Cape Tribulation’s ancient Daintree Rainforest is perhaps Australia’s greatest adventure playground on the cusp of the greatest reef on earth. Benjamin Law eats, walks, climbs and paddles his way through the land that time forgot. (photography Tammy Law).
If you’re like me and are secretly devastated Jurassic World will never exist in real life, you’ll find some consolation in Queensland’s Daintree.
Only 90 minutes north of Cairns, this 1200 square-kilometre stretch of UNESCO World Heritage protected rainforest is teeming with prehistoric flora and wildlife, the last fragment of an ancient ecosystem even older and more biodiverse than the Amazon.
In some patches of the rainforest, no bigger than a football field, there are more plant and animal species than the entirety of North America and Europe put together.
In this wilderness, you’ll find over a third of Australia’s mammal speceis and an estimated 3000 plant species, 12,000 types of insects, pythons and crocodiles the length of living rooms, and the cassowary, a ferocious-looking giant flightless bird that’s one of the closest living descendants of the dinosaurs.
How to explore?
Knowing all this, though, how should a visitor fully appreciate the lush wonders of this ecological ark time seemingly forgot? Through air? On foot? Via water? The answer, of course, is all of the above.
From Cairns airport, we take a rented four-wheel-drive across a river ferry for our first Daintree adventure, which will take us 245 metres above sea level and high into the canopies of 1000-year-old treetops.
Our Jungle Surfing canopy tour guides Jordan and Ashton, who resemble off-duty surfers, fit us all into full-body harnesses and give us personalised helmets. Today, I’m Thor, my sister is Khaleesi, and the father–daughter duo joining us are Indiana Jones and Tinkerbell.
Considering the age of the Daintree, it’s fitting the rainforest even sounds Jurassic. All above us, Victoria’s riflebirds squawk terribly like screeching pterodactyls. To get closer to the birds, though, we’ll first need to hoist each other up.
Jordan attaches Indiana Jones and Tinkerbell onto a zipline that ascends to some high platforms, while Khaleesi and I enter a cross between a hamster wheel and a giant front-loading washing machine.
As we grind the machine like lab rats, Indiana Jones and Tinkerbell are lifted via the zipline into the air. “Think of it as a human-powered ski lift,” Jordan says.
Up in the highest tree platform – 20 metres above the ground – we’re treated to a gut-punching panorama of where the rainforest meets the sea.
Duelling UNESCO sites
It’s not just any sea: we’re looking at the Great Barrier Reef, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“This is one of the few places where you can see Australia’s most ecologically diverse land zone and the most diverse oceanic zone, intersecting,” Ashton says.
Even people scared of heights forget their phobias up here. It’s not every day you get to see two World Heritage Sites caress each other from the spires of trees that existed before colonists set foot on the continent. Once our feet are planted back on solid ground, we keep them there for an indigenous guided tour of the Daintree’s Mossman Gorge.
Our guide Yanganda (or, if we can’t pronounce that, he tells us to call him ‘Skippy’) starts the tour with a smoking ceremony where visitors bathe themselves in smoke from a small pit, designed to protect, cleanse and show respect to the traditional owners.
“Now we all smell the same,” Yanganda says when we’re done. “This way, we travel as one.” Yanganda leads us deep into the forest, showing us how the Daintree ecosystem sustained the local Kuku Yalanji people for millennia.
Bush food bonanza
If you know where to look, you’ll find roots that taste of cabbage, fruits that taste like lychees, and custard apples, native blue ginger, vines from which you can make huts, plants that leak clean drinking water, and hollowed trees that are actually burial sites.
“If your grandfather was buried in the hollow,” he says, “you would be, too. Hence, ‘family tree’.”
Still, for all of its gifts, the Daintree can be lethal. A stinging plant, known as Gympie Gympie, is covered in microscopic barbs that release toxins into human skin. One early colonist who used the plant as toilet paper is said to have been in such agony, he shot himself in the head. Yanganda picks up an inviting-looking fruit and shows it to us.
“Yellow walnut,” he says. “If you were to eat this one here, you’d die.” Yet, the Kuku Yalanji found a way of eating them.
Women would make the yellow walnuts non-toxic by putting them in running water until they saw fish were unaffected by it. Following decades of governments forcibly removing Aboriginal people from their land, few Kuku Yalanji actually permanently live within the Daintree itself now.
A humbling homeland history lesson
However, one whitefella and his family has called Cooper Creek – the spot halfway between the Daintree River and Cape Tribulation – home for decades.
“We are the first inhabitants of a private property in World Heritage,” says Neil Hewitt.
