Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - The Wet Tropics
The Wet Tropics, Queensland
There are scores of curious creatures secreted in the shady nether world of the World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics of far-north Queensland: tree-climbing kangaroos, odd bats with snorkel noses, large birds wearing helmeted crowns, and giant purple pythons uncoiling to 23 feet in length. Indeed, this 164,372-acre rain-forest wonderland, which extends 360 miles down the northeast coast of Queensland from Cooktown to Townsville, harbors the greatest diversity of wildlife in Australia, with no less than 400 endangered species, 70 of them found nowhere else in the world. Its 19 national parks and 31 state forests are also staggeringly rich in plant life, including descendants of some of the oldest species on earth. A living museum, the Wet Tropics has unlocked many long-held evolutionary secrets.
While much of the Wet Tropics is rugged and remote, a plethora of both comfortable and challenging walking tracks, scenic driving circuits, cultural tours, and nocturnal adventures, all within a few hours' drive of Cairns, opens a window on this most primeval of landscapes and the Aboriginal peoples it has sustained for thousands of years.
Visitors follow part of an age-old Aboriginal walking trail as they travel north from Cairns to remotely beautiful Daintree National Park, the jewel of the Wet Tropics. This park incorporates the country's largest tract of lowland rain forest and a mosaic of mountain forests, heaths, swamps, and coral foreshores in two distinct areas: the 161,785-acre Mossman Gorge section at its southern extremity, and the 42,237-acre sliver of Cape Tribulation to the north, where the rain forest greets the Great Barrier Reef.
Most of the Mossman section is inaccessible, except to experienced and well-equipped bush walkers, but its defining feature, Mossman Gorge, is easily reached and the best starting point for a Daintree odyssey. Here, the pristine Mossman River carves a path through a steep-sided valley, tumbling over moss-cloaked granite in a series of cascading pools. The 1.7-mile circuit trail, an easy amble, is the perfect introduction to its lush lowland rain forest, and especially on humid days, the forest's shade provides welcome relief from the oppressive heat.
The forebears of the ribbonwood tree, found within the Cape Tribulation forest canopy, flourished perhaps 120 million years ago, long before people first set foot on the continent. Only 18 plant families of this antiquity have been identified worldwide, 10 of them in the forest refuges of Daintree National Park, and within these families at least 50 species are found exclusively in the Wet Tropics. This botanical suite represents the greatest diversity of ancient flowering plants anywhere in the world.
A spotlighting tour is a great way to maximize your chances of seeing some of the Daintree's nocturnal creatures and to experience its cloistered confines after dark. You'll undoubtedly hear the screeching of flying foxes as they drop from their daytime perches like ripe fruit to embark on a night's frenzied feeding. If you're lucky, you might come eye-to-eye with a rare or endangered possum such as the resident pygmy-possum or the striped possum, a beautifully marked species that draws attention to itself by tearing at dead wood in search of beetle larvae.
It's a very different sound, that of rushing water, that greets more daring visitors to the heart of Wooroonooran National Park, between Cairns and Innisfail. Here, the fast-flowing Russell River hurries from its watershed in the Bellenden Ker Range, swirling cool and clear through isolated lowland forest to its meeting with the mighty South Pacific. Uncoiling like a serpent in the shadow of Queensland's highest peak, 5,320-foot Mount Bartle Frere, the Russell is one of the most easily accessible of the Wet Tropics' magical rivers and perfect for whitewater rafting or challenging kayaking.
Stepping out of the raft, still buzzing with energy, visitors can experience more of 196,365-acre Wooroonooran, the largest rain-forest park in Queensland, on foot. A network of graded trails entreats visitors to sample the luxuriant vegetation in the Palmerston section of the park, south of the Russell River, which is renowned for its generous spill of waterfalls.
Especially beside creeks, walkers may be startled by the raucous screeches of sulfur-crested cockatoos or see smaller bush birds like the scrub-wren or thornbill flitting through the forest understory. High in the canopy, the flashes of brilliant crimson belong to king parrots dining on seeds, fruit, leaf buds, and blossoms. Whatever the perspective, from treetops to leaf-strewn forest floor the Wet Tropics is a true masterpiece, a verdant green canvas lavishly painted with some of the world's most precious and vibrant wildlife.