Our Christmas was spent in the tropical north of Australia, Daintree National Park, to be specific. For John and me, having lived in the deep south of the United States all of our lives, warm Christmases are not that unusual, so a Christmas spent in shorts is no big deal. Daintree, however, is different from anywhere we have ever been in so many ways: at 180 million years old, it is the oldest rainforest in the world and it is home to 80% of the oldest fern species, in addition to a large number of tropical bird and animal species. To get here, it’s necessary to take a ferry across the Daintree River and enter into an area that is as off-the-grid as we have been in a while. Daintree has roads, but little else in the way of public services; there is no government-sponsored electricity, water service, internet/cable TV, or garbage pickup.
We stayed in the wonderful Epiphyte B&B where electricity is solar powered, there is no air conditioning (it was hot during the day, but it cooled off a little at night) and no internet or cell service. The innkeepers have satellite internet, but it is not available to guests. This resulted in a nicer stay – rather than being tied to our devices, we and the other guests enjoyed each other’s company. It seemed old fashioned and fun.
The real life set of Avatar
To plan for the 2009 film, Avatar, filmmaker James Cameron headed down to Daintree and camped out with his crew for weeks, studying the rainforest and the interaction between the animals and the rainforest itself. Being in the rainforest, we could see how it was a great model for such a movie, with its giant ferns and enormous basket ferns hanging in the trees. More info here for anyone who is interested: https://www.escape.com.au/destinations/australia/exploring-the-daintree-rainforest-is-an-adventure-straight-out-of-avatar/news-story/0e5417e832c3c238a031abd4fbc647d5
Before arriving in Daintree, I could not have told you what a Cassowary is. I learned that it is a large, flightless bird, slightly smaller than the Ostrich or Emu and is sometimes called a ‘dinosaur bird,’ having first appeared in the Jurassic Period. The Southern Cassowary is only found in a very small area of northern Australia: the Daintree area. When we arrived at the Epiphyte B&B, our host told us that we might see a Cassowary, but not to be disappointed if we didn’t. Apparently, there are people who have lived in the area for years that have never seen one in the wild. It’s true that there is a lot of fuss about Cassowaries in the Daintree area, but the enthusiasm is warranted: the Cassowary is a so-called “keystone” species in Daintree for its role in the germination and spread of local tropical fruits. For some species, the odds of their seed being germinated increases as much as 90% if it makes a trip through the gut of a Cassowary.
Early on our first morning there, I was sitting alone on the front porch of the Epiphyte to hear the wonderful morning chorus of tropical bird calls, when what would walk across the property but a big ol’ Cassowary, its head bobbing above a hedge like some sort of Muppet bird. Even more surprising, later that same day when John and I were strolling on one of the rainforest boardwalks, we saw an adult male and his chick – that’s right – the male incubates the chicks and cares for them when they are young. We were incredibly lucky to see three Cassowaries in the wild, and all in one day!
Christmas in the Rainforest
On Christmas Eve, late in the day, John and I took a cruise with a local guide, Dan Irby, on the Daintree River. Originally from Oklahoma, Dan holds degrees in Animal Physiology and he moved to Australia decades ago to teach in Melbourne. Twenty-seven years ago, he moved up to Daintree and has been guiding there ever since, introducing guests to the fascinating and beautiful Mangrove trees that are native to the area. There are 69 Mangrove species in the world and half of those live along the Daintree. We saw a number of frogs and local birds and, as night fell, we watched Flying Fox bats migrate for their nightly feed. Then Dan took out his large flashlight and we spotted a number of crocodiles, including the legendary Scarface, a huge croc that is estimated to be around 70 years old. Travelling back in the boat, we were treated to one of the most beautiful night skies we’ve seen in quite some time.
The next day most things were closed since it was Christmas Day, but we were able to visit sections of rainforest on raised boardwalks that were open, and we also took a short drive down to nearby Cow Bay Beach, a beautiful beach that is not advised for swimming, due to both crocodiles and stinging jellyfish in the water. These warnings didn’t seem to bother the locals at the beach, one of whom stripped down to his birthday suit for a Christmas Day swim in the surf with his dogs.
In the evening, we took part in a Christmas dinner that was hosted by Crocodylus, a backpacker lodge that is about a half mile from the Epiphyte. The only guests that were invited were those staying at the Epiphyte or Crocodylus. We were a group of about 40 or 50 people and, for a small fee, we were treated to a lovely spread of food with tables nicely decorated for Christmas and festive Christmas music playing. Talk about an unforgettable Christmas!
Kuranda National Park
The next day, John and I headed back to Cairns for a few days in town, including one day that was devoted to watching LSU play — and beat — Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl.
One of the fascinating features of Cairns is its colony of Flying Fox bats – thousands of them roost during the day in huge heritage trees on the grounds of the public library and it’s fun to watch them leave at dusk to fly away for their evening feedings.
We set aside a day for a day trip to Kuranda National Park, a 35-minute drive from downtown Cairns, and home to another rainforest and a little village that is mostly devoted to tourist experiences. There we took a jungle walk on trails and boardwalks and dodged a rain shower at the local butterfly sanctuary and bird park. We got lucky at the bird park, taking shelter from a sudden downpour near the Cassowary habitat and getting a real close-up look at the bird after everyone else had left to escape the rain.
On the way back to Cairns we took the Kuranda historic narrow-gauge train back down to town. The railway was built in the late 19th century for the mining industry and is considered to be a real feat of engineering. Today, it’s strictly a tourist train.
For New Year’s, we headed off to Fitzroy Island. It’s the closest island to Cairns and is right on the Great Barrier Reef. There, we enjoyed snorkeling to see the gorgeous coral and stunningly beautiful fish. What a way to wrap up the year!