Australia 2016 Part 4: Daintree Rainforest

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

We had early breakfast at the hotel.  The view is awesome:

Our pickup was for 7:20 AM,  and we were met by the most stereotypical Australian man I ever hope to see.  Tall, blonde, khaki-clad, with a crocodile tooth necklace, shorts and hiking boots–he personified Crocodile Dundee.  His name was Rick, and he was also carrying a trainee, a middle-aged bloke named Darren.

We had one other family to pick up at the QT Hotel in Port Douglas.  A young couple and their two children climbed aboard the van, and we exchanged introductions and pleasantries.  They asked us where we were from and we told them Houston.  They laughed.  “So are we!”  They were from the Spring Branch area.  It’s a small world!

It was a short trip in the car to the waters of the Daintree River, where we were to have our very own crocodile cruise.  Rick talked non-stop on the drive and was a wealth of information about Australian history, both political and natural.  The Daintree Rainforest is yet another World Heritage site.  The Australians did not even realize how special it was until very recently, and areas of the forest were often cleared for farming without permit or fanfare.   In the 1970’s, a  farmer’s cattle became ill.  Something was poisoning them, and it was a very mysterious affair.  After a lot of sleuthing, it was determined that the cattle were eating the seed of a plant called Ideospermum Australiense.   The heck you say?  What’s so special about that?  Well, scientists had previously thought that this angiosperm had been gone from earth for 100 million years, but there it was, thriving in the Daintree, along with many other plant species found nowhere else on earth.  The entire area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988, and efforts have been undertaken to reclaim some of the areas used by farmers.  Walking around in this rainforest is like taking a step backwards in time to the Land of the Lost.  I kept looking for a Sleestak.

The traditional custodians of the land were the aboriginal people known as the eastern Kuku Yalanji, and they still subsist on these tribal lands and consider them sacred.  They know exactly which plants can be eaten, used for medicine, and made into utensils, weapons, and shelter.  We did not meet any of these people.  Rick told us that they were small in stature, thus adapted to their rainforest surroundings, much as the pygmy people.  Perhaps the small body size benefits their life in rainforests. For instance, even though rainforests are very diverse ecosystems, they do not really have that much food for humans.  Small body sizes, therefore, may have evolved because they require fewer calories.  Rick also explained to the kids that taller individuals have more difficulty moving through the dense vegetation of tropical rainforests. Finally, the Daintree is hot and humid, and everyone who lives in Houston knows that humidity makes it difficult for sweat to evaporate and cool people down. Since small bodies generate less heat during activity, they could survive more easily.  You see–short people really do have a reason to live!  Suck it, Randy Newman!

We pulled the van up to the Daintree River, where a boat was waiting for us.  It looked a bit like my brother’s old covered lake barge.  There were rows of seats in  the middle, and our two families had plenty of room to spread out.  Our captain was a rougher looking bloke than Crocodile Rick, sporting  a couple of days’ growth of beard and the ruddy, sunburned face of every middle-aged Australian.  I’ll bet their dermatologists do big business.

Ostensibly, we were there to see all sorts of wildlife, but I wanted to see the man-eaters, the saltwater crocodiles.  The Aussies have pet names for everything, and they call these guys “salties.”  It makes them sound so cute, doesn’t it?

The saltwater crocodile is the largest of all living reptiles, as well as the largest terrestrial and riparian predator in the world.  As its name implies, this species of crocodile can live in marine environments, but can usually be found in saline and brackish mangrove swamps, estuaries, deltas, lagoons, and lower stretches of rivers. They have the broadest distribution of any modern crocodile, ranging from the eastern coast of India, throughout most of Southeast Asia, and northern Australia.  The saltwater crocodile is a formidable and opportunistic  predator. Most prey are ambushed and then drowned or swallowed whole. It is capable of prevailing over almost any animal that enters its territory, including humans.   Due to their size, aggression and distribution, saltwater crocodiles are regarded as the most dangerous extant crocodilian to humans.  So says Wikipedia.

Greg spotted a crocodile in the water before Captain Ruddyface (sorry, I never got his name) even got the boat underway.  Greg had clearly brought his safari eyes.  Captain R said, “Good going, Mate!”

Captain R introduced us to this juvenile crocodile:

We floated down the Daintree, scanning the trees and shoreline for wildlife.

Can you see the snake in the tree?

