ON BEING EATEN ALIVE IN PARADISE.
Dining at the Daintree-
where you are on the menu.
Being eaten alive is one of our most primitive fears. Despite our veneer of civilisation, this dread is hard wired into what science used to call our reptilian brain. It was in place from a time before humans dominated the planet, were not yet the ultimate predator and if unlucky, were possibly another meal for a rival carnivore.
News of shark attacks shock us, when any rational consideration tells us motor vehicles are far bigger killers. Yet we love our cars and most of us hate sharks.
There is however one reptilian brain that has been around considerably longer than ours and now protected in Australia’s wild, doesn’t have to worry much about being eaten. It belongs to crocodiles, particularly the saltwater variety that has a taste for careless humans in Australia’s far north. Its ancestors predate the dinosaurs and survived the asteroid strike extinction 65 million years ago, that wiped out most dinosaurs, most other animals and most plants. It is a great survivor.This beast even withstood 20th century over-hunting in north Australia.
We are standing on a wide flat nearly empty boat floating on a murky brown tropical river training our eyes and binoculars to see one of these legacies from the primeval. On far north Queensland’s Daintree River, edging a stretch of rainforest considered the oldest in the world, there is a thriving industry offering visitors like us a chance to gawk at saltwater crocodiles, the apex of the world’s current hypercarnivores. You could say we are drawn by a kind of macabre fascination to see close-up a source of brutal violent death.
I could not ignore the alluring frisson of fear that comes from knowing there is less than half a metre of fibreglass boat between a river said to be full of the beasts and us.
Several tour companies vie for our dollars and the first one we try turns us away because the 11am boat is full. Next door the 11am boat has just one other couple booked and the folks coming ashore from the 10 am trip say they saw three crocodiles downstream.
Our boatman is Bruce who has lived in the area all his life and to our surprise turns upstream as we watch the rival packed boats heading in the other direction. I am feeling a bit cheated until he stops on the opposite bank and we notice in a patch of sunlight in some dense vegetation, a piece of dark grey stippled material that looks like a very large, expensive, haute couture Hermes handbag on its side.
The handbag moves slightly as the boat drifts a little upstream and then through the reeds and vines we can see the jaws of the bag are wide open, a doorway to a very basic but highly effective mode of being consumed.
We move on and see five crocs all up, including a juvenile on a big log, another handbag shape in the reeds, one more floating as a disguised log and one sunning on an open bank that rapidly turns itself into a floating log before I can get my camera in place.
The trip here was not to look at crocodiles, it was partly as a balm for me after two heavy duty surgical operations and to help prepare for a third at the end of October. While Jill organised it and claimed it was for me I suspect it was to help her cope too.
We flew to Cairns where the airport that calls itself international, reminded me of an outback cattle yard. Sure they had those aerobridge gangway things and a fancy airconditioned shopping block selling useless international brands like Amani, Rolex and Versace but the conduit connecting the two had cheap galvanised rails, bare grey concrete floors, ticky tacky walls and louvred windows. It looked like the sort of chutes used to move livestock, not paying passengers. It reeked of the mentality in Queensland when it was governed by the despicable farmer controlled National Party.
We hired a little car and drove just north of the city to Trinity Beach where Jill had organised a flat attached to a family house. It came with a three metre deep swimming pool and a somewhat timid female kelpie called Bella. We could see the water from our verandah. The beach, deep within crocodile territory, was patrolled by a lifeguard, as if that was any use. Alarmingly the water was the kind of murky they say the crocodile conscious should avoid. Still I went for a brief swim a couple of times and found the surf and current surprisingly strong.
I bought some flippers at Kmart to see if I could swim following my surgery. I found I could, but lost a flipper in the surf. After I had given up looking, a girl found it on shore about 50 metres along the beach, such was the current. The only crocodile I saw here was sculpted in the sand by some French tourists. I notice they sunned themselves on the sand but did not enter the water. The beach however was closed by a crocodile sighting a week or so after we left.
We also took a day trip north to Port Douglas and found a kind of wealthy Victorian holiday colony, part of a prosperous style contiuuum starting at Victoria’s Portsea, heading north to Byron Bay and Noosa, and finally here.
Note: to view this and the following two galleries in slide show form, single click on any image and the use the arrows to scroll. To return to the blog , click on small x near top of screen.
After visiting some friends that had migrated to the district from further south, we headed deeper north across the earlier mentioned Daintree River, to the Daintree National Park now a world heritage area, a listing still angering some of the more rurally focused locals. We were aiming for Cape Tribulation, the end of the bitumen road and thus the limit for our hire car.
The road north from the river was an experience in itself. It is meant to be driven slowly (40 to 60 kph most of the way) and to calm the traffic there are constant speed bumps of an alarming sump scraping height. The reason for the caution is displayed on repeated roadside signs warning of cassowary crossings. The rainforest is prime habitat for these giant flightless emu sized birds that are considered critically endangered. Only 4500 are thought to survive in Australia with about 400 in the Daintree region.
