Discover Tropical North Queensland
Tropical North Queensland is nature’s antidote for the soul, delivering endless inspiration and adventure with a welcome side of pampering, discovers Natasha Dragun.
It’s hard to sleep in the tropics. There’s the intangible excitement that keeps me awake, the awe and anticipation that comes from being surrounded by the world’s oldest – and Australia’s largest – rainforest, stretching 450-kilometres along the northeast coast of the country and replete with floral relics dating back to the age of dinosaurs.
The sounds of Daintree Ecolodge
Then there’s the tangible: a veritable insect and bird orchestra chirping and twanging away in the tangle of jungle that surrounds my villa. The crescendo of graceful tree frogs, the soft vibrato of cicadas. The powdery flutter of moth wings, the metronome strobe of owls and bats.
I could shut my windows and seal out the sound, but there’s something about the unconducted symphony that is hypnotic – like constant waves lapping the sand. Incredibly, that natural phenomenon is also not far removed from where I currently lie.
Australia’s region of natural wonder
The only place in the world where two UNESCO World Heritage sites meet, Tropical North Queensland sits at the union of the Wet Tropics Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef. Home to more than 30 national parks, wilderness areas that predate the Amazon by 80 million years and reef systems that can be seen from outer space, this is a part of the planet where environmental records are set on a daily basis. It’s of little surprise to learn that it was the first place in the country to achieve Ecotourism Australia’s ‘Eco Destination Certification’ – a newly-conceived badge to assure travellers that tourism providers across the region have a strong, well- managed ethos when it comes to sustainability. Not that I need convincing.
An early start at Daintree Ecolodge
Members of the nocturnal chorus that eventually lull me to sleep at Daintree Ecolodge also wake me at sunrise – do cicadas ever rest? But in truth, it’s the clarity of the morning light, dappled through enormous king ferns and fan palms, that has me stretching my limbs, curious to explore my surrounds.
My guide for the day is Kuku Yalanji man Juan Walker, his Walkabout Cultural Adventures offering insights into Indigenous traditions that date back tens of thousands of years. Juan shows me how to spear mud crabs and fish in the gin-clear waters of Cooya Beach, his ancestral home. He also points out mussels and pippis growing among the gnarly roots of mangroves.
As shells crack over fire coals, Juan douses our seafood bounty with lime and chilli oil. It’s like eating a ray of salty sunshine. Juan was born here, and his family still live up the road. He’s spent his life fossicking on the sand and amid the rainforest, our current backdrop.
Inhabitants of the rainforest
Wandering under this dense, green canopy is a spiritual experience – we leave the blinding day behind and enter a cool cocoon that seems to be moving around us, Is moving around us: More than 12,000 species of insects, 430 different birds – including noisy pittas, varied trillers and elusive cassowaries – and 30 per cent of Australia’s reptile, frog and marsupial species call this faunal wonderland home.
The Kuku Yalanji would come here to forage and feast, marking their trails using bent saplings and identifying their achievements through middens: piles of bones and shells used to inform the next tribe what had been consumed.
There are too many culturally important sites here to mention. One that is particularly poignant to the Kuku Yalanji is Mossman Gorge, a spiritual place where the Mossman River tumbles over granite boulders into freshwater swimming holes.
On a Dreamtime Walk from the Gorge Centre – which also has an excellent gallery dedicated to Indigenous art – I discover all manner of bush foods and native medicines.
The highlight is sitting beside a waterhole, watching enormous iridescent Ulysses butterflies flit above the surface. Known as Walbul-Walbul, these striking creatures are believed to be the reincarnation of Aboriginal elders, sent back to watch over those still roaming the Earth.
The entrancing call of the reef at Port Douglas
Several kilometres southeast is Port Douglas, the closest point on the Australian mainland to the Great Barrier Reef. Remarkably, 90 per cent of the coral system’s diversity occurs within four metres of the surface of the sea, which makes snorkelling expeditions the ideal way to take in the marine bounty.
I strap on a mask and flippers with Wavelength Reef Cruises and dive into one of the planet’s most complex ecosystems. The reef is home to 10 per cent of global coral gardens and fish species, as well as 30 types of whales and dolphins (you can swim with dwarf minke whales here from July to September).
Six of the world’s seven species of sea turtles come here to breed and float over giant clam gardens, thought to be centuries old.
A similar experience is offered on board Wavedancer, a 30-metre catamaran owned by Quicksilver Cruises. The company pioneered tours back in the 1980’s. In the years since it has set up a division dedicated to reef research. They now employ the largest team of marine biologists outside a government agency. The project has evolved into Eye on the Reef, which encourages visitors to the region to report coral conditions via a nifty app.
The drive north from Port Douglas to Cape Tribulation involves a ferry crossing to shuttle visitors over the Daintree River. The entire journey only takes two hours, but it transports me back to the time of Gondwana, so lush is the rainforest that envelops the headland.
It’s the ideal setting for eco-lodge, Mist at Cape Tribulation, which sits at the foot of Mount Sorrow – but offers complete, heart-jerking joy. The property’s breezy pavilions are all off-grid, although the sustainable ethos doesn’t come at the expense of style.
This is the kind of place where time seems to stand still in the cloak of humidity that hangs overhead, running to the rhythm of those chirping cicadas – my insect orchestra is back, with a familiar, soul-salving tune.