I believe this fellow is some kind of a kingfisher:

Another snake in a tree!

Another crocodile youngster.  He looks like he is smiling for the camera.

This baby blends right into the brown mud.

Mom Croc hangs out nearby her babies.   A female croc lays between 40 and 60 eggs.  A lot of these won’t hatch, and even fewer will make it to adulthood.  The female crocs are fiercely protective of the offspring, but in spite of Mom’s care, only about 1% of her hatchlings will make it to adulthood.  Captain R knew this girl by name and could tell us exactly how many of her babies had survived the year.  She lost quite a few to flooding and predators.

Next we saw this larger fellow basking at the shoreline.

Grandma, what big teeth you have!

This fellow was the Grand Mac-Daddy of the tour.  I wasn’t getting into the photo for scale, but he was between 12 and 15 feet long.  Darren and Rick said they had seen him eat a dog just last week.

Come a little closer, Lassie!

We took a family photo at the end of the boat tour.

Our boat took us to the other side of the Daintree River, where Rick was waiting for us with the van.  We drove into the rainforest.  Our itinerary called for a rainforest walk, but first Rick and Darren fixed us a little tucker.  A light rain was falling, and we found a covered picnic table where they set up the morning’s snacks.  We had hot tea and coffee, and Rick invited us all to suck and chew  on a bit of sugar cane.  It was crunchy and sweet, of course.  He also introduced us to the traditional dessert of Australia, lamington.  Lamington is a sweet dessert,  made with squares of sponge cake coated in an outer layer of chocolate sauce and rolled in coconut.  Greg isn’t much for sweets.  He’s more of a grease and salt guy.  Genene and I really enjoyed it.

We took a walk through the rainforest.

We were caught by surprise.  The slow drizzle turned into a steady rain.  I felt so foolish.  After  all, it is a RAINFOREST.  I should have come prepared!  We had brought rain gear to Australia, and none of us thought to pack it for today’s outing.  Rookies!    Rick had some umbrellas for us to share, but we got pretty wet and I had to put my good camera away so that it wouldn’t be ruined.   We saw an Australian water dragon on a tree. Rick got so excited that I thought he was going to wet himself.  I thought of Steve Irwin.  He used to get so excited about wildlife, and that kind of enthusiasm is infectious.  We gawked at the lizard as if it were a dinosaur.

We were also hunting for the rare flightless bird, the cassowary.  It’s the third largest bird in the world, surpassed in size only by  ostriches and emus.  The cassowary is endangered and there are less than 1,000 left in the wild.  Rick cautioned us quite a bit about how to act if we spotted the bird because it is quite dangerous.  It has a strong talon-like three-inch claw on its leg.  When threatened, it will attack by jumping and thrusting its feet.  It can disembowel a man.  Rick told us several stories about fatal encounters with these birds, and his description reminded me a bit of the tale told about velociraptors in Jurrassic Park.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to see a cassowary in the wild, but in the end, I was disappointed that we didn’t.

The buzz throughout today’s tour, at least among the guides, involved a lady from New Zealand (a kiwi) who had been eaten by a croc a few months ago.  The guides were universally judgmental of her and unsympathetic about her demise.  Captain R shrugged his shoulders and said, “She didn’t follow directions.”  He even seemed angry that the game wardens actually try to track down the offending croc.  “It’s not his fault.  He is just doing what he does.  It’s the woman’s fault!”  Rick was a little more circumspect.  He ran it down for us:  “There are four things that could have happened to her because of her bad judgment.  First of all, she was drunk.  She could have just had an accident.  Second, she went swimming during stinger season.  She could have been killed by a poisonous jellyfish.  Third, she could have just drowned.  Fourth, the croc could have killed her.”    Rick declared triumphantly, “The croc won!”  This is dangerous country, and the penalty for foolish behavior can be instant death.

Before lunch, we asked our new Houston friends where their kids went to school:  Awty, the same school that Genene attends!  The small world got a little smaller.  Their daughter, Rebecca, is starting sixth grade, the grade that Genene just finished.  Genene spent the rest of the trip advising her young protegé about all her classes and teachers.

We drove on up to Cape Tribulation, so named by British navigator Lieutenant James Cook in 1770 after his ship, the Endeavor, scraped a reef northeast of the cape.  Cook steered away from the coast into deeper water but  the ship ran aground. The ship stuck fast and was badly damaged, desperate measures being needed to prevent it from foundering until it was refloated the next day. Cook recorded, “…the north point [was named] Cape Tribulation because here begun all our troubles.”

