Sarah Trevor treks into Mossman Gorge, in the heart of the Daintree, in search of what lies beyond the trees, enlisting the help of a guide with centuries of insight.
Seen one rainforest, seen ’em all, right? Sure, there are tropical, temperate and countless other types, but as far as scenery goes, you’ve got your towering canopy, lush foliage and maybe, if you’re lucky, a cascading waterfall or two. (Oh, and a copious amount of rain, being a rainforest and all.)
At first glance, you might be forgiven for thinking that Mossman Gorge, some 80 kilometres north of Cairns, is a rainforest much like any other. Same canopy, same understorey and, yes, an abundance of greenery. Ethereal beauty? Check.
But it’s not the luxuriant scenery that brings me here – though, you know, it certainly doesn’t hurt. Instead, the equally rich culture of the rainforest’s traditional owners has drawn me to this southern edge of the Daintree; a culture that has encompassed this place for almost unfathomable millennia.
And this is how, at the rainforest’s edge, I find myself performing a perfunctory twirl as I inhale the plumes of smoke that unfurl around my legs. This traditional smoking ceremony by local elder ‘Uncle’ Roy Gibson of the Kuku Yalanji people wards off bad spirits and welcomes us to country. Now we may proceed.
But we do so slowly, led by Roy along the very same route he has used since his childhood. He takes us around the rainforest with the casual manner and ingrained familiarity of someone pottering about his own backyard. Which, really, isn’t too far off.
“It’s my baby,” he coos as we enter. “I was born and bred here. Know it inside out.”
Some place to grow up in. Pale, green-tinged light sifts through the chinks of the formidable canopy, and a soft whirr of unfamiliar birds, insects and whatever-else-is-out-there hums through the sweetly-scented air. It’s surprisingly – or perhaps unsurprisingly? – humid for mid autumn. Taking in the scene around, above and below me, I reflect on what it must be like to call one of the world’s oldest living rainforests home.
But it is the green that first grabs me. Green sprawls across the canopy overhead, glistens amid its leaves and clings to lichen-speckled trunks below. Thick, mossy blankets of it recline against rocks and softly brush against you as you pass. It dapples virtually every surface of the rainforest – and even some of its residents.
As the track meanders, instantly Roy exclaims, “This is my little boy!”
It takes a few moments of guesswork – and much pointing – before I can make out the ‘boy’ in question: almost camouflaged amid a green and brown specked vine is a Boyd’s forest dragon. With his jagged spine, white freckles, and three talon-like barbs protruding in a scaly mohawk from the back of his head, he is a unusual-looking little guy.
“What’s his name?” I ask, leaning closer.
“His name is Boy!” Roy cackles. Gotcha.
Pausing now and then to take in Roy’s jovial insights, we walk on in silence, soothed by the soundtrack of the river’s streaming, the occasional birdcall and not-so-occasional raindrops.
Locals say that Mossman Gorge is at its most scenic during rainfall, as Mother Nature intended it to be seen; then, it comes into its own, its leaves gleaming at their brightest, its aromas drawn out by the downpour. (Not that you’d be complaining if it was all sunshine either.) I remember this as it rains softly, lending the scene a serene, almost spiritual feel.
And no wonder. In the seemingly pre-human tranquillity of the Daintree, with primordial ferns swaying gently in the wind, you could almost envision dinosaurs trudging about, or perhaps sense the faint presence of inhabitants from its 135 million year history.
For such a prehistoric slice of land, though, Mossman Gorge is holding up pretty well: it remains a vibrant living museum. After all, the rainforest is where Mother Nature shows off her creative versatility to an extent that few other ecosystems can rival, from the tiniest insect skulking along the forest floor to the cassowaries reputedly lurking about. This place remains, for all its peace and stillness, an epicentre of life.
For the Kuku Yalanji in particular, the rainforest has long been like a living, breathing all-in-one convenience store. Berries indicate that bush turkey hunting season is in its prime, while the “fish are fat” for catching, Roy explains, when the rainforest’s assortment of nuts is stocked on its branches.
