The view from Rex Lookout along the Captain Cook Highway. Image Credit: Mike McCoy/Australian Geographic

Hit the tropics for a long-weekend

  • BY Fiona Harper |
  • February 28, 2017

Even if you’re time poor, it’s possible to experience both the rainforest and reef at their finest and still enjoy some downtime.

YOU'D THINK A BIRD reaching up to 2m, with drooping red wattles, a cobalt blue neck and a head topped by a helmet-like casque would be easy to spot. Not so. Australia’s second-largest bird, the southern cassowary, ­is a distant ­relative of New Zealand’s now extinct moa and an endangered species. Increased mortality from habitat ­degradation, cars and dogs mean that these human-sized birds are at serious risk of extinction.

Although it’s colourful and flightless, this bird is notoriously difficult to keep tabs on, thanks to its dense tropical rainforest habitat; estimated numbers vary, but it’s thought there could be as few as 2000 birds remaining. Hoping to catch sight of this rare species, we’re bound for Port Douglas and beyond, where the Daintree Rainforest is one of their last known habitats.

Leaving the traffic of Cairns behind we drive north, bypassing Palm Cove with its beachside restaurants and boutique hotels beneath ancient melaleuca trees in favour of the open road. The Captain Cook Highway cuts a swathe through two UNESCO World Heritage-listed icons, hugging the coastline between Wet Tropics rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. Quite the drama queen, the vista is all rocky headlands book-ending lengthy strips of beach on the right and lush forest-clad mountains on the left.

cassowary

Southern cassowaries are high on many visitors’ must-see lists. It’s estimated that there are fewer than 2000 adult birds left and they are listed as vulnerable. (Image: David Bristow/AG)

Bound for Port Douglas, the bitumen snakes and curves around the coastline, along one of Australia’s most spectacular routes. The 140km section between Cairns and Cape Tribulation was recently branded the ‘Great Barrier Reef Drive’ and will surely rival the Great Ocean Road’s popularity once the word gets out. Rex Lookout is the favoured hangout of hang-gliders who launch their craft high above the beach, revelling in updrafts from the south-east trade winds. It’s not a bad spot for photographers either.

Port Douglas’s fortunes rise and fall almost as frequently as the tide that laps Four Mile Beach. The historical Bump Track in Mowbray National Park, now favoured by mountain bikers and hikers, was thought to be an original Aboriginal trail before becoming the main route for inland goldminers looking for a fast route to the coast. Port Douglas was established around this mining trade, with the Bump Track the only land route out until 1933, when the ­Captain Cook Highway linked Port (as the locals call it) to Cairns.

These days tourism drives much of the region’s economy, thanks to an abundance of natural beauty, recognised by ­UNESCO as being of global significance. A relaxed tropical village vibe permeates the streets lined with casual and upscale alfresco restaurants and boutiques. A bucket of fresh prawns and cold beers proves the perfect introduction to Port as the sun sinks behind the mountain range, sending shards of pink dancing across Dickson Inlet.

The next morning we’re back at the waterfront, bound for the Great Barrier Reef. In his latest BBC documentary, broadcaster Sir David Attenborough describes the reef as “an ecosystem like no other…truly one of the most extraordinary places on the planet”. Dipping below the surface of the Coral Sea, whether as a snorkeller, first-time scuba diver or an old hand, the reef is all these things and more.

Agincourt Reef is a cluster of five reefs on the edge of the continental shelf east of Cape Tribulation. Important to ­Bloomfield’s Wujal Wujal Aboriginal community, the reef system is used for cultural and traditional hunting and gathering. Luminescent turquoise water delineates the protected lagoon from the deep cobalt blue of the open ocean. Beneath the surface an extraordinary spectrum of colours emerge. Pink anemonefish dart in and out of purple-tipped anemone tendrils that waft in the current. Vibrant yellow butterflyfish, pinstriped with black, zip among reef hideouts. Hawksbill and green turtles forage. Corals seem to come in every shape, from delicate fingertip-sized staghorns to boulders the size of a small car.

snorkelling

An outer reef excursion is a must-do while in Tropical North Queensland. The first Great Barrier Reef pontoon was built at Agincourt Reef in 1984. These installations provide a base from which visitors can swim, snorkel, dive and even enjoy a helicopter ride. (Image: Mike McCoy/AG)

Returning to Port salt-laden and happy, we hire bicycles and take a ride along the firm-packed sand of Four Mile Beach, shaded by coconut palms. Port’s forefathers had the foresight to impose a height limit on building development. This restriction ensures that beachfront hotels are concealed behind rows of palm trees as are our coastal lodgings south of Port Douglas.

We depart early the next day for Cape Tribulation in anticipation of spotting the elusive southern cassowary. Driving past vast sugar plantations to Daintree Village, we join expert guide Murray Hunt for a dawn cruise on the Daintree River. The list of bird species spotted on Hunt’s river excursions is extensive, and with our binoculars at the ready, we tick off azure kingfishers, Papuan frogmouths and whistling ducks, among others.