Along the drive, we all enjoyed the artistry of some unknown comic, who had taken an ordinary speed hump sign (below) and spruced it up a bit.

We stopped at a rest stop, and I admired their waste management technique.  It smelled pretty ripe out here.  As many of you know, my job involves representing water districts, so I get to do a lot of talking about water and sewer issues.  (Do you think I can write this trip off on my income taxes now, since I educated myself about their sewer handling?)

We took a wet walk on the beach at Cape Tribulation.

Rick explained how mangroves get their water.  One interesting fact:  their roots are capable of absorbing salty water.  The tree then pushes the salt out into a few leaves, which turn yellow and fall off.  These leaves are sacrificial.

Genene did her best mangrove impression.

These Australian brushturkeys wandered along the shoreline. They build large communal nests on the ground made of leaves, other combustible material and earth, up to 4.5 feet high and up to 13 feet across. The eggs are hatched by the heat of the composting mound, which is tended only by the males who regulate the temperature by adding or removing material in an effort to maintain the temperature of the mound in the 91–95 °F incubation temperature range.  When the eggs hatch, the chicks are on their own.

The kiwi woman obviously didn’t read this sign.  She was too drunk!

She missed this one too!  Doesn’t the beach seem inviting?

Most of the beaches have a bottle of vinegar, even though its efficacy in treating jellyfish stings is debated.  Rick said that they have to dye the vinegar blue to discourage people from using it on their fish and chips.

Our next stop was lunch, and we stopped at a delightful little restaurant/animal refuge.  Lunch was included in the price of the tour, and Rick advised us that the tour would even pay for “first shout,” the first round of drinks.  Any more drinks would be on your own ticket.  We weren’t tempted to drink much because with the lingering jet lag, it would have put us to sleep.  We had one sociable wine and beer each.

Genene spent the lunch advising new friend of classes and teachers she will have in sixth grade at Awty.  Genene was so happy to have someone her own age to talk with.  She really came alive.  She knows that she is lucky that she gets to travel the world, but she is at the age where her parents have become extremely boring and nerdy.  (I think we were always extremely boring and nerdy.  She has just gotten old enough to realize it.)

This resident python was coiled in a tree in the front of the restaurant.  I was reminded of Kaa from the Jungle Book.  I kept waiting for it to whisper, “Mowgli.”

Rick struck a pose in front of a life-size statue of a cassowary.  I am not sure what we would have done if we had encountered that thing on the trail.

The animal refuge rehabilitates animals that are injured.  If possible, they are released back into the wild.  Some become permanent residents of the refuge.  This is an agile wallaby:

Genene is feeding the swamp wallaby as the agile wallaby stands nearby.  The swamp wallabies were pretty tame and allowed us to pet them behind their heads at the shoulders.  The agile wallaby took the food and immediately hopped away.

Swamp wallaby eating a sweet potato:

The agile wallaby finally let me creep up pretty close:  “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

Rick persuaded one of the resident rainbow lorikeets to sit on his shoulder and eat bits of watermelon out of his hand.

After lunch, we made a stop at a small fruit orchard, whose sole purpose is to supply fruit for the sorbet and ice cream made on site.  It looked a lot like the peach orchards of Howard County, Arkansas, and I thought of Daddy.  Genene and I bought cups of the delicious cream.  You don’t get to choose:  they serve you four scoops of whatever is on hand that day.  Davidson plum, wattle seed (an edible seed of the acacia tree), coconut and mango were the flavors of the day.  They were all so different.  Genene’s favorite was the wattle seed.  I couldn’t choose a favorite.

Toward the end of our tour, we stopped at the Alexandra Range Lookout.  We had a spectacular view of the mouth of the Daintree River.