He takes a sample of the Daintree Nut and, with a sudden crack, splits the nut open on a rock. It’d take only eight of these minuscule nuts to make a person totally full, he swears, eagerly swallowing the flesh inside. Tasting its twin, I discover a blend of tamarind and coconut. Not bad.
The rainforest has not only fed, but sheltered, healed and equipped the Kuku Yalanji for generations; from the medicinal properties of the milky pine tree to the pencil cedar’s use in canoe construction. The multipurpose buttress roots – many gargantuan in size – supplied shields, boomerangs, and even a potential means of communication provided you bashed a stone against them hard enough. The resourcefulness, skills and knowledge demanded by rainforest living is astounding.
But it is hearing firsthand the rainforest’s role in the Dreamtime that gets me so quietly, respectfully awestruck. We are joined by David and seated in a natural amphitheatre for a traditional performance. His melodic retelling of ancestral Dreaming stories, the stuff of millennial folklore, weaves me into a semi-trance, until… silence. I reopen my eyes and, in the dappled sunlight, the landscape around us is imbued with a whole new significance.
“You feel things in here, in places like this,” Roy says quietly, later. And, just quietly, he’s not wrong.
The many bark shelters we pass, though reconstructed, are reminders of the longevity of the Kuku Yalanji here, the coexistence of the rainforest and her people.
But there’s also an undeniable element of awe, tinged with if not quite fear then certainly a palpable respect. Roy affords the rainforest and much of its contents a deep, mystical power. And it’s not hard to see why.
For all its generous bounty of goods and wares the rainforest is far from an all-giving, all-benevolent nurturer. Take the ‘stinging tree’. This plant grows only in the sparse patches of sunlight, forming an almost heart shape, dotted with enticing little red cherries. In case the name didn’t tip you off, though, the plant is laced with tiny stinging mottles that can itch for months, made worse still by the usual immediate reactions of scratching or applying water. Your best bet for combating the all-consuming pain, Roy shares, would be waxing strips to take the sting out – or urine. Lovely.
Moving right along then, the sound of the waters grows closer and, through slits within the density of trees, we begin to steal glances of the rainforest’s star attraction: Mossman Gorge itself. Though, in reality, the section we encounter is not so much a gorge as a river bounded by vivid green rainforests on either bank. It makes for a secluded little swimming spot, whose surprisingly cool waters taught many a local kid to swim.
Lichen-splotched boulders lie dormant, their edges rounded smooth by centuries of rushing water – and, oh, what water it is. Slightly murky from afar, up close you realise that the water here is impeccably clear, just… green. Really green, depending on when the rain last fell, ranging from acidic lime to gleaming emerald to the dim olive it is upon my visit.
Before our eyes, Roy dips sassafras into the river and rubs it profusely. Following his example, I find the plant transforming into a salty lather within my very grasp. This foam, Roy adds, is renowned for its ability to treat mosquito-borne itchiness.
His next trick is to concoct paint from the gooey clays, marking globules of ochre, beige and white on his forearms. As a young, long-haired youth, Roy says, he used to dab himself in this homemade body paint and hide among the trees.
“When I heard someone coming, I’d let out a cough,” he says. “Nearly gave them a heart attack.”
He pauses. “Then I gave them a hug to make them smile.”
It was Roy’s vision, some 20 years in the making, for not only these Indigenous-guided Dreamtime walks but also the Mossman Gorge Centre that opened last year. After some (very strong) Daintree tea and local damper, we return to the centre to enjoy some tasty local produce and Far North Queensland Indigenous art.
Which I enjoy, don’t get me wrong. But I remain distracted by the landscape I’d seen and just how much I gained by the Dreamtime tour – guided by the ultimate local, a local with centuries of insight up his sleeve.
If you’ll forgive an overly fitting cliche, it helped redirect my gaze beyond the trees to see the forest, as it were, in all its natural and cultural glory.
Sure, at Mossman Gorge, the canopy towers, waterfalls cascade and the foliage is aptly lush, but it’s not the varied hues of green that will stay with you but rather the rainforest’s varied hues of meaning.
Seen one rainforest, seen ’em all? One last pun, I promise: utterly misguided.