Travel: Tropical North, Queensland

By Julie Haines

I'm feeling quite indignant after my trip to Tropical North Queensland. There I was, sitting quite innocently at a picnic table in the Daintree National Park, when suddenly a brush turkey leapt up and stole my bag of lettuce. The Aussie family at the next table tsk-tsked and shooed the thief away, happily munching his salad, while I managed to cover a smile.

But I confess, despite losing my lunch I was secretly thrilled to get so close to nature. And though there are many reasons to visit Queensland, getting back to nature is certainly high up the list.

This is the place where pristine golden sand beaches are adorned with signs warning you to beware of marine stingers and crocodiles. A destination where fellow travellers on the flight over tell scary tales of crocodiles leaving their murky riverbank homes for the cleaner waters of public swimming pools.

Although some of the wildlife isn't the kind you'd want to get too up close and personal with, luckily there are lots of places to spot Australian natives from a safe distance.

We started our trip with a sunset cruise on the Lady Douglas, gently powering along the mangrove wetlands near Port Douglas, eyes glued to the murky waters.

After several false starts and embarrassed giggles when logs were mistaken for crocs, everyone stampeded for one side of the boat when the first croc was spotted, its head nestled against the muddy riverbank.

Usually solitary and territorial creatures, the crocs put on a great show for us, with three in quite close vicinity to each other. One sported scars from a close encounter in another croc's territory, but it hadn't seemed to have learned its lesson as we spotted it cutting its way through the water teasingly close to its suspected assailant.

The Lady Douglas does not confine its wildlife encounters to saltwater crocodiles either, with sea eagles, kites, ospreys, kingfishers, herons and waders often spotted. But it is worth doing the trip just for the spectacular scenery in the mangrove channels of the Estuarine Conservation Zone, with the brooding ranges in the distance and in the harbour with its gently bobbing boats and the sunset coloured horizon.

To see a wider cross section of Australia's native species we headed to the Wildlife Habitat in Port Douglas.

The open enclosures at Wildlife Habitat give its inhabitants a greater sense of freedom and tourists a unique chance to get up close and personal to kangaroos, emus and other species without being separated by bars or glass walls.

Buy a "Breakfast with the Birds" or "Lunch with the Lorikeets" pass and you have the option of returning to the zoo the following two days for free.

I had to laugh at the mischievous behaviour of some of the wildlife. You wouldn't want a Lessor Sooty Owl to dig his talons or sharp beak into you, yet we watched in mirth as one left his open enclosure and cheekily lingered on a "Please Touch" sign in an interactive area. Needless to say, a keeper who wandered past wasn't impressed.

The next day we drove north to the Daintree, stopping at the scene of the infamous brush turkey, the Mossman Gorge.

Sitting in the southern part of the World Heritage listed Daintree National Park, the Mossman Gorge is part of the oldest continuously surviving rainforest in the world. We walked through the rainforest to a lookout over the Mossman River, marvelling over a florescent blue butterfly and the fact that, butterflies and brush turkeys aside, the bush looked remarkably similar to that you find in New Zealand.

With our thirst for native bush still not sated we followed the meandering coastal Captain Cook Highway back towards Cairns to catch the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway to Kuranda.

The gondola skims over the forest canopy for 7.5km, affording a bird's eye view of the Barron Gorge National Park with Cairns and the Coral Sea in the distance. The forest changes as the altitude increases, from Eucalypt woodlands to vine-clad and then dense rainforest. It is well worth doing the two optional stops on the way.

At Red Peak Station, the highest point on the cableway at 545m, you can join a guided tour along a 175m boardwalk, passing a massive 400-year-old Kauri pine and beautiful Banyan trees. At Barron Falls Station, an easy walk takes you to a lookout over the impressive Barron Falls, dropping 265m into the river below.

Once in Kuranda you are spoilt for choice with wildlife parks, as the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, Kuranda Koala Gardens, Australian Venom Zoo and Birdworld are all walking distance (or a free shuttle bus journey) from the terminal.

We chose to return to Cairns on the Kuranda Scenic Railway, a remarkable trip which winds its way back down the ranges with even more spectacular views.

This historic railway line was built in the gold rush days and features a 180-degree horseshoe bend where you can glimpse the whole train ahead of you, views of the Barron Falls, steep ravines, and a 490m tunnel.

Of course, no trip to Tropical North Queensland is complete without a visit to the Great Barrier Reef.

Covering about 344,400sq km, it is the world's largest coral reef system. Here, it's possible to spot turtles, dolphins, whales and a myriad of colourful fish.

There are a multitude of tour companies in Cairns and Port Douglas that operate trips to the inner and outer reefs, but one of the most well known is Quicksilver - its platform at Agincourt Reef features an underwater observatory, semi-submersibles, diving and snorkelling platforms and a Great Barrier Reef Post Office box.

In my case I had to miss what should have been the trip highlight because of morning sickness - but happily this just gives me an excuse to return in search of even more Australian wildlife, though hopefully next time I won't lose my lunch!

- Hamilton News

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