Tropical North Queensland: Lessons from nature's classroom

Elisabeth Easther took her nature-loving son to tropical North Queensland where the rainforests, reefs and wildlife received top marks.
Zip through the rain forest at the Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome for a bird's-eye view of different habitats. Photo / Tourism and Events Queensland
Zip through the rain forest at the Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome for a bird's-eye view of different habitats. Photo / Tourism and Events Queensland

It's understandable that schools frown on parents taking children out of class during term time - yet some holidays are so educational you feel that the days away can be justified. Proving that theory on a recent trip to Tropical North Queensland, I reckon Theo and I learned enough to fill an encyclopedia.

Kicking off in downtown Cairns, our curriculum included a visit to Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome, an open animal enclosure, perched incongruously above The Reef Hotel Casino. At the top floor, we were astonished to exit the elevator and find ourselves in a hot and steamy rainforest and greeted by owls, cockatoos, even a kookaburra. Deeper inside the complex, we found wallabies, turtles, crocodiles, koalas and a trio of snakes called Psycho, Curiosity and Wilson. And if that's not enough, there's a challenge ropes course with varying heights and levels of difficulty. Made up of 65 different crossings, one of the ziplines flew us directly over a 4m saltwater crocodile named Goliath.

After experiencing an indoor rainforest, we had to see the real thing and, 15 minutes' drive away, we were able to do just that at the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway in Barron Gorge National Park. Thought to be the planet's oldest living rainforest, this complex ecosystem lures rain from the clouds, feeding the moisture to the Great Barrier Reef - two World Heritage Sites in close proximity, one completely dependent on the other.

Coasting up into the canopy, three gondolas transported us 7.5km and, as the first cable car moved off into the wild green yonder, the experience bordered on mystical. Like being in a bubble, we were ferried 545m above sea level to Red Peak Station, the vegetation beneath us moving from eucalyptus to rainforest.

Our guide, Cameron, explained how everything we saw had a purpose; the long points on leaves are drop tips, designed not to hold the rain, but send it down to Earth. The process trees use to remove water from the air is called cloud-stripping and the trees that grow all higgledy-piggledy, their branches deviating this way and that, are trying to obtain as much light as they can. Nature is so clever.

Get out on the reef aboard a Quicksilver Great Barrier Reef Tour. Photo / Tourism and Events Queensland
Get out on the reef aboard a Quicksilver Great Barrier Reef Tour. Photo / Tourism and Events Queensland


For an arachnophile like Theo, the enormous tent spiders and golden orbs were his favourite "web" sites. As for learning about caterpillars that eat poisonous leaves to make themselves lethal to predators, we both bugged out over that. If you see a butterfly dancing, flitting as they fly, they're trying to avoid being eaten because they haven't got poison as a defence, whereas the straight-flying butterflies are generally toxic and don't need to weave when they move?

Entering gondola number two, whirring up to Barron Falls over the deep gorge, it started to rain, as you'd expect in a rainforest. Watching the drops fall through the glass-bottomed car, floating down to the green zone as if in slow motion was utterly mesmerising.

A third gondola dropped us at Kuranda, a funny little tourist town in the forest that does a roaring trade in souvenirs.

Signs of humanity along the isolated coastline towards Port Doubles were few and far between and, from the place names to the billboards warning us not to spread electric ants, the world felt fabulously exotic.

The Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat's "immersion exhibit" is divided into savannah, wetlands, rainforest and grasslands environments, spread over .8ha here we could get our hands on the flora and fauna.

We joined a bird-feeding expedition, starting with the endangered cassowary. This behemoth of a bird needs a lot of sustenance if it is to reach its goal weight of 66kg. Sporting dazzling colours and a regal head crest, when in battle, the larger, fiercer female is said to swing her dangly wattle back and forth like a bullfighter's cape.

In contrast, the satin bowerbird prefers making love to war, and the male collects little blue objects to give to his female friends when he's courting.

Tuition continued at the reptile encounter where we discovered that holding a snake is like being hugged by a muscular sausage and snake scales are made of keratin, the same stuff fingernails and cassowary crowns are made of. The scrub python can eat his own body weight in one sitting, then won't eat for a year or two. Plus, snakes have to eat their meals whole, feathers and fur but, because they can't digest hair or nails, their poo is quite hairy. And snake urine comes out solid, because almost all the moisture that goes in is used.

No visit to Port Douglas is complete without a field trip to the Great Barrier Reef. The largest living structure on earth, it's made up of 2900 individual reefs and hundreds of continental islands and is roughly the same size as Japan.

Travelling with Quicksilver, the 90-minute trip to Agincourt Reef flew by thanks to the marine biology presentation we were given along the way. Home to 1.9 million species and 900 types of coral, there is still so much to discover beneath the surface. Giant clams, the world's largest shellfish, grow up to 1.5m wide. Looking out at the world through 650 short-sighted eyes, they live for up to 100 years. And the fish are astonishing not just for their markings but because many of them can change colour if they fancy. And gender.

Theo Head makes friends with a kangaroo at the Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat.
Theo Head makes friends with a kangaroo at the Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat.


We learned another fun fact too: it turns out gentlemen with lush facial hair can have trouble forming a seal between their mask and face. Who knew?

As soon as we docked at the reef, we were in that ocean quick as a flash and oh my gosh, it was underwater paradise. The racket of parrotfish scrunching at the coral, the sight of a whitetip reef shark gliding ominously by and the clams, with their puffy pillow lips, were indeed the biggest we'd ever seen.

After lunch, it was feeding time for the giant red sea bass, who were able to propel more than half their massive bodies out of the water in their enthusiasm to snatch at the mackerel snacks.

As the day drew to a close, a young free diver from Marton took us down deep to see Nemo's spaghetti-like home. We promise not to make a habit of bunking off school, but I'm confident we learned enough to make up for our truancy.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Qantas flies daily from Auckland to Cairns (via Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane), with Economy Class return flights from $844. qantas.co.nz

DETAILS

Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome: cairnszoom.com.au
Skyrail Rainforest Cableway: skyrail.com.au
Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat: wildlifehabitat.com.au
Quicksilver Great Barrier Reef Tour: quicksilver-cruises.com

ONLINE

queensland.com

- NZ Herald

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