Where the Rainforest Meets the Reef

In a realm populated by deadly box jellyfish, crocodiles, stinging trees, and more plant and wildlife diversity than anyplace else on the planet, Australia’s Daintree Rainforest will reinvent your understanding of the Land Down Under.
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Rainforest Prism: One of the palm fronds within the Daintree. (Leanne Mitchell)

"Here our trials and tribulations begin."
--Captain James Cook
1770

What a difference 235 years can make. Of course we didn't reach Cape Tribulation the way Cook did; the bristling barrier reefs concealed by the aquamarine South Pacific that sank the HMS Endeavour back in June 1770 are now considered an attraction, not a threat, and the 90-minute drive up from Cairns—one Australia's most scenic asphalt passageways, tracing a cliff-shorn shore before turning inland; passing rolling fields of orange, banana, and sugarcane; then edging into the dense greenery of the Daintree Rainforest—puts the name Cape Tribulation into the annals of ironically named locales. That's not to say this region of northern Queensland isn't without threats. Fresh- and saltwater crocodiles ply the estuaries between the public beaches, and swimming isn't a wise endeavor from October to June due to a profusion of box jellyfish bobbing off Cape Trib's shores (one sting brings pain so excruciating you typically go into shock and drown before reaching shore). But we were heading into the world's oldest rainforest in July, when the Daintree is in the midst of its so-called "dry" season; the weather is warm (especially considering it's winter), and the jellyfish have drifted away.

The glacial pace of the rickety ferry, delivering us to the southern end of the York Peninsula, set the pace of the 21-mile drive through the rainforest up to Cape Tribulation. In operation since 1956, a thick cable pulled the vehicle-laden platform with an arthritic clatter across the slow-flowing Daintree River into a world well divorced from the coastal Queensland. As we disembarked, the rainforest enveloped us like a collapsing tunnel and the term land of contrast popped into my head, plaguing me as we followed the slow-moving chain of cars.

"Land of contrast." Reprehensible PR brochure-speak, but in Australia, that travel cliché is virtually inescapable. Two weeks ago we'd been watching the setting sun bleed across the Outback, illuminating Uluru in a spectacular display of reds, oranges, and rich purples. A week after that, we'd gawked at a saltwater croc sunning itself on the banks of a billabong in Kakadu National Park. And now there I was, winding through the most serpentine road I'd ever driven, sheltered by a canopy of towering trees, sinewy vines, and massive bushes woven together into a dense wall of foliage that seemed to almost be growing before my eyes.

My photographer Leanne killed the radio, and she was right to do so. With the windows down, the Daintree's symphony was almost deafening: heavy raindrops splashing on three-foot-diameter leaves, the steadily chirping crickets, the birds' sing-song calls, the croaking frogs, the metronome drone of cicadas, and, as the road took us closer to the coast, the sound of waves crashing against rocks, where mangrove trees arch over the water, as if struggling to touch the turquoise sea.

Scenic lookouts line the road as you weave further into the rainforest, and if you give into impulse and stop at each one—or take one of the many side-routes to the beaches—you won't make it to Cape Trib until after night descends in an inky-black, absolute darkness. This sensory deprivation might amplify the rainforest's sounds, but it also makes reading signs difficult (although it is hard to get too lost, this being the only road in and out of the place). Time permitting, though, the Discovery Centre just before Cow Bay is a worthy detour and a fantastic introduction to the Daintree's infinitely complex ecosystem.

We spent an hour—and could've spent hours more—reading the exhibits on plant and animal species, taking a self-guided tour along an intricate rainforest boardwalk, and climbing the Canopy Tower, an 82-foot wood and metal structure with observation platforms positioned every 20 feet. As we slowly climbed, I imagined that all the trees and plants were locked in a centuries-long race to the top of the rainforest for that first glimpse of nourishing sunlight. But as we continued our ascent, I came to understand (with the aid of the audio guide that came with admission) how each plant and animal, while sustaining itself, also feeds into the survival of those that live below it. When you do reach the top, the entire Daintree unfolds beneath you, a dense, vast carpetland of tree canopies that roll out from your feet, climbing the distant peaks to the west and rolling into the blue Pacific to your east.

We didn't leave the Discovery Centre with any real understanding of the Daintree; even biologists who've lived here for years can identify only a few hundred of the plants and animals that call the region home. That may seem like a lot, until you factor in that the 135-million-year-old Daintree Rainforest contains the largest variety of plant and animal life in the world, including 430 bird species (13 found nowhere else); 30 percent of the country's frogs, marsupials, and reptiles; and 60 percent of Australia's bats and butterflies—all within a landmass that's just 0.2 percent of the entire country. Dizzying statistics in their own right, but then factor in that the Daintree actually joins up with Great Barrier Reef—the only place on the planet where two World Heritage sites actually meet—and the region's ecological richness expands exponentially.

Given all that, even if you're an independent-minded traveler, a guided tour of the region comes highly advisable. Though Cape Tribulation is more a scattering of general stores, places to stay, and restaurants than a proper town, tourism is a large part of the region's economy and, as such, there's more than a few options for those anxious to do more than sit on the white-sand Cape Tribulation Beach and marvel at rainforest-covered peaks (though be sure to save some time for exactly that). Most lodging has information on sea kayaking, four-wheel-drive tours to waterfalls and swimming holes, wilderness exploration tours, reef excursions, Aborigine-guided treks—even spa therapies and beachside morning yoga.

The less ambitious should at least walk the mile-long Dubuji Boardwalk, a spectacular wood-plank traverse through a dense region of the rainforest that funnels you onto Myall Beach. But don't let wanderlust get the best of you. As with most of Australia, dangers do lurk in the wilderness, whether from the stinging tree—an innocent-looking bit of foliage with large leaves covered in thousands of microscopic thorns that embed themselves in the skin when touched, causing pain a thousand times more painful than poison oak and ivy combined—or from the crocodiles lingering in the estuaries between Coconut and Myall beaches. And don't forget the box jellyfish.

But then, what's travel without a bit of trial? And even with all these potentially life-threatening ingredients, a trip to the Daintree will make you feel lucky to be alive.


Nathan Borchelt is the lead editor for Away.com

Published: 15 Nov 2004 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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