I had always wanted to visit Queensland. A place where rainforest literally meets the sea is probably top of most people’s lists. A trip to visit a friend in Melbourne developed and extended into a ten day roadtrip in a multicoloured campervan up the Queensland coast, from Brisbane to Cairns. I was soon to learn, ten months probably wouldn’t give us enough time to see all there is to see, let alone ten days. We gave it a pretty good go though, covering over 2,000km and taking in some truly spectacular sights. It is tricky to keep an article about a trip short, when every mile of it deserves its own paragraph. Pick 5 favourites? Tough, but here’s what I narrowed it down to.
5. Barron Falls
Our visit to Barron Falls, I’m ashamed to say, was entirely planned about half an hour before we got there, while we sat in a car park trying to decide what to do with the limited time we had left in Queensland. A conversation with a seasoned Tasmanian traveller on the plane had led us to research Kuranda. Near Kuranda, the beautiful Barron Falls are nestled in the Barron Gorge National Park. In all of our planning for Queensland we hadn’t come across this place. Maybe the locals are keeping it their secret and I can 100% understand why.
When we pulled in to the carpark sunset was fast approaching. Alone, we followed a canopy walk swamped by trees and calling crickets until we reached a clearing ahead. Speechless was the only word for it. This discrete walkway had opened out into one of the most beautiful views we experienced in Queensland. Water cascaded down into the gorge below while birds and insects sounded around us. While it must be even more spectacular in the rainy season, the 250m waterfall was mesmerising. The Barron Gorge National Park itself is of great spiritual importance to the local Djabugay people, who work closely with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service in its management.
4. Hervey Bay bats
As with the Barron Falls discovery, our encounter with the Hervey Bay bats had not been factored into our meticulous planning pre-Queensland. In fact, it was an incredibly fortunate discovery while we looked for a nice beach for a picnic! Hervey Bay is probably more famous for its whale watching and access to the World Heritage listed Fraser Island, than for its fruit bats. Visiting out of whale season, the bats were no doubt the highlight of the area for me. As we crossed a quiet carpark dotted with work vehicles that had jostled for prime position under the scattered shade of trees, we could hear screeching. As we got closer to the beach, we were spoiled with the largest bat colony we had ever seen. As you focused on the trees, more and more bats seemed to appear. Passers-by didn’t bat (excuse the pun!) an eyelid as they swooped through the sky. Fruit bats are important for seed dispersal and pollination of native Australian forest trees. These bat “campsites” can be permanently or temporarily occupied during the year depending on food availability. This accidental wild discovery of bats was one of the coolest things I experienced in Queensland.
3. Whitehaven Beach
With crystal clear, sparkling waters and soft sand, it’s not hard to see why multiple awards have been heaped on this pristine beach. What is maybe less of a focus, but (in my opinion) just as beautiful, is the forested area behind the beach. While this area is a protected national park and so we could not venture far in to explore it, there is a short route through to the toilets that allows you just a glimpse of the treasures that lie beyond. Along the trail, basking in the sun, were three monitor lizards. Unconcerned by our presence, they continued to wander around the picnic tables, forked tongues flicking out occasionally. Lace monitors, also known as goannas, have a varied diet of insects, small mammals, nesting birds, carrion and reptiles. These beautiful animals roamed the area looking for food, unperturbed by the gawking travellers.
As I had my camera with me, I spent some time wandering the path alone. As well as passing numerous birds, including the brush turkey, my eyes were constantly drawn to the fluttering of more and more beautiful butterflies. While the vast majority of people remained loyal to the silica sands and glittering sea, a little stroll along the designated tracks to the toilets to see what wildlife you can encounter on this magical island is well worth it.
2. Daintree Rainforest
Located north of Cairns, Daintree Rainforest spans a massive 120,000ha and is the oldest, continuously surviving rainforest in the world. Broken into two sections, Cape Tribulation and Mossman Gorge, the ancient rainforest deserves an introduction that no writer could give it. It needs to be seen, felt, heard, smelled… The Eastern Yalanji Aboriginal people are the Traditional Owners of Daintree National Park. Regardless of your spiritual or religious beliefs, it’s hard not to feel as though you are entering somewhere very special when you get your first taste of Daintree. Our first stop was Cape Tribulation, which comprises about 17,000 hectares. No guide book or information leaflet had prepared us for our entrance into the park- a ferry across the crocodile inhabited Daintree River… which we could not have been more delighted about. Once off the ferry you are surrounded by rainforest. As the driver, my focus has never been tested more than on the drive to the first viewpoint. This was rainforest like I couldn’t have even imagined. As we tried to take in the incredible view from the lookout point, a stick insect balanced on a branch behind us and striking butterflies floated by. On arrival to Cape Tribulation we were greeted with warning signs of crocodiles and jellyfish. While we chose not to swim, this stunning area, where rainforest literally meets the sea, added itself to the list of sites that took our breath away. Mangrove trees, with their characteristically raised roots, lined one edge of the beach. A Wet Tropics World Heritage Area and an incredibly important area for Aboriginal people, Cape Tribulation is somewhere that commands awe and respect.
