The Dreaded Daintree by Shirley Read-Jahn
The cantilevered metal structure trembled, I shivered along with it, my heart leaping into my mouth. Perched up 11 metres above the canopy of a vast expanse of green and yellow rainforest, I clung to the railing of the long aerial skywalk.
Up I climbed to the top of the 23-metre canopy tower to gaze at the Pacific Ocean in the far distance.
Looking down, through the thick bush below me, I saw workmen in hard hats and yellow vests working on the world’s fastest adventure zip-line. A double-eyed fig parrot flew by underneath me, calling out its raspy tzeet-tzeet sound. On the spreading leaves of a tree fern far below me, a kookaburra broke into a crescendo of maniacal laughs. It felt strange instead of looking up, to look down upon songbirds, and onto the backs of all sorts of colourful flying birds. The sky was a bright blue. White fluffy clouds scudded across the heavens. It was hot. I sweated. Was it from the heat or anxiety about tonight?
I was at the Daintree Discovery Centre in the autumn of 2013, at Cow Bay in the far north of Queensland, northwest of Brisbane. If I was shivering with fright now, what about tonight? I’d agreed to join a night-time walk through the Daintree Rainforest. I must be mad! Spiders, snakes, toxic plants—all these were terrifying to this relatively new settler in Australia. I looked down at a laminated placard affixed to the railing: “At around 1,200 square kilometres the Daintree is the largest continuous area of tropical rainforest on the Australian continent. Along the coastline north of the Daintree River, tropical rainforest grows right down to the edge of the sea.”
“The Daintree River”. Another shiver passed through me. This very morning I’d gone crocodile-hunting with my camera on the Daintree River.
Crocodiles—with their hard, scaly, enormously long bodies and fearsome teeth! In a low-slung boat with my husband and an aboriginal guide, we’d passed close to those fearsome beasts dozing with one eye shut and the other open, ever on the alert through utilising only one hemisphere of their brain.
Climbing down from the tower, I cautiously made my way back to the start of the walkway, still hanging onto the railing and feeling dread mount in my throat about the coming night’s walk—another fear to confront in this extraordinary country where I’d recently made my home with a new husband. Australia is known to have ten of the most venomous animals in the whole world, including the blue-ringed octopus, the marbled cone snail, the box jellyfish, and the stonefish. I’d almost stepped on one of those in the ocean some days earlier. But look! Also, some of the most beautiful creatures lived here. Shimmering blue Ulysses butterflies flapped their gossamer wings softly around my head, stirring the humid air gently and delicately. With delight, I attempted to photograph those, and the blue triangle and green-spotted butterflies, but they all refused to stay still for long enough. Besides, I’d have to take my hand off the steadying railing to press the camera shutter.
My brain fizzed with facts about the Daintree Rainforest. It’s 180 million years old, predating the Amazon Forest by 100 million years. It’s hot and humid. Its aroma has a tropical thick wet smell to it. Running my hand over my arm, I realised that, even perspiring, my skin felt soft and silky, apparently due to the ancient Gondwanaland minerals still pervading the river, land, and all that grows upon it. All fascinating, for sure, but was I mad? Was I really going to walk through a jungle in the dead of night?
Climbing down from the Aerial Skywalk, I walked on the floor of the rainforest, along a boardwalk raised up slightly from the ground—thus safe from any creepy-crawlies, I told myself.
Just before dusk, we drove our 1989 diesel camper van to the starting location of the night-walk, passing more and more signs alerting us to the presence of cassowaries.
At the appointed time for the walk, my husband and I donned beanies, thick socks and boots, strong blue jeans and woollen jackets, grabbed our torches and cameras, and joined the other exhilarated walkers.
Outside the rainforest entrance path, yet another sign alerted us to the presence of cassowaries. These huge birds are aggressive and most dangerous. Our night-walk guide awaited us, bearded, covered head to toe in black, holding a Maglite torch in one hand and a very big stick in the other.
My heart leapt into my throat as he spoke.
‘Listen up, all of you. If we come upon a sleeping cassowary, I’m going to turn you all around and get the hell outta there because a cassowary, if suddenly awoken, would certainly charge us.’
A bespectacled Aussie man standing near me elbowed my husband.
‘Mate, although flightless, the male southern cassowary grows up to 1.8 metres. He’s a stocky brute, weighing in at some 38 kg., yet the female bird’s even taller than him, up to about 2 metres high, and weighing around 47 kg. herself. No, we don’t want to go anywhere near ’em.’
