Queensland Adventures — The Jungle.

16 Jul

Chris and I travelled to the far north of Queensland, Australia to experience the Great Barrier Reef and the tropical jungle. In the popular imagination, fashioned by films and fiction, the jungle is a steamy, noisy, dangerous environment. One has to hack through dense, tangled undergrowth with a machete, be on the lookout for venomous snakes dangling down from the tress and be deafened by a cacophony of chattering monkeys, shrieking birds and a rasping chorus of cicadas. Rivers are infested with voracious piranhas and deadly crocodiles. Then there is the constant threat of encountering fierce cannibals or head-hunters.
Of course, that wasn’t the reality for us in the Queensland rainforest and we weren’t naïve enough to expect it. We had already been on a jungle trek in Ghana, Africa and the most dangerous thing we encountered was an army of viciously biting red ants which marched up several tourists’ legs! We found out where the phrase “ants in your pants” came from. Much of that African guided walk concentrated on the medicinal qualities of plants and the symbiotic relationship between certain trees and certain insects. All the birds and animals were hiding away high up in the forest canopy and we would have had to have got up before dawn to have any chance of seeing them.
It was the same in Queensland. The rain forest was disappointingly “safe” and quiet. Much has been chopped down anyway to make way for sugar-cane plantations. The Daintree Rain Forest even has a fairly busy, metalled road running through the middle of it, so the biggest danger for a bird or an animal is not being pounced on by a predator but being mown down by a 4 by 4. A lot of the wildlife is endangered because of loss of habitat or human enchroachment. Before the Daintree was turned into a National Park and a World Heritage Site, the Queensland government was actually selling off large chunks of it for development in order to make money. Luckily the buyers were prevented from creating farms, logging businesses, golf courses or tourist resorts by conservation laws that came in the nick of time to protect such a unique and fragile environment.
We drove up from Port Douglas on a small group tour. We knew that we wouldn’t be visiting the fantasy jungle of popular fiction, but did have high hopes of spotting a crocodile or possible catching a glimpse of a snake. There was also a very slim chance of coming across a weird flightless bird called the cassowary. It is the third biggest bird in the world after the ostrich and the emu. Only 110 survive in the huge Queensland rain forest and our chances of seeing one were rated as only 10%.
Our first little jungle trek was in the Mossman Gorge. It was along a well worn tourist track. No machetes were needed. A crystal clear river tumbled over a scattering of boulders, whilst jungle trout lurked in the shallows. A colourful Bush Turkey scuttled through the undergrowth. But apart from that, the main interest was in the trees, all fighting each other in a race for the light. We learnt about the Strangler Fig, a silent killer, which slowly squeezes the life out its host. Then there’s an unusual tree ( name forgotten) that opens up little splits in its bark to secrete a sweet, sticky sap. This attracts ants which then repel any other predators which might harm the tree. It is a fascinating example of cooperation in the wild. OK, we didn’t get pounced on by a jaguar or half squeezed to death by an anaconda ( wrong continent anyway), but it was still an absorbing and unusual experience for us urbanites from the UK.
Our first big opportunity to encounter one of Steve Backshall’s “Deadly 60” was our crocodile cruise on the Daintree River estuary. Here salty sea water mixes with the freshwater running down from the mountains to form an ideal habitat for Australia’s largest and most deadly predator, the Estaurine Crocodile. I had read about lethal crocodile attacks on people foolish enough to swim in the quiet lagoons just off the main river. We were told the story of a man who had taken his two sons, 7 and 5, on a fishing trip on the Daintree. At the end of the day, he pulled his boat up on to the river bank and briefly turned his back on his sons to secure it. When he turned back, his 5 year old, who had been playing at the water’s edge, had suddenly disappeared. An estuarine crocodile had struck without warning.
