Reflections on the Daintree
The rivers of the world are a rich source of fantasy. Long before you might get to see them in reality, you've already got an idea in your head; a vision based on movies or history or travel ads. It might be because they form borders – the Rio Grande, the Jordan or the Indus; they're grand old working rivers – the Rhein or the Thames; they are steeped in history – the Tigris-Euphrates, the Nile or the Kwai; they're among the longest on the planet – the Amazon or the Yangtze; they provide the most romantic setting – the Seine or the Danube; or they're subject to catastrophe or conflict – the Ganges, Huang He and, closer to my current home, the Murray-Darling.
The Daintree mightn't be on everyone's list of world-renowned rivers, but if you find yourself in Far North Queensland and only do one thing, visit the Daintree River, preferably to float on it. It was named after Richard Daintree, a British geologist and gold prospector who surveyed geologically and collected plants in Northern Queensland in the mid-19th century. James Cook completely missed it, and it wasn't discovered until 1873 by European gold diggers, principally George Dalrymple, a Queensland gold field commissioner.
We got up at 04.30 in order to be at Ian 'Sauce' Worcester's boat, at Daintree Village jetty and the end of the road, by 6*. It was a beautifully peaceful morning, with misty whisps: just perfect for observing busy birds. (Male Papuan Frogmouths sat still as twigs on their nests, but they were the exception.)
And the birds? Where do I start? Below are an Azure Kingfisher, Shining Flycatcher, Royal Spoonbill, Cotton Pygmy Geese, Spangled Drongo, Brown-backed Honeyeater, Golden Oriole, Papuan Frogmouth and Darter.
We also saw, or heard, Torresian Imperial-pigeons, Welcome Swallows, White-rumped Swiftlets, White-breasted Woodswallows, Large-billed Gerygones, a Black Bittern, Eastern Koel, Dotterel, Yellow-spotted Honeyeater, Helmeted Friarbird, Latham's Snipe, Whistling Kite, Nankeen Night Heron, Little Egret, Yellow-bellied Sunbird and Shrike-thrush (once again, I don't know which one).
If you love birds, this is the place for you. There isn't much Sauce doesn't know about the birds of this region. (But even he got excited about the Cotton Pygmy Geese.) He told us that, of 11 Kingfishers in Australia, 8 of them live in the Daintree; that the bubbles in the river were from rotting vegetation (no coal seam gas up here... yet!); that a White-rumped Swiftlet spends 90 per cent of its life on the wing and shuts down half its brain for periods in order to 'sleep' (rather like a whale, I thought); that Gerygones are Australia's smallest birds and bathe in dew drops that collect on leaves; that the call of the Golden Oriole is the sound of the tropics; and that the winter of 2012 has been the longest, driest and coldest he has ever known (he would be beyond retirement age if he didn't have such a wonderful job).
Drive the 12 kilometres downstream from Daintree Village to the river crossing. There are no bridges; only a small cable ferry that plies back and forth unhurriedly. The Daintree forest became World Heritage Listed in 1988, despite resistance from the Queensland state government and the timber industry. It may have stopped the loggers but unfortunately not the real-estate developers. There is a plant a rainforest project that deserves support. The Daintree is an ancient, magical world of dense dark forest, spectacular ferns and fan palms, yet more glorious coast and unique creatures. But it is a fragile environment that is probably in more danger than ever. You'll see notices advising you to leave no trace, should you have the privilege to visit. Please take heed.