Overhearing, the guide said, ‘Cooo-rrect, and a cassowary is more dangerous than an emu in that its kick with sharp claws packs twice the weight of an emu.’ He continued, ‘Okay now, we’re all going in, single-file, one behind the other with about three paces between you. Show me your torches are working. Right, looks okay. Quietly, now, and no talking! And listen, mates. Don’t shine those torches straight onto any animal’s eyes. Make a quick circle around it with your torch, like this, and snap your camera shot fast. You don’t want to wake any creature by spotlighting it, or a predator might say ta, mate, thanks for showing me my dinner!’
Scarcely breathing, I entered the rainforest gloom. My heart was pounding so fast, I reckoned the whole group could hear it. Following my husband, I could slightly make out the ground from the light of the torches bobbing along the pathway. I still stumbled on tree roots and moss-covered rocks and tried to stifle a cough trying to get out of my throat from the thick, damp air. Drops of water constantly dripped onto me, plop, plop, plop, as I shook my head to toss them off. It was dark, pitch black, damp, wet, humid, stifling. Looking up, I tried to see the sky and stars through the canopy, but instead, got an eyeful of water. The whole place reeked of rot. I could smell an acrid scent of fear coming off those walking before and behind me, or was it just from me? Most took even paces, stepping quietly forward, some with shoulders upright and back, as if they’d done this a hundred times before. Others of us crept along, stumbling here and there, I for one sweating with fright and anxiety. I walked with my upper body bent forward, arms extended as if blind, trying not to run into my husband in front of me, and ready to beat away cobwebs and branches snapping back from him as he, in turn, pushed them aside. Occasionally, I’d catch a human whisper, an urgent request, a squeak of dismay, a stifled cry of excitement, and always the click, click, click of a camera’s shutter.
Periodically the guide at the front sent the person directly behind him to the very end of our line. I hated my turn of being at the end. While there, I stopped to photograph a large insect, off the path, circling my torch once around the creature, when suddenly I was aware the walkers had gone. Completely vanished. Total silence reigned for an instant, not even a night bird’s call. In fright, I realised I’d left the track to reach the animal, ending up standing lost by a stony creek bed. I panicked. My heart beat yet faster, my hands turned clammy, and I felt drops of water beading on my brow. What to do? Wait for the guide to miss me and come looking? Creep out? But which way? Oh God, I was lost in a jungle at night. Tears welled up in my eyes as I stood stock still, praying no cassowary could smell my fear.
I’d read of the bush’s other perils. There’s a stinging nettle with hooks that can inject you with four different toxins. The pain of its sting can come back and get you months or years later, and, extraordinarily, at the same time of year as when it first stung you. I knew that the Daintree has the largest varieties of spiders in Australia. The webs of golden orb weavers, and God knows what other terrifying spiders, were strung from tree to tree, bush to bush, and across the forest pathways made by animals and blundering walkers like me. The rainforest is habitat to brush-footed trapdoor spiders, a spider that mimics ants, and bird-dung crab spiders.
As I stood there, in horror I felt something crawling on my neck. Smacking it away, my torch picked out an enormous huntsman spider now running down my leg. I sobbed silently as I considered whether I should shout for help, but no, our guide had forbidden that. As I stood there sniffling and shaking, I heard the slight crackle of branches snapping underfoot and moving carefully toward me. Cassowary? No, that would sound heavier. Must be human? Dear God, let it be human! I turned on my torch to let my rescuer see me in the pitch dark. And there he was!
‘Oh, thank God, how on earth did you find me?’
‘I could hear you sniffling and carrying on. Now let’s get back to the path, I think I’ll recognise it.’ With vast relief, feeling stupid, but grabbing my husband’s hand, I crept back to the track.
‘Where did you go? You just evaporated. What the heck were you doing? You scared the hell out of me. I thought you were right behind me,’ he softly continued. ‘I was waiting for you then heard you crying, so followed the sound. Hurry up now, we’d better catch the rest up.’
‘I’m hopeless in the dark,’ I hissed, ‘You know me. I can’t even find my seat in a bloody cinema once the lights are out.’ Now I was berating myself for having to be rescued!
The guide came down the line of walkers to whisper, ‘Don’t do that again. Word came up the line you’d lost us. Look mate, there’s animals you can see from the path. Don’t leave it again. There’s lots of birds to see, particularly the grey shrike thrush, it’s autumn so you should see it sleeping on one of the branches. And snakes a-hunting.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ I whispered back. I felt so stupid.
‘Okay, no worries, mate,’ he whispered. ‘Look, if you see a bird, like that one there,’ as he spotlighted the bird above him with one fast circle of his torch, ‘look, it’s that fluffy round ball with its head tucked under its wing…’
‘Why’s it on the very end of that branch?’
‘Because like that, it can feel the vibration of a snake slithering toward it on the branch, fly off, and not become the reptile’s dinner.’