Once we’ve crossed the Daintree River on the vehicle barge, time seems to slow down a notch as we absorb the sights, smells and sounds of the Daintree Rainforest, estimated to be more than 135 million years old. Rolling down the windows and breathing in forest-filtered air, the first thing I notice is the rich smell of dank, earthy forest. There’s also an overwhelming sense of green, which comes in shades from pastel, to iridescent lime, to a green so dark it’s almost black. Clearly I’m not the only one sucking in all this goodness, because there’s a fair old cacophony of cicadas, frogs and goodness knows what else creating their own soundtrack.

We finally get our first look at a cassowary rifling among vegetation along the so-called cassowary corridor that passes through the award-winning Daintree Discovery Centre 10km north of the ferry. It’s a thrill to see this magnificent species with its cobalt blue neck rising out of luxuriant black plumage. Although we’re not as fortunate as previous visitors who witnessed the courtship ritual between two birds below one of the centre’s aerial walkways.

butterfly

Ulysses butterflies are a swallowtail species that occur across most of Australasia. (Image: Auscape / Getty)

Still on a natural high from seeing this spectacular bird we immerse ourselves deeper into the rainforest, flying through the canopy on a Jungle Surfing Canopy Tour. Strapped into a harness slung from a zip-line cable, it’s equally exhilarating and terrifying as the birdcalls are almost drowned out by our shrieks of laughter.

Cape Tribulation with its beachside camping grounds and a handful of small eco-style forest retreats marks the end of the bitumen road and our turnaround point. The peace and serenity of this place is palpable. It matters little that there are few of the ‘necessities’ of civilisation such as mobile phone or internet connection, mainstream power and water. Truly off the grid, Cape Trib is simply off the scale when it comes to natural beauty.

Far-flung and remote, the isolation is integral to its charm. It’s with an element of melancholy that we reluctantly turn south to return to our tranquil treehouse retreat in Port Douglas. Dining in the treetop pavilion-style Osprey’s Restaurant, which is cooled by ocean breezes, melancholia is soon dispelled and we fall asleep to the sounds of eucalypt branches swooshing in the breeze.

We lap up a final forest immersion in the Kuranda Ranges, which rise above the Cairns suburbs. Boarding a glass-encased Skyrail gondola we soar above the canopy before descending to the forest floor, meandering along the trails and learning about forest inhabitants through informative signage. Behind us the islands of the Great Barrier Reef stretch towards the horizon while spectacular Barron Gorge and Barron Falls, which powers the hydro station that supplies electricity to Cairns, lie ahead.

Disembarking at Kuranda village we head for the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary where more than 1500 tropical butterfly specimens are in full flight. A captive-breeding program is at the heart of the sanctuary, ensuring no butterflies are removed from their natural environment. It’s one of the few places where you’re almost guaranteed a photograph of the electric blue Ulysses butterfly. Male Ulysses, which are attracted to the colour blue, will, in their eagerness to breed, try their luck by landing on any blue object.

A rarity in the natural world, blue is prominent in both Ulysses butterflies and southern cassowaries. As I watch their delicate wings aflutter, I wonder if that colour is reserved for the forest’s special creatures. Or is it nature’s response to try and safeguard species protection? Whatever the case, what’s not in dispute is the real possibility of the southern cassowary becoming extinct. Pay a visit to the Daintree Rainforest soon to view these birds in the wilderness.

More info

GETTING THERE

Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia all fly to Cairns daily and among them cover the mainland state capitals. Ten international airlines service Cairns, including Cathay Pacific, Air New Zealand, Silk Air and China Southern.

STAY

Thala Beach Nature Reserve – an eco-certified retreat south of Port Douglas. www.thalabeach.com.au

Daintree Eco Lodge and Spa – a forest retreat on the southern banks of the Daintree River www.daintree-ecolodge.com.au

PLAY

Calypso Reef Cruises – Great Barrier Reef dive and snorkel trips to Agincourt Reef.
www.calypsoreefcruises.com

Quicksilver tours – wavepiercer catamarans run daily trips to the outer reef from Port Douglas. www.quicksilver-cruises.com

Jungle Surfing Canopy Tour – a series of zip-lines strung high up in the canopy the rainforest. junglesurfing.com.au

VISIT

The Daintree Discovery Centre – an interpretive facility allowing access to all levels of the rainforest, from the forest floor to the canopy, via a 10m-high aerial walkway and 23m-high viewing tower. www.discoverthedaintree.com

Cooper Creek Wilderness – high-quality guided tours through the oldest rainforest in the world. coopercreek.com.au

Fiona Harper is a Cairns-based travel writer, digital media manager, content creator, blogger, sailor, marathoner, and wannabe triathlete.