We had completed all of our scheduled stops and now just had the long drive back to Port Douglas.  Rick continued to impart information about the rainforest. Of particular interest to me was the discussion about  the cane toad.  The cane toad is not native to Australia but was introduced in the hopes that it would kill the cane beetle, a pest that plagued the sugar cane crops.  Australia has a bad record with introducing non-native species.  Rabbits, house cats and foxes have all been brought in, with disastrous results.  Anyway, as you may imagine, the cane toad  didn’t do a thing to stop cane beetles, but the toad has been prolific.  Without a natural predator, it has become a huge problem.  Eradication programs have not been successful, though people often take measures into their own hands.  Rick said that as a boy, he would take a flashlight and kill up to 80 toads a night.  Their skin produces a toxin, so they do not make good eating.  Some people like to lick their skins and get a dangerous high, and  Darren told us that his dog loves to do this too.  He said the dog grabs the toads in his mouth and squeezes them.  He claimed his dog was addicted and then said, “The flashbacks are bloody hell.  Two days later, he will run around the house like crazy.”  I actually suspected that Darren might be having us on a bit, so later I went back and googled the subject of dogs and cane toads.  Sure enough, there is an entire youtube sub-genre on this subject.  If you have three minutes of your life to waste, this clip is very funny.  It starts slow, but keep watching:

Dobbie the Dog gets high on cane toad

By late afternoon our van pulled to a stop as we waited for the iconic Daintree Rainforest Ferry, which is the way in and out of the forest.  (Rick had crossed over it in the van by himself that morning while we were on our boat ride.). Rick saw fruit bats in the trees, and we all piled out of the stopped van to get a closer look:

I looked at him.  He looked at me.  Neither of us liked what we saw.

We rode the ferry across, and Rick told us the other local scuttlebutt.  Recently a man had driven off the ferry while it was in the middle of the river.  The man simply had what Rick described as a “brain fade.”  He was talking to someone else on the ferry and got distracted.  That would be a bad day!

Back on the road, Rick decided to make one more stop.  He knew where we could see a green ant nest in a tree, and he tapped the green leafy ball and watched them roil out.

He told us that the aboriginal people eat these ants, and their little “ends” have a good taste.  He offered to let us try one and promised that the ant would not be harmed.  We were all game to try.  Rick would catch the ants gently by their heads and abdomens and position the “tail” toward our tongues.  We were told to keep our tongues moist, and he touched the ants to our tongues one by one.  The taste was tart, something akin to a lemon and a Granny Smith apple.  I was amazed.  Rick said, “You can go home tonight and say to your friends, ‘You won’t believe what I did today.  I licked an ant’s butt.'”  Darren quickly retorted, “Imagine it from the ant’s perspective.  He’s going to go back to the nest tonight and say, ‘You’re not gonna believe what happened to me today!'”

Rick told us about a few words that don’t mean the same thing in America as they do in Australia.  For instance, a fanny is a vagina in the land Down Under.  So if you talk about your fanny pack or tell someone to move their fanny, expect some odd looks.  “Rooting for” is the Aussie colloquial for “having sex with.”  So if you ask an Aussie who they are rooting for, they aren’t going to say “Arkansas Razorbacks.”  They are going to say, “None of your business, mate!”  A rubber is an eraser.  This one works the other way.  If an Aussie asks an American to borrow a rubber, the American may raise an eyebrow.  Likewise for thongs, which in Australia are simply flip-flops. Rick said he got in a bit of hot water on a tour once when he said, “Girls, we are at the beach.  You can take off your thongs and go in the water.”

It was late afternoon when we said our goodbyes to Rick and Darren.  Genene traded emails and phone numbers with her new Awty friends and is looking forward to seeing them on the first day of school.  We got back to the hotel and peeled off our damp clothes.  We took care of one item of housekeeping.  Genene’s roll away bed was like a glorified cot with metal springs.  Every time she turned over last night, it squeaked horribly like the Second Coming and woke me out of my sleep.  I am a light sleeper on any day, and I didn’t want to listen to that racket for two more nights.  I talked with the front desk and asked for a new cot that didn’t squeak.  I got an odd look.  Apparently a “cot” is a baby bassinet in Australia, and the lady couldn’t imagine why Genene would need that.  We finally communicated, and they quickly sent a new roll away bed with nice, quiet wooden slats.

We had dinner at the hotel.  The seafood is fresh and delicious.  We had tuna and a lamb neck, which was also savory and delightful.  We were exhausted  by 8:00 PM.  We are visiting in Australia’s winter, so the sun goes down sometime after 6:00 PM.  By dinner’s end, it was pitch dark and to us it felt like midnight.

We went straight back to our room and began assembling our gear for tomorrow’s activities.  Mask?   Check!  Snorkel?  Check!  Swimsuit?  Check!  Sunscreen?   Check!

Tomorrow…the Great Barrier Reef!

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