And now we come to the more disputed aspect - the sea. I don't particularly want the waves to be large and forceful. They can boom and crash and thunder; I just won't be part of their action. I no more want to throw myself into them, dive over or through them, ride them or fight them, than leave the beach. But neither do I want them to fold, limply, on to the sand so that there is barely a distinguishable line between water and land. I don't want an almost imperceptible shshshing sound: I want the comforting, unthreatening, rhythmic, lilting song of breaking waves. The water should be blue - deep or turquoise - or sea green, but not slate grey. It should be clean and clear and not in the least bit slimy or oily. And, above all, it should be body-warm.
The crux of the matter, I think, is what you want from a beach. Fun and games, sport or fitness, quiet relaxation, contemplation or soul-searching. Most of us probably use beaches for all of these things at one time or another. Any particular activity doesn't always require the same conditions: soul-soothing may require bright-and-sunny warmth one day and empathetic tempestuousness the next.
And now, back on the road...
The Mamu Rainforest Canopy Walkway is a fairly new (2-year-old) attraction that hasn't made it into all the guidebooks yet. It's 30km west of Innisfail, off the Palmerston Highway. An elevated walkway leads to a 37-metre-high observation tower, so you can really feel in amongst the rainforest trees and plants (fab ferns, above, and lichen mosaic, below) while also enjoying far-reaching views of the North Johnstone River gorge (next picture but one below) and the dense World Heritage forest slopes. The walk is particularly well signed about the establishment and regeneration of rainforest and the symbiotic relationships between rainforest species.
I have communed with Queensland's rainforests on a number of occasions, at canopy level and on the ground, in dry rainforest and wet. It is always a fascinating experience and only really disappoints in one, albeit fairly major, area - the wildlife. It is extremely difficult to see animals going about their business in the rainforest, for fairly obvious reasons. Few animals are about when most tourists trundle through, especially if they're nocturnal. To see birds at their most active, for example, you need to go early in the morning, or at dusk. You occasionally see ground foragers and quick flashes of birds in flight, but it's virtually impossible to see through the canopy if they're at rest on high branches. You can hear them calling, but that just adds to the frustration if you can't identify the singer or the song. And many animals hide themselves away in the heat of the day. The rainforest may be an absolute riot after dark, but that's not when you're allowed in.
In Mossman Gorge, a woman dressed in sports gear and trainers overtook us quickly and in determined fashion. She was a woman on a mission. After a while she passed us again, this time going in the opposite direction, and was obviously using the walk as part of her fitness regime. Well, that's all well and good for her but preferably not while I'm creeping along like a mouse, trying desperately to spot something moving in the foliage. My friend and I probably look like a couple of eccentrics. We wander very slowly, putting our feet down with great care, especially on noisy gravel paths. We stand and stare. We point a lot and use other hand signals so that if there are any animals or birds nearby, they won't be startled by our presence. If the information centre says a walk normally takes about an hour, then we probably have to add at least half as much again because our progress is exceedingly slow. But I haven't come half way around the globe just to see brush turkeys in the carpark. I'm going to make an effort.
Below: a rather fine Brush Turkey in the carpark at Mary Cairncross Reserve (not on this trip)
We put our foot down as we headed back to the Bruce Highway and north towards Cairns. We didn't bypass Cairns as we had Townsville (the two are fierce rivals to be the capital of northern Queensland: local rivalries in Australia is another story). A brief foray along the Esplanade failed to jog my memory at all, however. I had wanted my friend to get a feel for the place, but we quickly decided to move on to the northern beaches, in particular Palm Cove, recommended by a friend in Brisbane.Palm Cove is pretty hip: with spa resorts every few metres, top restaurants, jewellery and art boutiques, it seems to be all about indulgence and appearances. We caught a brief glimpse as we stopped for coffee. The white-sand beach looks pretty appealing until you spot the signs. As my friend captioned the picture below when I posted it on Facebook: 'Come on in. The water's lovely'!
We were nearing our destination, Port Douglas (206km from Mission Beach, without detours; 3 hours and 16, without stops). I came to Port Douglas the first time during my Nineties trip to Oz. I remember it still feeling a bit villagey and unpretentious. There were great shops and cool cafes, but not as many excellent restaurants and flash resort complexes as there are now. Then, I took an old Chinese junk, along with a few others, to an offshore island to marvel at the coral just off the beach. The boat developed a problem at one point, but it mattered not. We lazed on deck in the hot sunshine while captain 'Blackie' (because he was sunbaked almost to a crisp) dived beneath the boat to fix something or other.
