Cloe Willetts stands up to her fears and learns to love Tropical North Queensland.
If someone had told me a month ago I'd be waist-deep in a river spilling through a rainforest known for hosting Tropical North Queensland crocodiles, I wouldn't have believed them.
If they'd told me I'd be stand-up paddle boarding for the first time ever, on that same river, I'd have probably suffered a minor panic attack.
But I did it, beneath the towering palm trees and sun-soaked sky, I braved the freshwater pathways of North Queensland's Mossman Gorge by paddle board, beside curling tropical vines and dusty side banks.
Despite a crocodile sign wedged in the bank entry to the freshwater river, which is part of Northern Queensland's enchanting World Heritage Daintree Rainforest, I followed the tail of locals who were scattered among the greenery to combat the morning's rising 27C.
"It's very unlikely you'll spot a croc in these river corridors because the water's too cold for them at the moment," my tour guide mentioned, as I breathed in strands of the thick tropical heat, placing my trust on Mother Nature to steer any migrating crocs in the other direction.
A group of Aboriginal children were taking turns bombing off the side of a small footbridge, which bent over the clear jade-toned river as a newlywed couple and I followed the paddle-boarding instructions of Brett, a Queenslander and owner of WindSwell Kite Surfing and Stand Up Paddle.
Like me, the young honeymooners had escaped New Zealand's stormy early winter to soak up the tranquil sights, experiences and tastes of Tropical North Queensland, which is known for its blend of invigorating and far-stretching rainforest and golden beaches.
It turned out the South Island couple were seasoned when it came to paddle boarding and kayaking, whereas I, a little athletically rusty, struggled to navigate which way the board should face.
But as the morning drifted into the day, I found that paddle boarding isn't as hard as I'd imagined, as long as you're willing to put your arms to work against the surging current, and focus your mind on nothing other than the quiet aqua corridor ahead.
After multiple rests along the river path to swim, chat and share slices of fresh sweet watermelon and crimson-coloured dragonfruit, Brett invited us to lie down on our boards to glide back to the start of the river with the wavering current.
Pulled below shading tree branches and brushing past logs, I stretched out over the board, absorbing the warmth of a sky lit with its usual turquoise-winged butterflies, oversized dragonflies and endless birdlife.
Paddle boarding, an activity popular with locals who hit the beaches in the morning to paddle alongside the early rising sun, is one way of breathing in the serene culture of Tropical North Queensland.
Awash with endless coastlines and some of the world's most pristine and unscathed rainforests, North Queensland is an oasis for the eco-conscious and nature lovers, as well as foodies and beach goers wanting a western taste of the tropics.
As just one of two places in the world where the rainforest meets the reef, the area is known for its year-round outdoor lifestyle, brimming with vibrant cosmopolitan cities, accessible Outback, the quiet beachfront, and thriving native wildlife.
Another way to find your feet in the relaxed colour-rich region is to take a crocodile-spotting eco-cruise along the banks of Mossman's Daintree River, about 100km north-west of Cairns. On privately owned land where mangroves merge with the rainforest, the Daintree River Cruise Centre relies on local naturalists and biologists to guide the educational sightseeing tours.
As a boatload of tourists and I graced the swampy green water we saw some of North Queensland's three types of crocodile sunbathing on sandy banks and fallen tree trunks.
Afterwards, I had the opportunity to hold a 2-year-old crocodile named Barry, whose mouth was tapped closed and whose skin felt like chilled bumpy leather, in an unsettling but equally beautiful way.
Crocodile skin plays a significant role in North Queensland's economy.
I learned Barry would be turned into a handbag someday soon, like his fellow farmed croc friends, who were born to supply the world's fashion trade for brands such as Louis Vuitton.
The Daintree River Cruise Centre, a one-hour boat ride from Cape Tribulation, has been Eco Tourism Accredited since 2000, and holds an Advanced Eco Accreditation and Respecting Our Culture Certification, designed by Aboriginal Tourism Australia.
In North Queensland, pride and protection of the natural environment is paramount among locals, who have grown up living off fresh tropical fruits and locally sourced seafood, with backyard access to enchanting native ecosystems.
Perhaps the most intact destination in the area, and one that should be given a full day to explore, is Cape Tribulation, a quaint village 45 minutes away from Port Douglas. With just about 200 locals, the village runs off solar and hydro power and endures peak temperatures of 36.5C. There's little to no air con.
Cut off by the Daintree River, access is made via Queensland's only cable ferry, before the winding Cape Tribulation Road takes you to the end of the exotic wonderland. There, locals are friendly and meet for weekend drinks at Whet Cafe Bar Restaurant, which is one of just a few hospitality spots in an area where phone and internet signals are still a thing of the future.
I learned that directions should be set in stone before venturing into this remote community, where locals communicate with friends via chalk boards and paper notes.
The drive along the Cape Tribulation Road is a must for travellers wanting to spot
roadside wildlife or purchase exotic hand-picked mangosteen, a fruit with a deep
reddish-purple rind and sweet tangy centre, referred to as the "queen" of tropical fruit.
An adventure must-do in this visually rich township is the multi award-winning Jungle Surfing Canopy Tours, set in the Daintree Rainforest and designed for sightseers to glide through the trees without their feet touching the ground.
A mix of exhilaration and education, the unique zip-line tour welcomes people young
and old, who land at five ecofriendly tree platforms for towering sky views of nearby hills and flowing streams.
As well as glided past leafy tree branches and long-legged spiders asleep in giant coiled webs, I zip-lined upside down for a part of the circuit, my legs wrapped around the thick rope attached to my fluorescent body harness.
"You're definitely a Kiwi," a young Canadian tour guide said as I asked if the speed would pick up, which it eventually did, slightly, for the last leg of the tour. "You Kiwis love a good rush."
I guess the adrenaline of swimming in deep crocodile waters is a little hard to beat.