Tropical North Queensland

Reef and Rainforest

I’d never been to Tropical North Queensland before, and I had no idea what to expect this far north. All I wanted to do was see the Great Barrier Reef before it crumbled away to a pile of white dust thanks to our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels and plastic. I also wanted to find out a bit about this World Heritage Daintree Rainforest next to the reef that never got half as much press.

We got off the plane in Cairns, which was as full of drunken backpackers from all over the world as I had expected. What I hadn’t known before conducting pre-departure research, was that this town completely lacked a beach. I found out only later that the “northern beaches” were where palm-fringed white sand was to be found. Cairns itself sat on a boggy mangrove swamp.

Pro Tip #1: We stayed in upmarket Port Douglas for two reasons: better standards of accommodation and access to a beach – four miles of sand, to be precise.

After picking up our rental vehicle, we headed off on the easy hour’s drive north to Port Douglas. We had chosen the chic QT resort up here, for its funky rooms, multiple swimming pools and awesome buffet breakfast. It didn’t hurt either that the property had great industry rates.

Our liveaboard departed from The Reef marina up here the following day, so we repacked our things to check out, taking only essentials for the boat, and leaving non-essentials locked in the car in the QT carpark.

Pro Tip #2: Most day trips take you to busy, busy stretches of reef. The Quicksilver cruise boats can carry over 400 passengers, just to give you an idea. We used Blue Dive and we chose to do two nights aboard a liveaboard, so we could access more remote corners of the Agincourt Ribbon Reefs with just 12 or so other divers.

Blue Dive used a luxury catamaran – the Boss – which was manned by a couple, their daughter and her friend. They were very lovely people. The only problem was that they were a little inexperienced, so we missed our second dive simply because they couldn’t work out how to refill our tanks.

Unfortunately, on our departure there was another major issue: the toilet in the lounge was blocked. This meant it couldn’t be used – you had to go back to your cabin to use the loo. Also, it made for some funky smells from time to time.

Nevertheless, our guide Adriana was great. She had a keen interest in marine life as did I, was obviously passionate about protecting the reef and obligingly pointed out a heap of species to us. The boat was generously sized, food good and cabins comfortably appointed as well. I’d also like to add that the owner later refunded us some moneys to compensate for the two issues I identified, so I would certainly recommend Blue Dive again.

Aboard the Boss luxury catamaran

Pro Tip #3: Soft bags are best for carrying gear and for stowage in often funny-shaped cabins. While the Barrier Reef offers warm water diving, I’d suggest packing a wetsuit especially if you plan to dive all day or do night dives. It can get quite chilly!

In terms of the quality of diving, I’m sad to report that much of the reef was damaged, and there was little in the way of marine life to see – especially given that my last trip was to the Maldives. On our night snorkel, we saw ONE shrimp. I also saw one small shark in the distance and a couple of turtles in a total of maybe 8 dives?

It didn’t help either that visibility was pretty poor. We visited in October, following a dry spell, so you wouldn’t have expected such murky water. Personally, I feel that water quality probably isn’t helped by the heavy agriculture on the mainland. I’m sure all the fertilisers seep into the water during the ‘Big Wet’ and this can’t help matters!

Pro Tip #4: Stinger season generally runs from late November to March, so Port Douglas often empties out in these months. I’d avoid any ocean-based activities during this time but that said, there’s plenty to do on the mainland and everything is probably cheaper.

Back at QT Port Douglas, I found it hard to tear myself away from the retro-chic coolness of the place. I mean, there are three pools – including a really shallow one with a cabana in the middle. This particular pool wasn’t for swimming in – guests just lay around here showing off tanned, toned bods clad in the latest resort wear. A deeper one was filled with kids playing with pool floats so eventually, we legged over to a proper pool tucked around the back of the resort, where you could actually do laps without running over a model or child.

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The Poser Pool at QT Port Douglas – image courtesy of QT Hotel and Resorts

In the morning, the breakfast buffet was sensational. QT’s signature Bazaar restaurant is represented here. Set up like an exotic market, there’s an egg station and an open kitchen where you can watch chefs slicing and dicing. There are also loads of cutesy things like tiny milk bottles filled with the day’s fresh juices or smoothies – impressive!

