Two Savages in Southeast Asia

Here, There Be Dragons

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With everything still moving in boat-rocking sinusoidal fashion, we decide to head up into the Daintree by Cape Tribulation on a 2-day/1-night tour. We’re getting a bit tired of our tour-driven itinerary in Cairns, but we really want to get a better look at the rainforest!

From a biodiversity perspective, Far North Queensland is truly blessed: the Daintree rainforest and Great Barrier Reef are #2 and #1 in terms of number of unique species, and the Daintree is the world’s second largest rainforest. (The Amazon, not surprisingly, claims the title at roughly 10 times its size.) As research for Avatar, James Cameron paid a visit to the Daintree, where he drew inspiration from its bioluminescent spores, strangler figs, and many other forms of life.

The Way Up

We’re picked up from our hostel, Northern Greenhouse, at 7:15am to be whisked around various other pickup points around Cairns before heading north for the Daintree. The Captain Cook Highway passes a giant effigy of Captain Cook, the Cairns Botanic Gardens and Tropical Zoo (both accessible by bus!), fields of wallabies, clusters of sugar cane plantations (the #2 industry in Cairns, behind tourism), the train lines used for transporting felled cane to nearby sugar mills, telephone poles with white-breasted seagull nests at their tops, and some beautiful coastline on its way into Mossman.

We stop just out of Mossman for a bite at the Crossroads Café, then head on to the Daintree River for a crocodile-spotting tour aboard a surprisingly agile flat-bottomed boat. The Daintree River is tidal up to 30km upstream of the ocean, of which alpha crocodiles will stake out several kilometres as their territory. On the boat, we spot six crocs, most small males (a couple of 2-3 year olds, one adolescent of 13) but at least one female (a larger one at 22.) The local alpha is named Scarface, and he tolerates the adolescent male only because he hasn’t reached sexual maturity yet. Once the adolescent becomes a sexual competitor, Scarface will force him out of his territory, and he may not get to mate until he reaches the age of 40-50. Crocs have a sort of give-and-take with feral pigs: they eat pigs when they get the chance, and in return the pigs are more than happy to eat croc eggs.

The crocs are also reputed to eat dogs, so keep yours on leash if you plan to walk it down by croc-infested waters! For that matter, keep yourself at least 4m from the water’s edge, especially around murky waters: with their array of fins, crocs can sneak up on prey in water as shallow as 2ft without disturbing the surface.

Our croc tour boat drops us off at the other end of the Daintree ferry, which is the only way for rainforest inhabitants to reach Mossman. (Well, they can drive up by Cooktown and around, but that’s a long way.) On this side, there’s no power or water hookups; residents often install generators to power their homes, and will collect rainwater in cisterns for drinking.

The road winds up and around before dropping into Cow Bay, so named for the cows that used to wander from their pastures for a dip in the water back when this was cattle-ranching land. With the introduction of the sealed road in recent years, the Daintree has gradually been opened up to tourism. We stop for a quick jaunt into the rainforest. At the end, our guide plucks a green ant off a nearby tree and makes a strange request: lick its bum! I decide to brave it, and am treated to a sharp taste not unlike sticking a 9-volt battery to your tongue. These ants will bite you, then rub their formic acid-coated behinds into the wound to make it sting. This acid mixture is actually rich in vitamin C, and the aborigines will crush ants both as a substitute for vinegar on marine stings (see below) and as a general curative.

The guide also points out rattan, the smooth mature form of the barbed lawyer vine. In a pinch, you can cut the rattan vine and drain out enough potable water to survive. The vine itself is quite supple, and is used extensively by the natives as a building and craft material.

In the Rainforest

There’s a handful of short hikes by our accommodations: a short jaunt down the beach, over a tidal creek, and around the back of Cape Tribulation to a beach on the other side; a hop down the road to Mason’s store and café; and the Dubuji interpretive boardwalk. With nothing much to do, we do all three.

First up is the Cape Trib hike. On the beach, you can spot yellow-whitish crabs scurrying out of their holes, and you’ll see evidence of another species called the sand bubbler crab. This crab extracts nutrients and small organisms from the sand, then spits the rest out as a tiny ball; it will then form intricate patterns of these balls in the sand around its burrowing hole. You can also see the many stages of mangrove development, from the first tentative snorkel roots to the spidery networks that form under more mature trees.

Next we hop down to Mason’s along a sort of sidewalk that weaves in and out of the rainforest by the road. Not much to see here, but we do get a package of dried local bananas at the store, which is delicious!

On the way back, we walk down the horse path to the beach and along. It’s low tide now, which really exposes the mangrove root systems for inspection – awesome! We turn off the beach a bit early, and happen upon the Dubuji boardwalk by accident. The beach accesses are stocked with medical vinegar, to be used on the stinging nematocysts of jellyfish; this neutralizes the venom, making the stingers safe to remove. (Depending on the species, you’ll still need prompt medical attention!)

The boardwalk signs include one about epiphytes, such as the basket fern that we encountered back in Kuranda. What we didn’t know is that neighboring trees will send roots up into these baskets, where the soil is relatively undisturbed by tidal variations and therefore rich in nutrients!

Night Walk

We also signed up for a guided night hike at 7:30pm, by which time the spotty rain has mostly subsided – which is unfortunate, since the rainforest really comes alive in the rain. Nevertheless, we spot loads of spiders, including a massive orb weaver right in the hut where we grab our torches. There’s a few slugs and snails around, and a couple of us spot rodents dashing off into the brush, but mostly we get a detailed tour of the vegetation. Many species of tree here have buttress roots, which are somewhat like planar tripods. The large surface area aids gas exchange. Fungi will often help trees out by fixing excess nutrients in the soil in exchange for a sugar supply from the host tree.

On a couple of occasions, we extinguish our torches for a better look at the white-glowing bioluminescent spores. Since it’s not raining, the glow is fairly dim; this glow mimics that of the local fireflies, inducing curious males to pick them up and spread them about.

Towards the end, we spot a forest dragon clinging to the top of a branch. These are actually diurnal, and will remain near-motionless overnight. They pick smallish branches to cling to, giving them an early warning system for predators: as the predator climbs, the branch vibrates and wakes up the dragon, allowing it to escape.

All in all, a wildlife-rich journey! We’re still pretty exhausted from the diving trip, so we pack it in for a nice long sleep. Only one more day in Australia!

Learn Australian

  • bitumen: asphalt, as in “The bitumen road ends 3km north of Cape Tribulation.”
  • dugong: manatee. (Both names are equally absurd, I think.)
  • heaps: lots. Usually used in a “heaps of X” construction.