This two-part blog post series begins with my first visit to north Queensland in July 2022, and concludes with a second trip to the Gold Coast in March 2023.
I stepped out into the winter day and immediately began dripping sweat. “How is this place habitable in summer?” I asked my Laddie, crossing the Woolworths carpark through shimmers of heat. Even in July—mid-winter in Australia—humidity thickened the air in north Queensland.
He raised an eyebrow at a family wandering the aisles barefoot. “I guess that’s why everyone hangs out at the beach.”
“With the jellyfish and crocodiles,” I muttered, thinking of the do-not-swim signs I’d spotted along the coastal road from Cairns. But wasn’t that part of the reason we’d come?
Two World-Heritage-listed sites collide on Australia’s pointy northeastern tip: the ancient Daintree rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. British explorer James Cook dubbed the area Cape Tribulation after his ship ran aground nearby in 1770. I hoped that the adventure trip I’d planned wouldn’t earn the same moniker. Although we’re not luxury-resort people, my Laddie likes his WiFi, and I get anxious without access to a grocery store and emergency phone reception. Cape Tribulation lacked all of those amenities. But after surviving two weeks in a quarantine hotel, I judged that we could handle two days in the Daintree.
Our rental car stocked with several days of supplies—as a vacation splurge, we treated ourselves to the fancy flavored Weetbix—we drove past sprawling cane fields to the Daintree River. Its name honors Australian geologist Richard Daintree, who surveyed parts of Queensland area in the 1860s and pioneered the use of photography in field work. However, Europeans didn’t set eyes on the river itself until the 1870s, while searching for gold (the indigenous Kuku Yulanji people had already been living there for more than 9,000 years). What would those people make of the shacks clustered along the bank today, advertising boat tours with a tacky statue of a cartoon crocodile?
I chose the less ostentatious solar-powered boat operator that a colleague had recommended for photography. It proved an excellent choice: the silent, emissions-free vessel allowed us close encounters with the river’s rich wildlife. A pair of azure kingfishers enchanted the passengers. Wading birds gathered on logs to sun their wings…
…and saltwater crocodiles basked in the mud. “Salties” are the world’s largest reptile. Males can grow up to 20 feet long. One swam parallel to the boat for a few moments, speckled golden eye watching us with sublime disinterest. Where I grew up, the largest reptiles I encountered were plate-sized snapping turtles at the local pond. This was a breathtakingly different scale of encounter. I had to remind myself that this was no zoo, no wildlife park with an electric fence; I had ventured into this creature’s habitat. A few fatal attacks on humans occur every year (usually because the humans are behaving unwisely), but the crocs we saw seemed content to laze in the sun and ignore us. Others were less awesome than adorable! My Laddie’s keen vision spotted a baby saltie that could have fit on my forearm. Of approximately 50 eggs in each clutch, only one hatchling reaches adulthood. Knowing that made the large ones, the survivors, all the more impressive.
Since croc riding wasn’t an option, a cable ferry hauled us and our car across the Daintree River into the oldest rainforest on the planet. The last remnant of prehistoric jungles that once covered Australia, the 180-million-year-old Daintree represents just over 0.1% of the continent’s landmass today, but contains incredible biodiversity, including plant species so primeval they’re called “green dinosaurs”. Animalian dinosaurs roam amongst the leaves. My Laddie glimpsed one on our first evening, when we stepped out of our breezy off-the-grid accommodation for a stroll. Just a few steps from the driveway, he squinted into the brush.
“Is that a cassowary?”
A small, tawny blur rustled through the undergrowth. “A chick!” I gasped, raising my camera again.
Insistent fingers gripped my arm. “We need to back the f*&# up.”
Retreating to a respectful distance, we held our breath. The stately bird emerged. This was no punchline chicken crossing the road, but a five-foot-tall evolved theropod. Taloned feet gripped the gravel. His distinctive profile embodied the name cassowary, from the Papuan Malay words kasu (“horned”) and weri (“head”), referencing the bird’s bony casque. A stripy hatchling scampered alongside dad (male cassowaries do the parenting, while females may lay several clutches of eggs each season with different partners). Cassowaries have a reputation for aggression, but this pair seemed perfectly peaceful as they disappeared into the bush. It was an encouraging sight; cassowaries are endangered in Queensland.
Since some of the Daintree’s plants can only germinate after passing through a cassowary’s gut, losing those birds could unravel the entire ecosystem. I confess that jungles aren’t really my jam—I dislike humidity, and dense foliage often thwarts my wildlife photography—but I still marveled at the biome’s diversity. Fan palms the size of wading pools rattled in the breeze. Huge basket ferns sheltered birds and marsupials. Scrubfowl raked the bracken with their bright orange feet. Every breath tasted like a dank spring morning, heavy with mud and chlorophyll. Along the shore, rainforest gives way to mangroves that protect against coastal erosion, filter water, and provide nurseries for marine life.
My Laddie and I got our first glimpse of that underwater world on a half-day tour to Mackay Cay, but agreed the snorkeling in Hawaii several years ago was superior. That couldn’t be all the reef had to offer. So when we reached Cairns, I booked an impromptu day trip to the Outer Reef. Cairns shrank in the boat’s frothy white wake. A humpback whale breached as we passed Fitzroy Island.
“We used to get loads of humpbacks this time of year, coming through here to breed,” the skipper remarked once we’d moored on Hastings Reef. “They’ve fallen off recently. We’re not sure why…”
“Climate change,” the marine biologist yelled up from the dive platform.
The skipper’s face turned pink under his hat. “Yes, well, water getting warmer…anyway, we don’t get as many whales as we used to.”
Climate change had clearly taken its toll on other species, too. Although northern parts of the reef have recently made a partial recovery, boasting their highest coral cover in years, dead patches made it clear the ecosystem is under strain. It wasn’t the living aquarium from nature documentaries I’d watched in childhood. But even diminished, the vibrant colors astonished my terrestrial eyes. Streams of fish shimmered through coral gardens’ exquisite variety of textures. A three-foot Maori wrasse eyeballed me near the platform. Clouds of tiny electric-blue damselfish darted hypnotically in and out of the staghorn coral.
On the choppy voyage home, storm clouds cast shadows over the sea and my thoughts. This week I’d explored two of Earth’s most storied natural areas, witnessing their wonders…and their woes. Had conversation come too late to save them? Could any localized management program stave off the ravages of climate change? Would they exist at all by the time my niblings were old enough to visit, or would I be the last generation to experience these places?
An unexpected return to Queensland less than a year later gave me an answer.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this adventure! Follow along for notification when it posts.
Australia is truly something else, and your photos are stunning. GLad to hear none of the crocodiles tried to eat you 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person
Funny, people always joke to me about “everything in Australia can kill you”. But I feel far safer here than I did in the U.S. I can avoid venomous snakes and spiders more easily than I can some nutter who brought a gun to the grocery store.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Makes me glad I live in Europe – very little dangerous wildlife and decent gun laws.