29. Australian Road Trip: Cape Tribulation - tropical rainforest, tropical reef and tropical cyclone
Trials & Tribulations
Captain Cook broke down near here. At least his ship, The Endeavour, did. I think he ran aground on a reef, so he named the place Cape Tribulation. According to Cook it was the place “where all our troubles began.” Subsequently, he was forced to beach his ship and hang around for longer than he wished while repairs were made – Cooktown is the place where he endured his forced tropical holiday, a bit like we did during last week’s monsoon, although when the Captain was there in 1770, facilities were rather limited.
Cape Tribulation and the Daintree Rain Forest is a World Heritage area that is on the ‘must see’ list for all visitors to Far North Queensland. To get there, the croc-infested Daintree River must first be crossed to reach the National Park. There is a small cable-operated car ferry for that purpose and as the punt pulls against the current as it crosses, we experience a palatable sense of adventure.
We are travelling in convoy with my old mate Geoff and his young son Oliver. Geoff leads the way in his Mitsubishi L300 4x4 van, but we will always struggle to keep up with anyone in our old truck.
Ferry across the Daintree
Where is the Blue Pool
In Search of the Blue Pool
Once off the ferry, the narrow tar-sealed road heads up into steep, jungle-clad mountains that stand sentinel above the sea. The road winds around hairpin bends, through glades of overhanging vines, past cascading falls, and offers spectacular views through the foliage to the sun-sparkled blue of the Coral Sea. Our Winnebago handles the road like a vehicle half its size, or maybe I have finally learned to drive the beast properly. Oncoming traffic shows us considerable respect whenever we meet at a particularly narrow section; after all, there is a steep drop into impenetrable jungle if one was to lose control. Eventually the road winds down from the mountains and wends its way through plantations of coffee and tea. There are dirt side-roads leading to hidden luxury resorts and occasional small hamlets, lending the region a homey, 'hippie-kingdom' ambience.
Geoff pulls over and we have a little roadside conference. He wants to find a particular swimming hole, the Blue Pool, which someone has told him about. I sense a ‘Geoff-adventure’ about to occur and mentally prepare to go along with it despite any misgivings I may have. We head off again for a few miles until Geoff turns left on a dirt road that leads inland toward the mountains which loom over this narrow coastal strip. After a while he stops and we park and lock Winnie then hop into his 4x4. We take very rough dirt side road that leads us bumping and bouncing down to a clearing where we have no choice but to stop.
Geoff is very confident that this is the place and so we grab our towels and begin a slippery hike along a muddy jungle path until at last we emerge onto a wide pebbly sandbar next to a large, dark blue pool. There’s a fallen tree spanning the pool and vines and palms hanging overhead. Geoff immediately strips off and dives in; it is after all, extremely hot and sticky, and there are mozzies, midges and march flies to contend with if you stand still for too long.
“Are you sure there are no crocs up this far Geoff,” I ask. “Nah, there wouldn’t be any here.” he says, not so reassuringly. Nevertheless, I am not to be outdone so I strip down to my birthday suit and dive into the cool dark water. We mess around for a little while, climbing onto the fallen tree and diving off. Sheila, refuses to swim and instead takes a few photographs of us larking about naked in the jungle. We regroup, slog through the jungle, and resume our trip up to the Cape itself. Back on the main road, we cross the causeway over the same river we just swam in. There is one of those ubiquitous red, yellow and black signs: “Warning; Achtung: Crocodiles live in this area”. I think, "Bloody Geoffery," as mum used to say when we were kids!
The Perfect Camp
For the final few miles the road follows a long beach, with mountain and jungle to our left - cliffs, cascades, causeways and “Beware of the Cassowary” signs add interest to the journey. The campground at Cape Tribulation is a pleasant park of grassy fields, rustic, corrugated iron amenity blocks and a large open-sided camp kitchen and recreation area, complete with pool tables. We take a couple of pitches next to a short trail that leads through the jungle to the beach. It is perfect. We set up the tarpauline, put out our table and chairs, hang sarongs around the sides of the tarp to add a bit of privacy and eastern mystique and Geoff spreads a large soft rug over the floor tarp. Geoff and Oliver erect their tent nearby and we stand back and proudly survey our work. This is a seriously nice, long-term camp.