On our second day of exploring Daintree we approached things from the Mossman Gorge side. One bird we had tried in vain to track down while we were in Queensland was the cassowary. We asked locals, called in to tourist information centres, shops and campsites, and were assured by one drink-laden tourist in a bar that he had seen “about five of them” while he visited Daintree. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts and getting mobbed by mosquitos while trying in several places, we were unable to find this endangered, flightless bird that, according to Lonely Planet, can disembowel you with a toenail. Just another excuse to make a trip back to Queensland as soon as possible!
Cassowaries aside, Mossman Gorge provided a completely different outlook than our previous day’s visit to Cape Trib had. While much of Cape Tribulation’s focus is on the meeting of rainforest and sea, Mossman Gorge takes you into the depths of Daintree, past a magnificent river as you go. As you cross a rope bridge to get further into the rainforest, every turn yields another beautiful tree, flower, bird or butterfly. We were lucky enough to be graced by a number of the Ulysses butterflies, the symbol of tropical Queensland. No doubt one of the highlights of the Mossman Gorge are the pools created along the river. Luckily we were visiting in off-peak season and managed to find a few spots along the trail to take in the beauty before the arguably less appreciative and less clothed travellers splashed into the water for endless selfies. These waterways were so clear that even a camera phone could pick out the fish swimming by. Although the trail we took was estimated to take 45 minutes, when you put a zoologist and an environmental scientist in a rainforest it’s going to take hours.
1. Great Barrier Reef
The main reason I wanted to go to Queensland did not disappoint. While my bags were being checked in Abu Dhabi airport the security officer came across my copy of BBC Wildlife magazine and was chatting to me about David Attenborough. Who doesn’t love that man?! And the most magical place he says he (Attenborough, not the security guard!) has visited is the Great Barrier Reef. A natural structure so large it can be seen from space, this spot is probably high on the list of most zoologists.
Despite being a strong swimmer, I had a brief “uh oh” moment when we stepped off the boat and encountered waves bigger than I had envisioned when I had originally pictured myself lazily floating along admiring the fish over the reef. The moment I caught my first glimpse of the reef below all rough weather was forgotten. I had seen it on television, countless times, but being there, swimming over this incredible reef, with tropical fish after colourful starfish, I felt transported to another world. One of the staff was offering snorkel tours. Although they were aimed at weaker swimmers, I had planned to tag along to learn more about the reef. I couldn’t do it though. Every time I looked down I saw another fish, coral, sea slug, etc. that I had to look at and found myself swimming away from the group. I could not have been more reluctant to get out of the water when the time at the first reef was up. When we met back up on the boat, my friend and I struggled to find the words to describe what we had seen, both admitting it was ten times better than we had imagined.
As for the second reef, that’s where I actually thought I would cry. The reef itself was maybe not as stunning as the first, but as I swam a fellow snorkeler stopped to ask if I had found any turtles. She was as desperate to see them as me and had gotten a tip about where they might be. As we got closer another of the catamaran’s passengers beckoned us over. There is nothing like wildlife and nature to bond people and cause comradery and a desire to share with others. It moved effortlessly through the water, seemingly oblivious to the mesmerised snorkelers maintaining a respectful distance. This endangered green turtle is one of six species of sea turtles that have been found at the Great Barrier Reef.
Along with six of the seven species of sea turtle in the world, you can also find one of the most important dugong populations in the world, 1,625 species of fish and 450 species of hard coral. The Great Barrier Reef is home to more than 2,900 separate coral reefs. This icon of Australia, the largest living structure on the planet, stretching 2,300km, can be seen from space. And yet, it is no exception to the massive challenges of climate change and pollution. In fact, it is highly at risk. Google “Great Barrier Reef coral bleaching” and it could literally bring tears to your eyes. The future of this incredible place is in serious danger. And as usual, humans take much of the blame. A recent article in the Guardian should be enough to make us all shudder at the very least; “Great Barrier Reef bleaching made 175 times likelier by human-caused climate change, say scientists.”. A whole article, no, a whole book, could be dedicated to the Great Barrier Reef and the mighty challenges it faces and so I’ll try to stop myself from getting too deep in this piece. This spectacular, crucial area should be protected for so many reasons. If not just from an ethical view, then for the wildlife it supports, the money it brings, the awareness and fascination in nature it creates.
It’s safe to say Queensland captured a piece of me like no other place ever has. Every turn, every bend in the road, produced another view point over a rainforest, a nature reserve, bird of prey, spectacular beach, dazzling butterfly, calling cockatoo… The epitome of biodiversity, it provided endless wonders. Serious challenges lie ahead for this area, particularly the GBR. David Attenborough said “The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on earth, living or dead, as we now have. That lies upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future, but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the earth.” Queensland is just one of the many, many places that is facing massive obstacles due to humans and I hope that the drive and passion is there to save the species and habitats that are in trouble. If the drive to protect areas with such obvious beauty and such ecological importance as the Great Barrier Reef isn’t there, what hope is there for areas of lesser importance?
To end on a lighter note, I think it would be difficult to find a person who wasn’t in some way captivated by the wild beauty we encountered along our trip. I had to stop myself from shoving my resume at every park ranger and ecotourism guide I passed. From its beaches to its rainforests, the wildlife of this area never failed to wow. What enhanced the experience was the passion for wildlife of the people we met, whether it was locals, tourists, tour guides… I’ll be counting the days until I get another opportunity to explore this incredible Australian state again.