Tash McGill gets a little downtime in the Daintree
It was the first trip I'd made to Tropical North Queensland, and I realised exactly what a different place it was. The shadowy green mountain ranges of the Cape York Peninsula stretch down to sandy white beaches along the coast, and crops of sugarcane, coffee and exotic fruits grow lush. The temperature is balmy during the peak May-October season, providing a perfect tropical escape from a cold winter on the other side of the Tasman.
Once you drag yourself off the beach and into the forest, there are remarkable treasures to be explored.
You might start with a hot-air balloon ride over the Atherton Tablelands. An early morning bus will take you up through the mountains in time to take a flight to see the sun rising over the rainforests. We saw kangaroos moving swiftly over the landscape, before admiring the horticultural kaleidoscope stretched out in mosaic underneath us.
Following the wind currents over this part of the world offers a rare perspective on the expansiveness of these rainforests that border the vast desert interior of Australia.
Cape York is home to more than 900,000ha of pristine ecological wonderland that stretches along about 500km of coastline, which creeps south before meeting the Tablelands. Regarded internationally as a unique site, these are some of the oldest surviving rainforests in the world and once stretched across the entire continent.
We headed by car to the Daintree Rainforest, the northern stretch of eco-system that extends north of Mossman and from the Daintree River.
It's just over an hour's drive from Port Douglas and the most flexible way to enjoy what should be a leisurely tiki tour, especially if you choose to stop by the tropical fruit winery in Shannonvale.
It's a 10-minute detour that's worth it for the wines made from locally sourced tropical fruit, which you're unlikely to see anywhere else. A bottle of vanilla or black sapote port will not disappoint alongside fresh local seafood.
Most of the Daintree is included in the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage site, but this eco-treasure has been largely ignored by the adrenalin-hooked adventure junkies lured to this part of Australia by that other great World Heritage site, the Great Barrier Reef. Stop to enjoy the Mossman Gorge boardwalks leading to natural swimming holes and giant boulders - it's the perfect spot to sit and enjoy some of the remarkable birdlife that inhabits the forest.
When crossing the Daintree River, you begin to feel history stretching out in front of you. An old-fashioned barge rolls back and forth all day between the two riverbanks, which are marked with signposts warning of crocodiles. It is the only way forward for those heading north to Cape Tribulation and eventually to Cooktown.
The road takes you past a remarkable lookout across the Cape to the mouth of the Daintree River that's well worth stopping at, if just to prove how far you've travelled.
From the river to the Cape Tribulation township the road is well-maintained to provide easy tourism access; after Cape Trib, the adventurous can continue at a more gnarly pace on a gravelled path to Cooktown. The well-informed, however, will make a planned stop to enjoy the sanctuary of this ancient forest. In Cape Tribulation, a range of private and luxurious cabins, as well as more backpacker-friendly lodging, is dispersed through the small township. You get the feeling the locals are all on first-name basis, despite the fact most of them are travellers who came to the Daintree, fell in love and never left.
PK's Jungle Village is both local hangout and backpacker central - a sure place to meet the locals and hear a few good stories. It's that sense of friendliness and community that creates a gentle peacefulness about any stay in the rainforest, whether kayaking along the rivers, swimming in the clear waters, horse-riding along deserted beaches or experiencing the Daintree from ziplines threaded through the canopy.
The Daintree feels as enormous as it truly is, but being there creates a sense of intimacy with the place that is breathtaking, encouraging you to take a breath and slow down for a moment.
A SUSTAINABLE RAINFOREST
Though Daintree Rainforest has been recognised as a World Heritage site for more than 20 years, maintaining and caring for the rainforest is a mutual concern for local government and local tourism operators. With tourist numbers declining in recent years, the area is focused on providing more unique and flexible experiences in the rainforest. The aim is to encourage more locals (as well as other Australians and New Zealanders) to experience all the Daintree has to offer, especially with eco-friendly, nil-impact experiences. It's a mutually beneficial relationship - as nil-impact tourism increases, the growth of the local economy enables more work to done on improving and caring for the site. This includes local government schemes to "buy back" land in the Daintree Rainforest, and local landowners have voluntarily had their properties declared as nature reserves. Surrounding areas are to be dedicated to conservation programmes and nature parks, ensuring the Daintree has a strong chance for a sustainable future.