Though Neil might be a whitefella, his grief over the removal of indigenous people from their environment runs deep. The Kuku Yalanji, he explains on four-hour Cooper Creek tour, were a tree-climbing people, and for millennia were essentially the Daintree’s apex predator, hunting and eating the forest’s giant tree-top pythons.
After Aboriginal people were forcibly removed as part of the Stolen Generations, the pythons thrived, meaning certain local kangaroo species – the python’s prey – are now on the brink of extinction. Which is to say, the Stolen Generations weren’t just a humanitarian tragedy, but – for the Daintree – an ecological disaster, too.
The invisible spiders
Here in the heart of the Daintree, Neil points out creatures that seem impossible and fantastic. Lichen spiders that live on trees are so camouflaged half of us can’t see one despite it being centimetres from our faces.
Above us, green tree ants make alien-like structures of leaves so strong, they can shield themselves from the impact of cyclones. When we get into the thick of the jungle, Neil tells us to look up: there majestic fan palms have climbed halfway up the canopy, taking over 1500 years to grow that tall.
Closer to eye level is Austrobaileya, a primitive flowering plant that was “the equivalent to finding dinosaurs in the Cooper Valley for scientists,” says Neil. However, the tour is also an education into how the Daintree is still under threat. “Look,” Neil says, pointing to a patch of dirt feral pigs have recently dug up.
Pig versus cassowary
Wild pigs – breeding in their hundreds – are now destroying the ecology of the Daintree, disrupting the soil and threatening the endangered cassowary, whose eggs the pigs eat. Many plant species of the Daintree, which are found nowhere else on Earth, depend on the cassowary to ingest, distribute and fertilise its seeds. If the pigs destroy the cassowary, both the bird and the plants disappear forever.
What makes it even more tricky is that the pigs need to be culled, except that the Daintree’s World Heritage status doesn’t allow for hunting inside its boundaries. After breaking out of the forest, we need to cool down. However, two of the most famous waterways in the area – Cape Tribulation Beach and the Daintree River – are strictly not for swimming. Both are teeming with estuary (saltwater) crocodiles.
“Being on the Daintree River is a lot better than being in the Daintree River,” says Richard Belcher, as we hop on his boat. Belcher, who runs river cruises down the Daintree with his brother, Bruce, and nephew, Griff, is part of a family mad for crocs.
On the Belchers’ boat, we look out onto a swampy nest of mud and mangrove roots and spot our first crocodile, three metres long and only just come into maturity. It’s illegal to feed crocodiles or provoke them into action, so most seem content to watch us humans in the sun with lazy contempt and amusement.
Bird watching rainforest style
For real action, we look into the trees. Above, we see herons, ibises, ospreys, a white great egret – an elegant bird that belongs on a Japanese scroll – and kingfishers bearing the royal blues of an opal and a stripe of brilliant orange. Bird-watchers from all over the world go breathless on these cruises, binoculars glued to faces.
Still, after all the hiking, boating, zip-lining and FNQ heat, we crave getting into the water. One of the best croc-free spots to swim is back in Mossman, where you can soak in the freshwater gorge or – better yet – wind your way through the river on a paddle board.
Bretto, a sunburnt local larrikin who owns paddle boarding and kite surfing company Windswell, takes us down to a part of the Mossman River where the currents are gentle and the waters are shallow. Perfect for paddle boarding.
Knee-deep in the stream, Bretto demonstrates how best to get on the board without tipping over. I follow his lead and climb on – first crouching, then on two legs – and fall in the water within seconds.
“If you’re not wet by the end of today,” Bretto calls out, “you’re not doing it properly!” But once my legs are steady and my eyes are on the horizon, I discover paddling is as easy as standing.
As we wind our way through this lost world, on a freshwater path that feels specially paved for us, I look around at this thriving, living fossil and think – not for the first time – that it looks exactly like a scene from Jurassic Park.
Getting to the Daintree: The Daintree is a 90-minute drive north from Cairns Airport, which services most domestic and many international airlines. Take at least two nights and three days to explore the area properly, and hire a comfortable rental car – the drives between spots are leisurely, but sometimes long.
Staying in the Daintree: Hotels and resorts in Far North Queensland lead the way in offering environmentally sustainable luxury accommodation. Daintree Eco Lodge offers private bungalows equipped with mosquito-proofed windows and sleek bathrooms that look out into the rainforest. For extra privacy and the opportunity to sleep to the sound of the crashing waves, Thala Beach Nature Reserve is just as plush and right next to the ocean.
Playing there: Tropical North Queensland’s website pools together every activity and accommodation options to suit any budget.