors they currently have available. When we arrived, the menu included the following: wattleseed, black sabotee, soursop, and banana. It tasted exactly like a bowl of coffee, chocolate, lemony vanilla, and banana ice cream. I think they should teach a class. I want to learn how to make fruit taste like that.
Happy and full, we continued our long journey south. The only major point of interest on the return journey was the ferry. We bypassed the ferry on the way north by taking the croc cruise; heading south, we got to take it across with the bus. This is the epitome of a bare-bones car ferry. You drive on. They use a chain to pull the ferry across the river. You drive off. It takes less than 15 minutes. This ferry, by the way, is the only way to get across the Daintree River. If the wet season is particularly rough and the river floods and the ferry can’t run, people up north are stranded. They could take the rough road to Cooktown, but if the region is flooding they may not be able to get up there. Here, as in much of rural Australia, life is dictated by the wet and dry seasons. Unfortunately, our tour guide, who has been living in this area for over 40 years, noted that the wet season is getting shorter and shorter each year due to climate change, extending the tourism season but causing problems for farmers and the native fauna.
By the time we made it back to Port Douglas, I was quite exhausted. Two days of tours and adrenaline were taking their toll. However, I didn’t want to leave town without checking out the beach. I took a quick detour to the famous four-mile beach, laughed at the crocodile warning, and then headed off for a much-needed rest.