In the footsteps of Captain Cook?

We are in Queensland north of Cairns and at 8.20 one Friday morning we are picked up by a twelve seater six wheel drive Landcruiser. The driver introduces himself . ”G’day, my name’s Michael”  and we head up the Captain Cook Highway to Port Douglas on our way to the Daintree and Cape Tribulation.

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We pass through cane fields and see the railway lines and cane trains used for the harvest. We are on a broad flat plane between the sea and the cloud shrouded mountains.  Michael tells of the twin dangers to the men who cut the cane – snakes and rats. There is something in rat’s urine which gets left on the cane and which causes fatal kidney damage.  Nowadays the harvesting is done by machine.

Mossman Gorge

We head up to the sugar cane town of Mossman. It is hot and humid, but the incessant rain we have had over the past few days has stopped and the wind has dropped. We pass one aboriginal settlement which looks very down at heel. It is a group of prefabs and not really suited to their lifestyle. The ylangi were the original inhabitants here.

We pull up at the Mossman Gorge where get out for a walk . The river tumbling over the rocks is a great sight as the path winds its way through the trees. Plenty of photographs including the most photographed creek in Queensland. (A few years later my son came back with exactly the same photo but with a dry riverbed). The trees are immense. Michael tells us of the Wait-a-while vine which grabs passers by with its barbs. He said that he was pulled off his bicycle once as he was cycling along and it took him some time to get free.

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There are some amazing ferns at ground level and then the canopy way above us. Michael explains that to be a true rainforest only 25% of sunlight will reach the forest floor. Having a lot of rain is not the only requirement! There should be at least one and a half metres of rain a year, although round here it is more likely to be about six metres.

DUNNY

Next stop is the Daintree River. The ladies dunny (outhouse) is not obvious at first sight because of the mural on one wall depicting river life. We have a coffee while a debate goes on about our river trip. We are supposed to go downstream and land on the other side where Michael will meet us. However the Daintree is very full and it is not possible to land at our intended landing stage so Michael will stay here and we will have a trip upstream and back. The river is a muddy brown and certainly as wide as the Thames (at the London end).

Up the Daintree

The boat is a small open boat with an awning. We are given important safety advice “If the boat sinks you can’t outswim a  crocodile; but you can outswim the other passengers” Our guide is knowledgeable and chatty, looking for wildlife along the river banks. Because the river is so high the banks where the crocodiles bask are all covered and none of the smaller ones are to be seen. After a while he says “If we don’t see a crocodile soon I will dive in and find one. That’s what any good guide would do. There aren’t many good guides left” Shortly afterwards he spots a 15ft beast and we pull up a safe distance away. It is the boss of this section of the river even though it is now toothless.  When it catches a larger animal such as a pig or cow it will go into its ‘death roll’ and then leave its prey at the bottom of the river for a day or two to soften up. Smaller victims will be eaten fresh.

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Further upstream we spot cockatoos, a grey tree snake and brilliantly coloured swallows. A Brahminy Kite  heads off downstream. It almost makes us feel at home being the a little smaller than our Red Kites but a similar shape. It is a rather lighter brown and with creamy white head and shoulders.

We visit the basking croc on the way back to our moorings and then drive down to the river crossing. The ferry is a typical chain or cable ferry with space for about a dozen cars. Once over the Daintree River we head for a Fruit Farm for lunch.

We pass giant king ferns which only grow in the Cape Tribulation area. The road has a reasonable surface but isn’t tarmac’ed although the river crossings tend to be concrete. We are driving through  rain forest and then through semi-cultivated areas where there are mulberries, bananas, passion fruits and more. We spot a kingfisher and  wander around spotting some magnificent butterflies – the best of which is the Ulysees Blue. This is several inches across and a brilliant blue. There is a whole array of fruit trees including a banana tree just next to the dining hall.