My visit this time was in contrast. Rather than cheap and cheerful accommodation, I stayed in a 'resort and spa' that cost more than $200 a night. It wasn't worth it. I shall say no more about it other than to bemoan the blood-curdling screeches of a bird (possibly a beach stone-curlew?) during the night, which the hotel could do nothing about, and a strange breakfast voucher system that they most certainly should do something about. Port Douglas is still lovely, however. We ate in a couple of great (but pricey) restaurants; shopped; sat in Anzac Park (below) on a perfect afternoon gazing at the Inlet and the coast to the north; and agonized for hours over which reef trip to do.
There are many options for visiting the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. I would rather not think about the 1.6 million people (barrierreefaustralia.com) who go every year from points along the Queensland coast from Bundaberg to Cape Tribulaton. Some boats can carry up to 300 people at a time, although not everyone gets into the water. There were about 70 on our catamaran: some diving; some snorkelling; others observing. The trip to the Agincourt reef was well organised and informative. The last of the three sites we visited was particularly impressive: there were many different kinds of coral and some truly stunning fish. But...
There was a but for me because, although I felt privileged to see such things, I didn't really believe I should be there. With the best will in the world, you can easily catch the coral with a flipper, especially if you're not an experienced snorkeller, and there were many of those on my boat. There were broken bits of coral on the ocean floor (and, later, on Cape Tribulation's beaches), although we were assured they were part of the natural cycle. And there was bleaching of some corals. I wonder, will my children's children be able to put the GBR on their 'must-see' list when they visit Northern Queensland?
After three nights in Port Douglas (the far-less-crowded southern end of Four Mile Beach, above), it was time to head north again, to the far north by my definition. We were now on our more detailed Cairns to Cooktown map, which was very exciting, and all the parts I couldn't reach before, north of the highly significant and emotive Daintree River, were within my grasp. I was thrilled: I would be in Cape Tribulation by the end of the day (82km; 2 hours... but a lot of stops later).
We'd planned to visit Mossman Gorge first, less than 20km up the road, but it was a holiday weekend and the place was mobbed. I feel another comparison coming on... When I was there all those years ago, the only person we came across was a Scotsman who appeared out of nowhere as we revived our feet in the clear tumbling water, and offered us his chips. Curiously, they were still hot, and to this day I wonder how he managed that. He could only have got them in in Mossman, several kilometres down the road. On this occasion, we'd barely left the carpark before deciding to abort the walk, especially after the noisy arrival of a band of young Aussie Blokes on Vespas, all biceps and bravado. Instead we pressed on to Daintree. Before we reached the mystical river crossing, there was the first of the beach delights - Wonga (above).
The only people sharing this with us were natives - a family and a young chap walking and playing rugby with his dog. The dog was gifted, I tell you. Endless palms dropped coconuts on to pale sand. A photography session was inevitable. It was so peaceful and warm and sunny but not too hot. Why move on? I always ask myself that question when I'm on a beach approaching such near-perfection. But there was better to come...
We didn't go into Daintree itself because the call of its rainforest national park was just too great. So we sat and waited for the cable ferry to come and get us, ready to enter a very different world.
Crossing the Daintree River (right) is like crossing a divide, and this Wet Tropics World Heritage Area feels special from the moment you drive off the ferry. Spectacular giant ferns, cycads, fan palms and vines tangle this ancient forest (some say the world's oldest, dating from 135 million years ago) as it encroaches upon a narrow winding road that was only sealed in 2002. It climbs steadily to a viewpoint from where you can admire this lush coast and the mouth of the Daintree. Then it descends and passes through a number of small scattered settlements. There is no mains electricity in this part of the world, only generators, which somehow adds to the magic.
Apart from 'amazing pockets of biodiversity' (Lonely Planet) - which include more than half of Australia's bird, butterfly and fern species - this is a world of even more beautiful beaches, coffee and tea plantations, shady mangrove tidal creeks inhabited by salties and rugged mountains with wonderful names such as Mount Sorrow. We have Captain Cook to thank for this name and that of Cape Tribulation, reflecting the torrid time he had when his ship ran aground on a reef. He first sighted this stretch of coastline in 1770. The first white settlers to the area were loggers drawn to the cedar stands. It's good wood for construction; some was shipped to England.
I will let the pictures do the talking. First up, the view from Alexandra Range lookout point.