So it was with a frisson of fear tinged with nervous excitement that we set off on our croc cruise. I had already decided that if we spotted one I wouldn’t lean too far over the side of the boat to take a picture! The river is densely bordered by mangrove forests. We glided slowly along the river bank, scouring the tangled roots and branches for signs of life. As the undergrowth closed in on us I was briefly transported to the scene in “Dr No” when Bond and his companions are penetrating deep into the villain’s jungle heartland. The side creeks, favourite haunts of crocodiles, were so overgrown that we could barely struggle through them, with overhanging branches regularly lashing the roof of the boat. We went to a place where a female crocodile had been located all week, but when we got there, she’d disappeared! Another crocodile nesting place on a wooded island had been attacked and destroyed by a gang of feral pigs, eager for an easy meal of eggs and tiny reptiles once the adult mother was away. The pigs had been set loose by people in the past so that they could have fun hunting them. Now they are a real problem.
We didn’t have much luck. All we saw were two baby crocs, one a few weeks old and one about a year. They had left the care of their mother and stood very little chance of survival. Both of them lay completely still on logs by the waterside, well camouflaged and barely discernible. As we looked at the second young croc, a green tree snake slithered through the leaves, causing a ripple of excitement to run through our group. It disappeared in seconds. The snake proved to be the highlight of the river trip and our scary encounter with a giant crocodile remained firmly in our imaginations.
North of the Daintree river, we left the main drag to explore a side track barely wide enough to contain our vehicle. This went through a stretch of private forest that the tour company had negotiated entry to. On another bushwalk we spotted a large, greeny grey lizard clinging to a trunk. It was completely motionless. It was a Boyd’s Forest Dragon. It had large, swivelling eyes, a double crest on its head and a line of fleshy spikes running along the length of its back. Like the baby crocodiles, it was very well camouflaged and we only spotted it due to the expertise and sharp eyes of our excellent guide. With patience and skill there is wildlife to be found in Australia’s rain-forest. It’s not just a mass of trees.
We drove on, deeper into the jungle. Then, as casually as you like, a very large, flightless bird wandered out of the forest and on to the track right in front of us. It had a blue face that turned pale orange at the back of its longish neck. At the bottom of its throat hung a small red, turkey-like wattle. It’s round, dark brown body looked as if it was covered with fur rather than feathers and its long white legs ended in 3 large splayed toes, festooned with talons. The most extraordinary thing though was a bony crest that sat on top of its head. It was an adolescent cassowary, one of those mysterious birds that we had only a minimal chance of spotting. It was probably a female as it was on its own. The males look after the eggs and the chicks. while the females wander free, leading a promiscuous lifestyle.
It was the high spot of the trip. We had seen a large exotic and rare bird, in the wild. This wasn’t a zoo. We watched it for a minute or more and then it melted back into the forest.
Later we went to see an adult cassowary at Port Douglas wildlife park.( the excellent Wildlife Habitat.) Its head and neck were a deep glowing blue. It had a bright red wattle hanging down at the front and red, bubbly skin at the back, just before it’s neck joined the dark feathers of its body. The bony crest or helmet was large and striking. It is called a casque and grows to about 7 inches ( 18cms) in height. Nobody know for sure the purpose of this casque. It could be used for sexual signalling or employed as a weapon or a foraging tool. It may be a device for amplifying sound or simply a battering ram, as the cassowary lowers its head and charges through the forest at speeds of up to 31 mph. It’s a strange but beautiful bird and still very much a mystery wrapped up in an enigma ( with apologies to Winston Churchill.) Cassowaries can be dangerous when startled, lashing out with their large, sharp claws. The middle one is particularly dangerous. They are capable of disembowelling a human or a dog if cornered. But such attacks are rare and it is the cassowaries that are in most danger, from dog attacks or speeding traffic. Also those pesky feral pigs are a problem again. They destroy eggs and nests and compete for food. Cassowaries can swim in rivers and the sea. They emit a low, booming sound, right on the edge of human hearing. They live for 40 to 50 years.
So, no big crocs, only one small snake, no poisonous spiders, no Tarzan and no Jane. But our brief sighting of the elusive Southern Cassowary in the wild was a thrilling encounter leaving an indelible memory. It was our David Attenborough moment and the unexpected highlight of our Queensland jungle adventure.

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