Nature's chance meeting
By Stanley Johnson. Published in Financial Times, 26th January 2008
For more photos, click here.
An hour after midnight on June 11 1770, Captain Cook's ship, the Endeavour, struck the coral reef off the shore of what is now called Tropical North Queensland. As the ship came off the reef, a large piece of coral broke away, plugging the hole and stopping an inrush of water - which would have sunk the vessel - and giving the crew time to plug the hole. For three days, gale force winds prevented the vessel from putting in to shelter. Cook gloomily named the nearby headland Cape Tribulation. "Here," he wrote, "began all our troubles."
Today, Cape Tribulation has shaken off its troubled image. If the Daintree National Park, home to one of the world's oldest tropical rainforests, is the crowning glory of Tropical North Queensland, I would say the stretch of coast running north from the Daintree River up past Cape Tribulation is the jewel in that crown. How many other places are there where the rainforest comes right down to the coral reef? At Cape Tribulation, two World Heritage Sites - the Daintree Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef - converge and the result is little short of miraculous.
From Cape Tribulation's beach of blazing white coral sand with its clusters of mangrove trees, you can wade into the warm azure sea, lie on your back in the water and look up at the thickly forested hills rising up to the plateau.
In the 1980s, the Queensland government planned to drive a highway through the Daintree from Cairns to Cooktown, only to be frustrated by determined environmentalists who blockaded the track. As a result, the road now stops at the south side of the Daintree River. There is no bridge. If you want to drive north through the forest along the coast, you have to put your vehicle on a homely little ferry.
From the nature lovers' point of view, the Daintree forest and coast offers almost everything you can possibly want. One morning, my wife Jenny and I took an escorted tour in a flat-bottomed boat along the lower reaches of the Daintree River. We must have counted a dozen huge crocodiles sunning themselves on the bank. Our guide knew several of them by name.
"That's fat Albert" he said as a giant crocodile pulled itself out of the water and on to the sand. "Five metres long. Weighs over a tonne. Biggest croc I've seen here was almost 9m long, weighed over two tonnes, probably 120 years old."
There have been no incidents, as far as I know, of crocodiles attacking one of the tourist boats but our guide warns us to watch out anyway. "Don't trail your hands in the water," he tells us. "If you fall in, you won't even have time to get wet."
One morning, an Aboriginal guide agreed to take us into the heart of the rainforest. Harold Wawubuja was part of the Kuku Yalanji tribal group, who have lived in the Daintree forest for 50,000 or even 100,000 years.
We followed a well-worn trail up into the hills behind the Daintree Eco Lodge where you can have a herbal massage to the accompaniment of piped Aboriginal music. Wawubuja's one ambition, he told us, was to try to ensure that the traditions of his people, and their knowledge of how to live in harmony with the forest, did not die out. Though many of the young Kuku Yalanji were employed at local tourist centres or hotels, he tried to bring them together in tribal or family gatherings at weekends or in the evenings.
As we rested beside a gigantic "strangler" fig tree, he taught us the benefit of traditional remedies. "Say you're on the beach," he said, "and you get stung by a stinger [jellyfish]. Best thing is: you get a wild potato vine, peel off the bark and mush it all up. Then apply it to the skin, leave it to cool for an hour, then peel it off."
Later, he stopped to grind up some pebbles to make an ochre powder and painted a highly stylised cassowary bird for us on a nearby rock.
It was almost as good as seeing the real thing. Before Captain Cook renamed the place, the aboriginal people called Cape Tribulation Kurranji, meaning cassowary, after the flightless bird, up to 2m tall and weighing up to 60kg. In Australia, around 1,000 cassowaries survive and about 60 are to be found in the Daintree.
We failed to spy a giant birdduring subsequent walks through the forest in the Mossman Gorge. I think that, if we had actually seen a cassowary, our cup would truly have been full. Not having seen one on that occasion, we certainly have good reason to plan a return trip to the Daintree.
As a matter of fact, there are probably a hundred good reasons to return to this extraordinary part of the world. If you tire of the rainforest, you can head for the Great Barrier Reef. Years ago, I used to worry that a plague of starfish was destroying all the coral in one of the world's most famous ecosystems. But as we cruised out to the reef one morning on Poseidon, a specially built catamaran, it was reassuring to know that the starfish problem had proved to be cyclical rather than chronic.
"Global warming is a much bigger threat to the coral," our guide told us as we sorted out snorkels and flippers for the first plunge of the day. "Remember, we're dealing with the largest live-animal structures in the world." He told us that a difference of 2C could affect coral growth. "If projected temperature rises occur, that could be the end of the Great Barrier Reef as we know it."
Of course, when you're out there on the reef, face-down in the water, it's hard to believe that this extraordinary undersea world, full of the most startling shapes and colours - 1,500 species of fish and 400 species of coral - could one day disappear.
Will the politicians, the decision-makers, be up to the challenges posed by climate change? Long-distance travellers, such as myself, must take some responsibility. But I was heartened to see that not long after we returned from Australia, Kevin Rudd, the new prime minister, agreed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change at the end of last year. It is, of course, too soon to say that the threat to the Great Barrier Reef has disappeared. But this latest news is certainly a step - an important step - in the right direction.
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