Huge spiders scuttled rapidly out of our way as we moved along the pathway. Beetles were also about, searching for food on the forest floor, along with spiny echidnas avoiding the heat of the day, and possums, which only forage for food at night.
Aside from the soft footfalls of our group, I heard the occasional sounds of the rain forest’s night-time inhabitants. Scuttling and snuffling, the creaking of branches and suddenly the night call of an orange-footed scrub fowl still squabbling for a late roosting place in the high canopy. But, mostly silence, occasionally broken by a furry brown fruit bat, letting out a high squeak as it fought for ripe tropical fruit in the trees that it could see with its sensitive nocturnal eye-rod vision. The guide whispered that its wings span up to a metre wide so are visible as long, dark brown, blobs hanging upside down from a tree, when you allow yourself a quick flash of your torch upwards.
I heard the wail of a woman or baby and stood stock still, immediately placing my hand on my husband’s shoulder before me. We were now up near the front of the line of walkers. The guide turned around, ‘Hear that? It’s a bush stone curlew. If you saw him in daylight, he’s got long thin legs and huge eyes filled with sadness, dunno why. Even with its mournful, attention-grabbing wail, he’s really a very shy bird.’
Suddenly came a sound just like a bomb whistling down in a Bugs Bunny cartoon show. The guide shone his torch up. ‘Well, lookee there! It’s a grumpy old lesser sooty owl, glaring down at us from his tree-perch and saying hello!’
Attempting to see the owl, my heart again leapt into my mouth as I nearly blundered into a net-casting spider. Our guide gently helped me avoid the scary spider, and told me, ‘It creates a lovely blue net that stretches to 600% of its original size. This it holds in front of itself then suddenly drops it over its prey. Clever little guy, eh!’
I then heard some soft croaks, shone my torch in the required small circle toward the sound, illuminating green and brown tree frogs.
The bespectacled man came up behind me, whispering hoarsely, ‘Aside from the golden orb spiders, bet you didn’t know there’s a water spider lives in this rainforest. He’s very biologically advanced, with gills allowing him to breathe and swim underwater, like the Sydney funnel web spider, which can also stay under water for some 24-30 hours. Ah, how I love this place!’
Upon hearing that, I was immediately taken back to a few years before when I’d flown from California to visit a boyfriend in Sydney. I was happily swimming in his backyard pool when he yelled at me to get out, now! I thought he was crazy and resisted. Quickly, he’d grabbed me and hauled me out, telling me all about funnel web spiders and their ability to swim. If I’d been bitten, it can take from 15 minutes to 3 days to die. I hurried away from the man with the specs to pad quietly along behind the others. I jerked to a stop as something yet again fell on my neck. I gasped. The guide was at once next to me, removing a large stick insect from my body. As he disentangled the poor creature’s little claws from my woollen jacket, he distracted me. ‘Look at those trees to your right. See those animals, looking pre-historic? They’re big old dragon lizards. Beautiful, mate, aren’t they!’
Big? Not to me! I quickly snapped a shot of what must have been a baby dragon lizard climbing up a branch. At home in New South Wales, we have water dragons with tails over a metre long, but, regardless, I certainly wouldn’t want this little fellow jumping down from his branch onto me!
We’d been in the Daintree Rainforest for two hours of the night. We silently filed out to gather in a circle back at the starting place of the tour, where our guide informed us that he is the proud owner of 160 acres of this forest, but that most of it is a World Heritage Site. He said he knew every bush, every tree, every animal in the rainforest. If we were game to return the next night, he’d show us even more wonders of his dark kingdom. It took me just two seconds to surprise myself by knowing my response. I’d done it. Okay, I’d got lost, acted like a silly idiot, and made quite a fool of myself. But I’d completed a night walk. I now felt proud of myself and, certainly, I knew I loved challenges. This dark bush realm was quite magical. With my heart now beating in quite a different way, an enthusiastic smile crept across my face as I told the guide I’d be back tomorrow, oh yes, I most assuredly would. My husband stared at me in a mixture of astonishment and delight.
‘Okay, okay, you can say it,’ I laughingly told him. ‘I’m mad, aren’t I, utterly stark raving mad?’
‘Yep, that you are, but let’s do it. Let’s come back tomorrow and maybe we’ll see a drop bear or two.’
‘Drop bears. You know, they’re predatory, a carnivorous version of a koala. If they fancy you for dinner, they’ll drop from a tree right down onto you!’
‘Ha!’ I spluttered, as arm-in-arm we took ourselves back home to our camper van. ‘Drop bears? They’re imaginary.
They’re just a hoax Aussies use as tall tales to scare tourists. Nope, no way. You can’t fool me!’