Paradise & Peril In Australia’s Ancient Daintree Rainforest
In my quest to discover unique wilderness habitats, upon visiting Australia’s biologically alluring Daintree rainforest I am fascinated with its unusual foliage and terrifying creatures. Located in Queensland, north of Cairns, this narrow belt of land, about 1200 km in size, is mostly inaccessible as it’s hemmed in by the steep Great Dividing Ridge to the west and blue coral seas, the Barrier Reef, to the east.
According to earth’s geological time, more than 250 million years ago, there was a vast supercontinent called Gondwana, part of which became Australia. As it never faced glaciation, many prehistoric species of flora remained, leaving this area with some of the oldest forest growth on earth, almost as ancient as Jurassic times. Flora in the Daintree extend back some 150 million years, more than twice the age of the 70 million-year-old Amazon River basin. This region, once connected to Papua New Guinea, has survived oceanic level changes and even volcanic periods when nearby misty mountains reflected the adjacent ocean climate, keeping it moist with rainfall.
There are hundreds of types of soft-leaved trees growing here, all intertwined and reaching towards the sun and forest canopy above. Visually anchoring this tropical rainforest are enormous trees with above ground buttress roots, that finger out in curvaceous waves several feet from their trunk. These deep meandering notches in between each root capture moisture, forest deadfall for leaf litter nutrients and create habitat for small creatures, birds, frogs and geckos. The indigenous Aborigines communicate their movement through the forest by utilizing the hollow sounding echoes created by their beating of sticks on these hard, knobbly roots.
In every direction and at every level in this ancient rainforest, appear numerous sizes, shades and shapes of green; overlapping, weaving around, poking out and extending among the towering shrubbery. Merged within the entanglement of enchanting growth are palm branches, gracious bending fronds of cone bearing cycad trees, thick woody draping vines, delicate colorful flowers like orchids, numerous mosses, lichens and Epiphytic plants that perch off the ground on host trees. Plant life grows everywhere, wherever it can get light. Dangerous plants include the Idiot Fruit tree which is poisonous even to birds, the Wait-a-while vine which has spiky barbs, several cm long, that pinch to climb on surrounding vegetation or catch on unsuspecting passers by and the Stinging tree, whose innocent looking heart shaped leaves, if touched, will leave your skin itching for months as its threadlike hairs penetrate skin with an untreatable irritant.
There are also menacing creature inhabitants found in the Daintree like huge poisonous spiders, venomous snakes, unpredictable Cassowary birds and terrifying killer crocodiles’ that are rarely seen in the wild until its too late. We were warned to beware of salt-water crocodile habitats, such as estuaries, as these gigantic reptiles are voracious predators. When visiting Hartley’s Farm, where they breed and show hundreds of crocodiles, we saw just how fast they move, how they can snap their mouths shut and also how far they can jump out of the water after food. It is staggering how fierce these huge predators are. Less scary reptiles thriving in this rainforest include tree climbing geckos and goannas, a quarter of the country’s frog species, plus 40% of Australia’s colourful birds. The most abundant creatures found in this tropical environment are ants who help to break down deceased matter. If all this leaves you bewildered, perhaps you should engage the assistance of a local Aboriginal guide, as we did, to be prepared before facing threat or peril in this wild paradise. There is a learning Discovery Centre nearby which visually educates visitors about the varying seasons here in this primeval rainforest.
Our Dreamtime walk through the protected Mossman Gorge with an interpretive indigenous guide is worthwhile as he tells us how his people respect the forest and how it thrives symbiotically. Some areas of vegetation hold significant ancestral legend and are so sacred that we are told to cease all conversation and picture taking as it is for listening and observation only as we trod upon its pathway. It is magical to hear only the singing birds, trickling waters and to intimately behold the surrounding rainforest. Next, we sit at a stunning opening in the undergrowth, beside the crystal, clear river and surrounded by chunks of rock that were long ago brought down from the mountain ridge above. We are mesmerized, watching in amazement, as our guide squishes and swishes various berries in gourds, then paints his arms in colourful dots and lines signifying the seasons and genders of his ancestry. Finally, these are washed away from his skin with suds naturally created from leaves he gets from a nearby tree.
During our primitive boat excursion along the undeveloped Daintree River we are captivated with the dense forest growth spilling right over onto the water’s surface. I am thrilled to see green tree snakes, 30 cm long baby crocodiles, plus the impressive Mama herself, looking right at us, camouflaged in the mangrove’s dangling bare root and leafy undergrowth.
We visit two lush hideaways in the Daintree; the Thala Beach Lodge, an open-air retreat built on a hillside overlooking the ocean, which has decadently designed secret swimming pools with waterfalls, completely hidden in exotic foliage. Another, the Silky Oaks Lodge, perched above the Mossman River, has spectacular treetop rooms surrounded by abundant lush tropical rainforest. Our last night walking the beach near Palm Cove we are mindful not to venture too near the water’s edge, in case a crocodile might be lurking, awaiting its next meal.
Visiting the Daintree in April, after the rainy and humid monsoon months have ended, is ideal as during the wet summer, hazardous ‘flash-floods’ can come without warning. When riverbeds suddenly swell, they submerge normally dry sections, hide trails with deep puddles and cover roadways with scattered deadfall.
Although the Daintree’s diverse biological plant life and wild creatures thrive with a priceless and irreplaceable status, worthy of its National protection, its lands continue to be threatened by development projects like Sugar Cane farming. Fortunately, this tropical sanctuary, including the Mossman Gorge, has escaped deforestation due to its remoteness, rugged terrain and unpredictable weather patterns that have created inconsistent access. Perhaps these are its best hopes for survival.
Photographer & Writer Cynthia Percival