We have a barbecue with a choice of meat, fish and fruit. The building is not much more than a tin roof on stilts with a few tables and benches. There is a strong smell from the jasmine growing over the outside and we keep glimpsing Blue Monarchs flitting past.  An enjoyable meal in an idyllic setting.

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Next stop is the Marrdja Forest Boardwalk where a mahogany tree disappears upwards to the sky. What is remarkable is its root system and the buttresses spreading out at ground level. These are in a dip so that when the leaves drop off the tree they land there and rot and feed it. There are vines growing up to the tops of the trees, a couple of inches thick and twisted. They may have been growing for a hundred years. Michael says that they are the sort of vines that “Tarzan would have swung on. He was an eco-criminal because he would have had to cut them off at ground level to swing on them,” so killing them.

Cape Tribulation

We head north again up the Cape Tribulation Road. At several points we ford streams which were impassable the day before. The sea can be glimpsed to the right through the trees, at some points only 20 yards away. Michael explains that when Captain Cook was heading up the coast he didn’t realise that there was a reef between him and the open sea. He put in at various points eventually putting ashore for repairs at Cape Tribulation. His exasperation is clear from its name. His diary entries for the night of Sunday 10 June and the morning of Monday 11 June 1770 explain how he arrived at the name. ‘The shore between Cape Grafton and the above northern point forms a large but not very deep bay, which I named Trinity Bay, after the day on which it was discover’d; the north point Cape Tribulation because here began all our troubles. ‘Before 10 o’clock (p.m.) we had 20 and 21 fathoms and continued in that depth until a few minutes before 11, when we had 17, and before the man at the lead could heave another cast the ship struck and stuck fast.‘ It was off the coast that the H.M. Barque Endeavour ran onto the reef now known as Endeavour Reef. It managed to limp to the Endeavour River near present-day Cooktown where, for some months, it was laid up for repairs.  The Endeavour was not a large boat – 98 feet long and 29 feet wide. It started life as a “coal cat“ running up and down  the east coast of Britain. It was the type of boat that Cook had learned to sail in. It was a near run thing that Endeavour was not completely wrecked off the coast here.

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Most explorers had livestock on their boats – chickens for their eggs and goats for milk – to supplement their diets and to counter scurvy. The goat on the Endeavour was the first goat to circumnavigate the world twice. Unfortunately some of these animals from the later explorers escaped or were deliberately put ashore to breed and provide food for subsequent expeditions.. These are now running wild and causing problems for the indigenous wildlife with feral pigs causing particular problems up here.

Rounding one corner we come across a Lada 4wd which has slid off the road into the gully. A victim of the last few days rains. At one point we stop beside a large mound perhaps six feet across. This is the nest of Orange Footed Scrubfowl which is about the size of a chicken. They lay their eggs and cover them with vegetation which rots and so keeps them warm. The birds themselves have nothing to do with them. We see a few of these birds when we stop at Cape Tribulation beach.

Forest, beach, sea. Nothing else for miles. We walk in the footsteps of Captain Cook. Perhaps. The beach  is a huge sweep of flat sand bordered by rainforest with lush green vegetation. Waves come crashing in from the sea which disappears in to the mist of a warm wet day. There are a couple of boats anchored a little way offshore. Cape Tribulation itself is at the south end of the beach and we walk a little way up it on a boardwalk. We have a chat with a Croatian couple. Overhead three or four angular birds fly past which we later identify as frigate birds.

Port Douglas

Our expedition is drawing to a close as we retrace our route south. We re-cross the Daintree the way we had come. We stop at Alexandra’s Lookout with views across the mouth of the Daintree River. We ask to be dropped off in Port Douglas and so Michael diverts off the man road and drops us in the main street. We have a look round the shops and have a cup of coffee outside an internet café. It’s dry for the moment but rain never seems far away. We  find a place to eat outside overlooking Dickson’s Inlet. An enjoyable meal in the gathering dusk. The waitress orders us a cab to take us back to Thala where we are staying.

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