The Commonwealth Games have put the spotlight on Queensland’s Gold Coast, but the gold-medal attractions of Australia’s tropical state are further north. In fact, Sir David Attenborough recently declared Far North Queensland his favourite place.
“It has, for a naturalist, everything,” he said. “It has an amazing rainforest, which is quite unlike any other rainforest in the world. Down on the coast it has the Great Barrier Reef. On top of that there’s terrific wine and food, so that’s the place for me.”
North of Cairns, the world’s oldest rainforest descends rugged peaks and spills into the Coral Sea, where more than 2,900 reefs make up the world’s largest structure composed of living organisms: the Great Barrier Reef, which is the same size as Germany.
As I discovered, its natural wonders are wonderfully accessible. You can stroll along a palm-fringed golden beach before breakfast, swim with a rainbow of tropical fish in the morning and spot butterflies and birds in the Daintree Rainforest in the afternoon.
As the catamaran docks at a floating platform, a turtle peeps out of the sea, as if to welcome us to the Outer Reef. Donning a snorkel, mask and flip- pers, I spy a humphead wrasse (a hermaphrodite and one of the stars of Blue Planet II), a shoal of frenetic parrot fish, and a giant clam that snaps shut when an angelfish darts too close. The coral garden is mesmerising: the alien shapes and colours, the soft coral dancing in the current.
When Attenborough made his 2015/16 series about the Great Barrier Reef, he decided that diving was beyond his years and so explored in a submersible. Sunlover Reef Cruises’ pontoon doesn’t have a submarine but there is a semi-submersible, a glass-bottomed boat, an underwater viewing chamber and a waterslide. I try walking under water with the help of a heavy, air-filled helmet that looks like prop from a 70s sci-fi movie, watched curiously by the wrasse.
You can even stay overnight, sleeping in a swag (a squat one-person tent) under a blanket of bright stars, serenaded by seabirds. But to really feel like you’ve stepped into a nature documentary, splash out on a scenic helicopter ride. The reef is breathtaking from above: jewelled islands encircle turquoise lagoons and deep blue sea.
Soaring above the rainforest
The Great Barrier Reef is 8,000 years old and a nipper compared to the Daintree Rainforest, which dates back 150 million years. The Skyrail’s cable cars afford a bird’s-eye view of the gargantuan trees and dense canopy.
Strolling along the boardwalk at the first stop, colours flash past – a sulphur-crested cockatoo, the electric-blue wings of the ulysses butterfly – but it’s the hum you notice first: the age-old chorus of insects, birds and frogs.
Superb views of Cairns and the coast give way to 100 shades of green as the cable car floats up and over a peak. Only the ferocious Barron Falls part this ocean of green, tumbling into a savage gorge. The Skyrail’s final stop is the town of Kuranda, where you can plunge back into the rainforest aboard the Kuranda Scenic Railway, which trundles over 37 handmade bridges and 15 hand-burrowed tunnels, skirting waterfalls and ravines. This astonishing feat of engineering was built in the late 1800s and cost many lives.
Afternoon tea in the bush
“In 23 years, I’ve never had a bad trip up here, not once,” says Ian “Sauce” Worcester of the Daintree River Wild Watch, as his boat glides up the river at sunset. Pink cotton-wool clouds seem to dust the mirror-like water.
Sauce hands out binoculars, but it’s his sharp eyes that spy an imperious brahminy kite, a green tree snake coiled inches from my face, a rainbow bee-eater, an azure kingfisher, a papuan frogmouth that’s almost indistinguishable from its perch, a darter bird with a serpentine neck, and a knobbly rock among the mangrove trees – which turns out to be the head of a crocodile.
There are around 90 saltwater crocs in the Daintree River, migrants from the sea – “just enough to stop you swimming”, says Sauce.
At the Mossman Gorge Centre in the south-east corner of Daintree National Park, the descendants of the Aboriginals who inhabited the rainforest for thousands of years – the Kuku Yalanji – lead fascinating walks. After inviting us to circle a fire to ward off bad spirits, Tom Creek explains how his ancestors used the plants: a milky sap stunned fish and soothed toothache; moss was woven into babies’ nappies and bandages; chewing on a noxious seed numbed the skin during scarification ceremonies.
Afterwards we sip smoky tea and nibble on a damper – a bush scone – with the elder who built the centre with the dual aim of protecting the environment and creating jobs for his community. “I needed to make my people stronger,” says Roy Gibson. “I needed them to have something for themselves and for their children. Now I take indigenous people from all over Australia on our walk and tell them, ‘Guys, if you’ve got a beautiful country, do this.’ I’ve got the world coming to me now.”