There are wild bush turkeys strutting around and Oliver discovers tiny frogs living in the field across from our site. He has several in his hand but I can’t help thinking that the ugly-but-cute little frogs are actually baby cane toads. There are certainly quite a few grown-up toads loitering about on the road.
The beach seems as wide as it is long, and as it is low tide there is little point walking all the way down to the sea which is probably ankle deep for hundreds of metres and deadly with stingers too. While wandering about aimlessly on the sand we meet one of our camp neighbours, a crusty fisherman who goes by the name of Scooby. He’s a true blue “Ocker” of my generation - in other words a long haired, beer-bellied, misogynistic, racist, dope smoking, blues loving, ex-Harley riding, down to earth, call a spade a spade, Aussie bloke. I quite like Scooby despite some of his less attractive characteristics. My English Sheila however, grows more and more uncomfortable the longer we chat with him.
Later Scooby comes over to our camp for a beer and we swap a few blues tunes. He lives with his wife in a Coaster bus, a common vehicle on the open road though they cost in excess of $20,000. Scooby lives for fishing, so much so that he talks about putting off a trip to Cairns to take his wife to the hospital. She is obviously very ill but, but hey, "the fuckin’ barra are runnin mate.” Even I go off him at this point
Night time: we cook in the camp kitchen, play pool, drink wine and socialise with some of the other campers. It is pitch black beyond the pale glow of the shelter but I can just make out the shapes of wallabies grazing and the black, wraith-like form of fruit bats darting across the starry sky. Then there are the cane toads, just sitting there, motionless, staring. We dawdle back to camp after washing up and spend a couple more hours sitting about chatting quietly or absorbing the gentle hum of the tropical night, underscored by the wash of the incoming tide just a hundred metres away along the bush path.
In search of a secret beach
Next morning: After a leisurely breakfast we pack a rudimentary picnic of bread, cheese, apples and marshmallows (for Oliver to toast), pile into Geoff’s 4x4 and head up the track toward Cooktown. A few kilometres on and the road turns into a rutted, tree strewn, gravel affair. A sign warns “NO TOILETS FOR 32 KM. I think, can we hold out that long. We come to the first of several creeks that cross the road. Geoff puts the hub-locks on and through we go, over river pebbles and small boulders with the fast flowing stream lapping the sides of the van. It’s all very exciting and adventurous; I don’t suppose Sheila has ever done something quite like this, especially as there are the mandatory “Achtung: Crocodiles Live in this creek” signs by the roadside. After 15 or twenty kilometres of this, going up some steep grades and almost sliding down the other side, we eventually come to a creek where Geoff decides to stop. He surmises that there is a hidden beach on the other side of the jungle and we should explore it. Just to be on the safe side he plows the van into the bush, following a dry gravel bed of a small watercourse. It is incredibly bumpy and when he can go no further he stops the van and says we are hiding it in the bush in case someone comes along and pillages it while we are gone. I suspect he is slightly over-egging the adventure but we can only go along with it.
With the van hidden in the bush, we walk back across the track and plunge into the jungle. We follow a rudimentary trail that soon ends in a mangrove swamp. Now call me paranoid if you like, but I figure that as this is a crocodile creek, according to the sign, and we are in a mangrove swamp next to said creek, then surely there is a bloody good chance of there being a crocodile here.
It is a scary thought but I am overwhelmed with bravery and secretly harbour the hope that we will see one of the creatures right here, in the wild. I have my camera out just in case. Despite all the warning signs and the spooky mangroves we don’t see any crocodiles. I suppose it is the ones you don’t see that you should be scared of. The dappled green light filtering through the jungle eventually gives way to the blinding brightness of Geoff’s secret beach. I carefully note the spot where we emerge from the jungle; if we were to take the wrong trail when we head back there is no telling where we might end up. The beach curves ahead of us in a broad sweeping arc. Behind us are mangroves and the mouth of the creek we followed to arrive here. Half way along the beach there is another creek and a dense bank of Mangroves and beyond that more beach that continues for another half kilometre or so before ending at the rocky foot of a headland. There is no sign of humans here, only us. We are well and truly in the wilderness. The creek in the centre of the beach is deep and dark and short of swimming or wading across chest deep, it appears impassable. We decide to picnic here in a clearing in the soft warm sand underneath some shady palms, and light a small fire of driftwood so Oliver can cook his marshmallows.
