"Slow down, cassowaries crossing" the sign said as we climbed a small rise on the road. Strange, we thought. A kilometre or so further along there was another sign - "Are you speeding?" - this time with a picture of a big bird and a crumpled car. Passing patches of thick rainforest beside the road, we peered into the dark shadows hoping to see a cassowary, but no luck. Thankfully it wasn't going to be us to hit the next gigantic prehistoric bird on this busy stretch of road.

We encountered these signs only in the last few kilometres before Mission Beach. We quickly came to realise cassowaries are a big part of Mission Beach - one of the last few easily accessed strongholds of these big, scary birds left in Australia. They still lurk around Cape Tribulation and the Daintree to the north and there are a few up on the Atherton Tablelands behind Cairns. In fact, we had a close encounter with one up there a few years ago. We even have a hasty, blurred, close-up shot of the bird's face to prove it. But we were intrigued that they still choose to stay near a place as busy as Mission Beach.

That is because Mission Beach is a settled area. It's not glitzy or Hollywood like Port Douglas, it's much more down to earth and friendly. It's also a lot quieter, the cafes are low-key, the shopping (what shopping?) is affordable and the nightlife, at best, is a walk along the beach in the moonlight before an early night. But that's Mission Beach's charm; it is what Port Douglas was like 15 years ago, or more. We rented a little house on the sea front at Wongaling Beach, just one section of Mission Beach's many kilometres of white-sand beaches. Mornings were hectic as we ambled through breakfast on the veranda, already seeking shade as the temperature climbed. Then a walk along the beach as the daily trade wind came up to cool things a bit. Back for a quiet coffee, before lighting the barbie for lunch. Then it was down to the beach again to sit under the swishing casuarina trees awhile, read a book, maybe take another short walk. Hectic, I tell you.

After years of dashing around while travelling, catching boats, climbing hills, diving reefs and riding 4WDs through dry dusty places, it's nice to go somewhere and do nothing. Where we were staying there was really no need to go any further than across the road to the beach. Dunk Island sat lazily in the water directly opposite, just a few kilometres offshore. Several evenings we drove around to the main village and had pizza and too much Italian wine for dinner. This is where Mission Beach differs from Port Douglas; its cuisine options are rather limited. Fish and chips are big, the pizzas are good and there's a pub serving bistro-style meals, but it's not open every night. All the more reason to stay home and light the barbie again.

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But the thought of those big chunky cassowaries tip-toeing through the bush just a few kilometres away kept eating at us. Oh, to see another one up close and personal in the bush. Our chance came just south of Mission Beach, on the road heading back towards Tully, where signs point out the Licuala Walkway - just "a quick loop track through stunning licuala palm forest", they said.

Signboards at the carpark outlined cassowary protocol and a few facts. They said cassowaries are Australia's largest land animal, some weighing 85kg. They do a handy and important job of spreading the seeds of over 100 rainforest trees, helping maintain the fragile habitat. It's the male who sits on the nest and hatches the chicks, then looks after them for the first year or so (what a bloke!). They can live up to 40 years in the wild, 60 in captivity, and the female is the larger bird.

There are probably only 1500 of these birds left in northern Queensland, and a number of those are killed on the roads around Mission Beach - hence the road signs. If we met a cassowary on the path, we were not to turn and run (you think?), but to slowly move behind a tree while still facing the bird. (Actually the sign said to place a tree between yourself and the bird, but we felt that was impractical given the situation.) Apparently cassowaries can't see that well and would eventually think we had disappeared. It was considered wise to heed these warnings as the few poor souls who have riled a cassowary have ended up disembowelled or dead.

But for all our efforts we didn't see one, although we did find a disturbing amount of fresh cassowary dung. These were no ordinary piles of dung - either there were several birds close by, or one who had been seriously overeating. We had first-hand evidence that cassowaries do indeed spread the seeds of up to 100 rainforest trees, all in one day by the looks. And they also obviously eat a heinous amount of other "roughage" as well.

As we headed further north we were also pleased we hadn't hit any cassowaries in the car. Those amusing road signs were obviously working.

GETTING THERE
Fly to Cairns. Mission Beach is an easy two-hour drive south of Cairns, through Innisfail.Or catch the tilt train from Cairns to Tully (www.qr.com.au). Sugarland Car Rentals (www.sugarland.com.au) hire out cars locally and can arrange transfers from Tully station.

PLACES TO STAY
Mission Beach is best appreciated from your own holiday house. There's a huge range through Mission Beach Holiday Homes, www.missionbeachholidays.com.au - and many are beachfront or just over the road from the beach.

FURTHER INFORMATION
www.missionbeachtourism.com, www.missionbeachholidays.com.au or phone +61 7 4068 7099.