If crocodiles fascinate us as a reptile survivor of the dinosaur extinction, cassowaries should fascinate us even more, because they are dinosaurs. It has been long realised that along with primitive mammals, some non-dinosaur reptiles and amphibian archosaurs like crocodiles, that beaked birds survived the asteroid strike extinction. What is not widely appreciated and was only really confirmed in the late years of the last century is that birds are the direct descendents of a dinosaur strain and thus the only dinosaurs to survive.
Cassowaries which predate the extinction by about five million years are spookily prehistoric with the cartilage horn on the top of their heads and the bare red and blue skin that covers their neck from the base of their heads to where their feathers begin. They can also defend themselves. In the 1920s a 16 year old bovine brained local tried to club one to death only to be disembowelled by the bird’s razor like centre claw.
When we last visited the region 26 years ago, we saw cassowaries further south at Mission Beach. This time despite visiting the excellent Daintree Discovery Centre twice, we saw none, but we did see footprints in some mud. To make it worse a guy we met had seen one at the centre the day before us and had a photo on his phone.
Jill had organised to stay in a small bungalow at a place called Cape Trib Beach House at the end of the bitumen, but we weren’t at the beach, even the most expensive cabins did not have beach frontages. But they all had rain forest and some of their inhabitants, including chook sized orange footed scrub fowls and larger multi colored bush turkeys. Our closest encounter was with a huge golden spider that was hanging off our shower curtain. It was escorted outside in a glass. Staying in the forest hut made us think of the Japanese practice called Shinrin yoku, which translates as “forest bathing,” and has grown to describe the popular belief, that just being in a forest can be thearaputic. We agreed.
Here are photos that show some Daintree delights. The first is Cape Tribulation Beach lit by moonlight and the lights from a restaurant.
The Tribulation in the local name, was experienced by Lieutenant James Cook towards the end of his 1770 exploration of Australia’s east coast where the bottom of his ship, The Endeavour, rubbed across what we now value as the Great Barrier Reef, just nearby. A few hours later, on a reef now named after the ship, it became holed and stuck. Thanks to a feat of great seamanship the crew managed to land further north for repairs at a place later named Cooktown.
For us there were few trials at the Cape. Most of the red necks did not seem to have ventured this far north, so most locals we met were those who either loved the natural beauty or loved the income from a visiting clientelle, a united nations of mainly backpacker types, who loved the natural beauty.
The beach where we stayed was naturally beautiful and tempting, but signs warned crocodile jaws lurked and not even the most foolhardy backpackers put their toes in. We did put our toes in but only to get to a powerboat to take us to a yacht that would carry us to the delights of the outer reef.
We took the expensive yacht option because the much cheaper inflatable powerboat operator refused to take me, because my recent spinal surgery might not take well to the boat’s pounding in the chop from a substantial southeasterly. The yacht option, a $1 million French built catamaran, loved the wind and powered out to the reef skippered by a Sydney to Hobart yacht race veteran and assisted by a young Kiwi who seemed to have salt water in his veins. There were only three other couples, one pair of Americans on a whirlwind Australian honeymoon were particularly interesting. The woman had been on the personal staff of Hillary Clinton in her presidential bid while her husband had been on the staff of former president Obama.
Our destination was a sandy coral cay about 100 metres long which tended to shelter our snorkelling from the wind. The first underwater sight was another survivor from the asteroid extinction, a large sea turtle. I got clear photos and the crew said it was a comparatively rare hawksbill. Apart from that, I found the snorkelling disappointing and the reef was not in as good shape as I had seen further south off Townsville, years earlier.
Still the yacht was a joy in itself. A rising breeze powered us back to the mainland with the younger ones lying in the forward nets drinking wine and getting wet, while Jill and I sat in the steering cockpit chatting with the skipper.
Back on shore we had to put our feet in the the water again which brings me back to crocodiles and a silly 1950s pop song I couldn’t get out of my head the whole time I was there. It starts:
“Never smile at a crocodile,
No you can’t get friendly with a crocodile.
Don’t be taken in by his welcome grin,
He’s imagining how well you’d fit within his skin…..”
Every year at least someone in Australia gets fitted into a crocodile’s skin, often brash German tourists tempted by waterholes and their romantic love of “ze nature.”
Since hunting was banned in the late 20th century salt water crocodiles now number up to 200,000 in the the wild. A friend who lives south of Cairns, says his local river more than 20 kilometres from the sea is now full of them, wiping out other river species like platypus. A former culling opponent, he is rethinking his opposition.
In the end I decided to get in first. We went to a cafe that served all kinds of unusual burgers: kangaroo, buffalo, wild boar, emu, what they called roadkill and crocodile, (farmed of course). Naurally I chose croc. It was a bland white meat that tasted a bit like chicken. After I left, I noticed there was a fibre of croc stuck between my teeth. I could not help thinking how it could have been the reverse and whether a croc would worry about a fibre of me.