Pro Tip #5: Maybe skip dinner the night before. Or don’t do lunch 🙂

When we finally left the premises, we went up to Macrossan Street, lined with boutiques, restaurants and bars. There’s a supermarket here if self-catering, as well as an ice-cream parlour, swimwear shops and a number of good places to eat. Our top pick, Salsa Bar & Grill on Wharf Street. This family-run restaurant and Port Douglas stalwart has welcomed Bill and Hilary Clinton, once just before 9/11, and white dinner plates signed with names of famous people line the walls.

Pro Tip #6: Salsa is a good reason to forego lunch and have a geriatric’s dinner instead. If you’re a cheap drunk – like me – line that stomach. Cocktails here are HUGE.

Having wandered most of this sophisticated coastal hamlet, we decided to head off to Mossman Gorge the next day. About 20 minutes’ outside of Port Douglas by car, this very scenic pocket is part of the World Heritage-listed Daintree National Park. Park in the carpark and head to the Mossman Gorge Centre, for a look at indigenous Australian art. The staff here are very helpful and will help you plan your Mossman Gorge experience.

There’s a shuttle up to the gorge, which you have to pay for – alternatively you can walk but why not support the Kuku Yalanji people who live and work here? The road up is also steep and narrow, so if you don’t sweat to death you may well get hit by the bus.

On arrival, there’s the Baral Marrjanga trail which later branches off into a number of different routes, all which are pretty easy. You’ll find a number of refreshing swimming holes aside from the main one near the trailhead – very pretty and also quite cold. All are blessedly croc-free (I asked!).

Take your pick of pretty swimming holes at Mossman Gorge

Pro Tip #7: The current in the main part of the gorge – where you’ll see most visitors swimming – is very strong. Don’t even think about getting in if you can’t swim. 

The next day, we headed up into the Daintree Rainforest proper. Our first stop: Daintree Village, which lies to the east of the river crossing. We parked in the village centre, and bought tickets for a croc safari along the Daintree River. I’m big on wildlife (as you’re probably already aware) so I had a great time, spotting herons, egrets, crocs.

Our skipper pointed out ylang ylang trees, and he asked us this question: if you fell into the Daintree River, what animal would get you first? Everybody chimed “crocs!”. WRONG. The correct answer: bull sharks. I love that in Australia we have such a robust system for natural selection!

A burly TNQ local

Back on dry land, we bought some cold drinks and perched on the boot at the back of our SUV. That’s when disaster struck. Wayn and I both got out of the car, and I stupidly slammed the boot shut with the key and all of our possessions including mobile phones inside. The bloody car locked itself.

I ran up to the information centre completely frazzled, and begged the lady there to put in a call to Avis. She obliged, but the centre was almost 2 hours away in Cairns. All the while, Wayn was outside trying to force the door open. Almost on the verge of smashing a window with a rock, voila, the door opens!

Pro Tip #8: Don’t buy a Hyundai. Sure, they’re cheap and have lots of ‘smart’ features like self-locking. But you can lock your keys in the car, and worse, you can force the door open by pulling really hard on the handle. I don’t rate either feature!

After this little drama, we got back on the road and headed for the river crossing. North of the Daintree is some of the most primeval coastal rainforest left in Australia. And the only way to get across the water was by barge. Operated with a chain, no less!

On the other side, there were road signs indicating the presence of cassowaries. Big birds capable of human disembowelment. But alas, I didn’t see even one. It was very lovely to be under the ancient tree canopy however, which was unmistakably alive with insects and birdlife.

I didn’t see one, unfortunately!

Given that it was getting late, we skipped the Daintree Discover Centre (a mistake? Perhaps) and decided to do a ‘highlights of’ tour. This meant a stop at the Daintree Ice Cream Company in Diwan – mmmm, wattleseed and mango. And a beeline afterwards for Cape Tribulation, where rainforest meets the reef.

Cape Trib is literally the end of the sealed road, so you won’t get any further without a 4WD. We hit the boardwalk and made it to the misty, somewhat forlorn beach where we walked for a few kilometres admiring lizards and birds in the mangroves. There were also blue-skinned fruits in the trees, which resembled mangoes – tasty or toxic, I have no idea!

Around 3pm, we decided it was time to leave. There’s nothing worse than bowling over wildlife except perhaps having to finish off an animal, so we went straight back to the barge and headed back to modern civilisation.

Pro Tip #9: If I could do this all over again, I’d probably stay one or two nights in the Daintree, and hire a 4WD to take to the tracks beyond Cape Tribulation. That might uncover me a cassowary or two – until next time!

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