Tropical North Queensland - where the rainforest meets the reef | Travel
It's another balmy morning as I step out of the car from the cool of the air con into the jungle humidity. Having spent the last hour traversing the coastal road from Port Douglas, across the Daintree River and into Cape Tribulation, it became easy to forget how hot it is outside, and how the warmth envelopes you as you step out onto the jungle floor. The sound of crickets and the high-pitched shrill of tropical birds is arresting - there is nothing quite like the sounds of the rainforest.
We pass a sign - one of many dotted along the whole Far North Queensland cost - warning of stingers in summer and crocodiles, well, all-year round. Although we keep a safe distance from both the waters edge and the dense, bushy undergrowth, sweat trickles at my back and my t-shirt clings to its dampness - we're in crocodile country now.
Two days prior we'd hung on to our hats as a tropical breeze tore through beautiful Palm Cove.
Visiting Far North Queensland gives you an idea of just how diverse the landscape of Australia can be. Like most tropical regions they have just two seasons - wet and dry - and so temperatures rarely drop below 25°c (making air con an absolute necessity). Such warm, wet conditions create a perfect fertile environment for a range of ecosystems, most notably the saltwater crocodile and the elusive cassowary (both deadly in their own right).
Perhaps the most enduring fact about this part of Australia is that it's at the juncture of two World Heritage sites - the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. The former is actually the world's most ancient rainforest, as well as being Australia's largest continuous area of tropical rainforest. The Reef, of course, needs no introduction, as arguably the world's most famous coral reef, with over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands. This unique meeting of land and sea means the area known as Cape Tribulation is known for its crystal clear waters teeming with marine life, remote beaches and endless tropical vegetation.
Cape Trib itself is accessed by taking the Daintree Rainforest Ferry, a short car ferry over a wide river which is home to a number of saltwater crocs. Large, weather-battered signs forbid swimming in the river and warn users to keep an eye out for wildlife. There was something about the Jurassic Park-esque signage set against the swaying palm trees and a sense of being watched from afar that made this river crossing slightly nerve-wracking.
Once you're over the ferry, you'll wind your way along the road for 35km, passing a few clusters of houses and cafes on your way (as well as cassowary warning signs - this one was my favourite).
One cafe worth stopping at is Masons Cafe. Unassuming upon first sight, it's the adjacent watering hole that is this cafe's secret gem, a small, secluded swamp in which it's safe to swim (or, swing from the vines like Tarzan, if you're a boy). Just flip a dollar coin into the donation box on your way in and make your way down the hill to the watering hole. The water is mostly shallow but has deeper parts if you want to jump in.
The beach at Cape Tribulation is spectacularly remote, and is flanked by Mt Sorrow in the west and Mt Hemmant in the east, creating a tropical microclimate. Apparently there are two nearby farms that grow fruit normally found only in equatorial areas, such are the favourable growing conditions.
The gateway to the Daintree Rainforest and further south towards Cairns brings you to the breathtaking Mossman Gorge. This area contains over 135 million years of ecosystem - a mind-blowing figure - and is, thankfully, protected by the Queensland Government under World Heritage status. Visitors are encouraged to show respect to those that live in the village at Mossman and take the bus ride to the viewing platforms rather than walk through the community that exists there.
It's hard to put into words the cavernous jungle that greets you at Mossman Gorge - it's almost a sensory overload, as green canopies jostle alongside gargantuan tree trunks, many etched with markings and lines some millions of years old, and the water cascades through the gorge with a startling ferocity (wet conditions meant the Gorge was closed for swimming the day we visited, such was the force of the water and the potential hazards).
And talking of rain, the tropical downpour we experienced at Mossman Gorge only added to the already-magical atmosphere - hearing the rain patter onto leaves and trickle down into the soil, knowing that this was the lifeblood which had kept this most ancient site pristine and thriving for all these years. The humid temperatures meant that it was almost a relief to have the cool drops touch our skin, a moment of relief following the envelope of heat.
Palm Cove is small and more upmarket than its neighbour Port Douglas, with boutique shops and breakfast spots more akin to city-dining than a small town. We had breakfast at Nu Nu, a gorgeous spot surrounded by Melaleuca trees, before taking a walk along the beach and down the main street that run throughs Palm Cove.
Just outside of Palm Cove and on the way to Port Douglas we found perhaps our favourite place to dine - Choo Choo's at St Crispin's. A fully-functioning white clapboard train station, the cafe situated at the back of the building has an amazing location overlooking a lake and nearby golf course, surrounded by a leafy, green veranda. The menu is more than your typical cafe-fare - togarashi spiced calamari and slow braised beef brisket, to name a few and the mango smoothie in particular comes highly regarded. You can also jump on the train to Port Douglas Marina if you fancy seeing the sites at a more leisurely pace (Hemingway's Brewery is a good spot here if you like your tasting paddles).
Port Douglas reminded me very much of Noosa, with its mix of high street shops, cafes and supermarkets. Pay a visit to the church of St-Mary's-by-the Sea, one of the oldest buildings in Port Douglas and which was ravaged by a cyclone in 1911, before being saved from demolition by locals in the 1980s.
Tropical Queensland is the absolute jewel in the crown of the North East coast, nestled between rainforest and reef and with a remarkably quiet pace of life. A world away from the hustle and bustle of city life, and with a tropical climate all year round, it's a must visit for anyone wanting to see the diversity that Australia has to offer.