A tea plantation
Cape Tribulation Beach
No photograph or travelog can do justice to Cape Tribulation. I could never wax rhapsodic enough. I have wanted to go there since I first came to Queensland and wasn't allowed north of the Daintree in my hired car because the roads were unsealed. It is sublimely beautiful. It made me feel like Byron Bay does. There is no higher accolade in Jude's book of beaches.
We stayed for four nights. For two days it was cloudy with only occasional sunbursts. The rainforest is so dense - and it came right up to the back wall of our bedroom - it can feel gloomy and oppressive in cloud. So we went croc-spotting at Cooper Creek...
And walked to the end of the road
And measured large fan palms
And bird watched (although there was not as much birdlife as we expected) - a Red-capped Plover gets an itch on Myall Beach
And disposed of an unwelcome visitor in our bedroom (sorry there's no sense of scale, but to give you some idea, we had to use a small wastebin rather than a glass to remove him)
And visited the Bat House, part of the Austrop Research Centre, and got up close and personal with Edward, a nine-month flying fox with only one wing. The centre is run by volunteers and has a lot of information about the threats not only to the sensitive local environment but the global one (austrop.org.au).
We saved the best - and furthest north - till last, however, when we went to Cooktown along the Bloomfield Track, which you can only do in a 4WD. Even in one of those, it gets a bit hairy on the steep inclines, and it was the right decision to choose an organized trip and not try to drive it ourselves. There was a huge battle to establish a way through the forest from Cape Tribulation to the Bloomfield River. The environmentalists may have had to concede defeat in the first round when the track was finally driven through in 1983, but the timber industry (and the Queensland state government) 'lost' the second round five years later when the whole area acquired World Heritage listing. Unfortunately that didn't stop land clearance and private development, and further measures were necessary (Daintree Rescue Programme in 1994) at state and federal government levels to claw back parcels of land for the National Park.We had an early start because the track is long and slow going. The whole idea of venturing beyond the end of the road was exhilarating, but there was more excitement virtually from the off when we slowed to look at a wild pig trap but spotted a cassowary and its chick.
After about an hour and a half, we reached the Aboriginal settlement of Wujal Wujal. There we met the Walker sisters and were guided by Kathleen to the Bloomfield (Wujal Wujal) Falls.
This is sacred territory and you have to be invited to visit. The Kuku Yalanji have lived in the region for thousands of years and we learned some fascinating things. Kathleen explained that the waterfall never dries up, and that her people can smell the presence of a crocodile. The medicinal properties of plants and animals are many and varied: at the end of our walk she squeezed some green ants between her fingers so their formic acid eased my blocked sinuses. She also described how the community is still restricted by the Australian government: they are not allowed, for instance, to take their young up the mountain to teach them how to hunt or burn (mosaic burning is necessary for forest maintenance).
As you leave the Bloomfield Track and join the Mulligan Highway, at the furthest reach of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, there looms (even on a sunny day) Black Mountain (below), a sinister-looking, weirdly jointed granite hill covered with black lichen and the odd stinging tree. Stories abound of those lost - men trying to climb it as well as animals losing their way - within its treacherous network of boulders. I'm a real sucker for tales of unexplained vanishment and gazed at the eerie place in childlike wonderment.
Windy Cooktown had another feel altogether - isolated yet friendly - and it was warm, almost hot, and sunny. It seemed extremely light and airy after our rather gloomy forest sojourn. It's a very pleasant little town, developed during the Palmer River gold rush, and there are stunning views from the top of Grassy Hill (below). Captain Cook climbed up here to see if he could spot a safe passage out through the reef.
The James Cook Museum, housed in an elaborate Victorian building, a former convent, creates atmosphere with 'sails' and creaking ship's timbers as you read extracts from Cook's diary, which is surprisingly readable. The Endeavour's original anchor and canon are there, too, and the story of their retrieval is fascinating. We went for a little wander through the streets and visited the town's large cemetery, a reflection of Cooktown's varied tally of inhabitants over the years, on our way out of town heading back to Cape Trib.
Leaving Cape Tribulation was as wrenching as our arrival was thrilling. We loaded the car and left in pouring rain. A little way down the road, however, a cassowary with two chicks brightened the early morning considerably and made for the perfect send-off from this very special place.
Again, the Daintree River was our portal back into the real world and the next stage of our journey through the far north of Queensland - towards the interior (Cape Tribulation to Atherton 172km; 3 hours and 10). In tribute to a truly extraordinary part of the world, I leave you with a piece of artwork constructed on the beach by minute, almost transparent sand-coloured crabs.