We hike back to the van a couple of hours later, extract it from its bushy hideout and head back down the track toward Cape Tribulation campground. At the second creek crossing Geoff pulls over and suggests we take a swim in another waterhole he knows about, just a short walk up stream.
But Geoff, there is a big yellow ‘Achtung: Crocs’ sign here. Geoff is unfazed. It’ll be Ok, he says, they don’t go upstream very far from the sea, the sign only applies to the section between here and the creek mouth. Oh yea. But I’m not going to let ‘Young Geoff’, (as my Dad used to call him when we were kids), out-Crocodile-Dundee me! Let’s get on with it then; it’s getting late and I fancy a drink.
So we once again troop off into the jungle, this time heading upstream, into the thickest, wildest bit of jungle I’ve ever walked through. The trail is a quagmire and there are curtains of thin prickly vines that we have to contend with. Geoff calls the stuff “wait-a-while” because if it latches onto you, you must stop and carefully extricate yourself from it. It grabs hold of anything, clothing, hair, skin. It isn’t sticky either, it is barbed and if you move against its grip it tears, rips and cuts whatever it is clinging to. Believe me, when you have wait-a-while wrapped across your t-shirt, your neck and your face you are in big trouble. Geoff heroically blazes ahead while I help Oliver and Sheila battle with the alien plant life. As well as the wait-a-while there are razor sharp palm fronds, thorn-studded spiky succulents and all the other “unimaginables” that one might encounter in a thick tropical jungle.
I’m just about to tell Geoff to forget it when he calls out from ahead that he has reached the pool. It’s not really a pool like before but rather a wider, deeper part of the river. Geoff strips off and dives it, I follow, after first scanning the water and the opposite bank for any sign whatsoever of any type of reptile. Even a bloody turtle would send me up a tree at this point. There is something a bit unsettling with this swim, as opposed to yesterday’s splash in the blue pool. For one, we have only walked about half a kilometre upstream from the ‘Achtung: Crocs’ sign and whereas the blue pool looked different from the river, this pool looks just the same as it does downstream in crocland. As my mum used to say, “That bloody Geoffrey…”
It's name is Larry
That night a bandicoot pays a visit to our campsite, fearlessly snuffling about under the table, looking for dropped morsels from our supper. Whatever anyone tells you about Australia, it is mainly about one thing – the wildlife. It really is in your face all the time, and even if you don’t actually see it, like the crocs today, you still know it’s there!
Later in the evening I wander over to the camp office to pay for another day and as I approach the wooden cabin I see a few people milling about. Inside I can detect a tension. The dude who runs the camp is a young, long-haired guy with a cute girlfriend, and they are looking intently at their computer screen while several backpackers watch over their shoulder.
“It could miss us but no one really knows. They’re very unpredictable, can change course just like that! I wouldn’t stick around tomorrow if I was yous, not in a tent.”
I look at the screen and see that they are watching a digitised weather map of the Coral Sea - North Queensland region. About 100kms off shore there is a big spiral-shaped pattern, moving incrementally down the screen –it is of course a bloody cyclone!
This trip has it all. The State Met office says it is one huge Category 4 storm, possibly building to Category 5 by tomorrow evening. They reckon it could make landfall anywhere on the coast between Cooktown and Townsville, sometime between Sunday night and Monday morning, not sure where, or when.
“What do you reckon then mate?” I ask the dude. He replies, “You all gonna have to leave mate.” The State Emergency Service (SES) as already issued a cyclone warning for Cape Trib. If it hits here at Cat 5 the tidal surge alone could wash away everything up to the hills, then the storm itself would be held up by the mountains and there could be landslides, massive floods, it could get feckin’ hairy mate.”
Next morning there is no sign of any old cyclone. The sky is blue and the air is warm. The only thing that is disconcerting is the bank of clouds way out on the horizon. They look like the same clouds that you see everyday on the horizon except that I have seen the satellite picture, I know what is out there! It already has a name, and it’s name is “Larry”.
Hi Larry, welcome to Queensland
Next Hub: Evacuation and Devastation
Cyclone Larry was a big event, the once in a generation "perfect storm" and we were privileged/unlucky/stupid (or all of the above) to get caught in the middle of it. Find out about our experiences in the next installment of our Around Australia Road Trip.
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