We arrived last night in Cairns, Australia, and transferred to our hotel, the Sea Temple resort, in Port Douglas. This is in the state of Queensland on Australia’s northeast coast, a tropical part of the continent.
There were two choices for today’s excursions: snorkeling on the barrier reef or a series of visits to indigenous tropical sites. Snorkeled out from Samoa, I chose the latter—and never looked back.
Our day started with a visit to the Daintree Rainforest, where native, aboriginal guides greeted us. Cameron
took us on a “walk about” of a small sector of the forest. He explained what we were seeing by recalling his own many “walk abouts” with his grandfather when he was a boy of ten or eleven. It’s crucial for aboriginal youngsters to learn the ways of the forest, from how to gather food to how to avoid the very dangerous cassowary birds, which, if they are antagonized or think you’re near their nest, can chase you at speeds up to 50 km/hour, and disembowel you with their large spiked claws. Cameron pointed out that cassowaries are crucial to the survival of the rain forest because they eat fruits that are toxic to most other creatures and poop their seeds all over the forest, thus aiding plant propagation. There are only 1,000 of these birds left in the wild, so efforts are being made to protect them.
Taking us to the bank of a clear running brook (the Mossman river, I think), Cameron showed us how his people use local ochre, charcoal, and clays to paint their bodies with marking signs (including signs that indicate the limits to their own and other tribes’ territory, the latter of which they must not trespass on lest violence break out).
After painting himself, Cameron gathered a handful of leaves from a nearby bush, which he crushed and mixed with water, yielding abundant lather. “The soap bush,” he explained. Twigs of the same plant are also an all-purpose liniment.
This pointed up not just the depth of knowledge of aboriginal peoples but the still undiscovered treasure in botanical products contained in these endangered rainforests. (All around the world, we learned, a football-field sized portion of rainforest is destroyed every second.)
Having lectured on the concept of the sacred and profane a few days ago, I was pleased to see that just about every one of Cameron’s description of sites in the forest mentioned sacred places and things. Women, it seems have their own, separate sacred sites, and these are taboo to men (and vice versa). As a youngster, Cameron underwent his rite of initiation here, being left alone all night in the forest as a test of his manhood. Fortunately, he did not bump into a cassowary.
From Daintree we headed to a remarkable site for lunch: the Botanical Ark. This is the home and project of a couple named and Alan and Susan (I didn’t quite get their last name). For the past four decades this couple have been collecting tropical nut and fruit trees and plants from rainforests all over the world for planting and preservation on their twenty-acre property. Before lunch, Alan took us on a walk-about as well, beginning with Heliconia palms, whose flowers, like bird of paradise plants, are thick waxy and startlingly colorful.
Realizing that these flowers remain beautiful for six weeks or more, Alan and Susan began a floral business, shipping Heliconia to hotels and business around the world. To this day, they are a popular decoration in hotels across Asia. Unfortunately, a six-month-long commercial air pilots’ strike made the business untenable for them in this remote corner of Australia, and Alan and Susan went on to other things.
Our tour introduced us to many other unique and rare tropical plants, including bright orange turmeric ginger, which is currently being researched for its potent anti-cancer properties. (The Botanical Ark is a world repository for over 500 types of gingers.)
Another plant, which Alan said it took twenty years to develop, is the Kepel Apple. Unlike most fruits, this one grows on the trunk of the tree.
The Kepel Apple is historically reputed to have been a favorite in royal gardens across Asia as a fruit that “sweetened” bodily odors. When, after years of waiting, the first tree had produced enough fruit, Alan gave it to two friends, and he and they each ate about ten small apples. The friends reported that after a vigorous, sweaty workout session at the gym, they received numerous and unsolicited compliments, on their “lovely citrusy odor.” A European pharmaceutical company is currently researching the fruit for its active ingredients. Will the day come when we’ll replace our deodorants with a pill or breakfast of cereal with Kepel Apple slices? If so, thank the rainforest.
Our walk ended with some frolicking with Alan and Susan’s Labrador retriever whose energetic pursuit of sticks in our hosts’ beautiful pond showed how true she is to her breed’s name.
When we first arrived, we were met with this bouquet of tropical fruits grown here and were served fried breadfruit with guanabana juice (a thick, creamy white tropical nectar).
Lunch continued this theme with a repast of local botanical products, including this salad of mangoes, and three other fruits whose names I can’t recall.
The visit made me realize that our diet of apples, pears, bananas, etc. hardly touches the richness of fruits that can be cultivated. Perhaps our grandchildren will someday buy fruits like these at the local market.
Our excursion day ended with another wonderful visit, this time to “Habitat,” an amazing zoo where all the residents, including birds, range free in net-enclosed spaces. Here were all of Australia’s unique (often marsupial) fauna. A local variety of storks (I didn’t record the precise name),
parrots (all the same species; the green one is male; the red and blue ones are females),
an emu (a large flightless bird like the ostrich),
a huge local species of pelican (up to my chest in height; three times as big as its Sanibel cousins, and the only bird whose residence in this idyllic spot I regretted: not enough room for him to fly)
And yes, the dreaded cassowary. This photo doesn’t do justice to its size. This bird is at least as large as a Saint Bernard. No one quite knows the purpose of the structure on its head. A sound receiver? Battering ram? Your guess.
Even more fearsome was the salt-water crocodile, whose jaws, we learned, have the strongest biting force in nature. This scary fifteen foot long specimen is in the zoo because he developed a bad habit of getting too close to human beings at the seashore. You can imagine how nervous I was as I leaned over the fence to take this picture.
Of course there were koalas (their nutritionally poor diet of gum tree and eucalyptus leaves barely supports life, so they sleep 20 hours a day).
One whole section featured kangaroos
and wallabies (small versions of the same).
And here are my favorite photos of the visit. First, a mother wallaby with a filled pouch; then the same mom, close up, with the “joey” (baby’s) legs hanging out of her pouch.
Evening, and dinner was dining on our own (with vouchers) in Port Douglas. Fred Diehl, I, and Kassi, one of the travelers, had a great meal at “On the Inlet,” a seafood restaurant on the harbor side. Drinks included very good XXXX beer (so named because the brewers “didn’t know how to spell beer.”) Australia is certainly a fascinating and civilized place to visit. This Queensland tropical zone merits a return.