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Australia's Tropical Northeast

Travelers discover the wonders down under in the soaring forests and teeming reefs of Australia's Tropical North Queensland.

  • Flightless southern cassowary, northeastern Australia, image
    Photo caption
    Find a flightless southern cassowary in an aviary near Kuranda, Australia.
  • Guide Rodney Dockrill, Tropical North Queensland, Australia, image
    Photo caption
    Guide Rodney Dockrill points out the Australian rain forest’s secrets.
  • Lumholtz's tree kangaroo, northeastern Australia, image
    Photo caption
    A Lumholtz's tree kangaroo perches in the Australian rain forest.
  • Percula clown fish in anemone, image
    Photo caption
    A percula clown fish peeks from an anemone.
  • Scuba divers with fish at the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, image
    Photo caption
    Divers circle a school of fish at the Great Barrier Reef.
  • View from Kuranda Scenic Railway, Australia, image
    Photo caption
    The Kuranda Scenic Railway winds through the Barron Gorge National Park.

Just when is a gal supposed to blink in a place like this? Sultry heat and beachside dreaminess are usually my cue to relax and close my eyes. But along Australia’s tropical northeast coast—the only place where two World Heritage areas meet—there’s simply too much natural wonder to miss. Below the waves, Technicolor corals and surreal sea creatures flourish along the legendary Great Barrier Reef. On land, the equally vivid Wet Tropics of Queensland harbors over 3,000 plant species, a third of Australia’s mammal species, nearly half the country’s bird species, and 60 percent of its butterfly species. Hence my permanent stare.

The condition appeared almost as soon as I landed in Cairns (pronounced cans by the locals), the seaside town that’s the hub of Tropical North Queensland. Only a three-hour flight from Sydney, Cairns is the prime jumping-off point for excursions to the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics. It’s unabashedly tourist oriented, but beyond the stores hawking opals and Ugg boots, Cairns boasts an eclectic regional art gallery, restaurants serving everything from Balinese to bush tucker, and a botanical garden that hosts orchids, aboriginal medicinal plants, and the orange-footed scrub fowl, among other treasures. Best of all, the city has a waterfront swimming lagoon where tourists and locals splash well into the night.

Eager to see the region’s famous animal life, I skip the pool party in favor of the Cairns Night Zoo, which kicks off with a barbecue, an open bar, and a jolly guitarist performing Australian folk songs. After dinner, the well-lubricated crowd merrily cuddles koalas, feeds kangaroos, and marvels at spiny echidnas. The mood sobers at the sight of the saltwater crocodiles, however. Even from a safe distance, the primordial-looking “salties” are terrifying: over 600 pounds of muscle and menace, lunging and snapping at a dangled fish snack. We shake off our fright with another round of drinks and a rousing rendition of “Waltzing Matilda,” before the night ends with a surprise photo op: a huge gray wombat squirming in its handler’s lap like a kid trying to escape a shopping-mall Santa.

More critter encounters await in the rain forest village of Kuranda. Although it’s only a half-hour drive from Cairns, I opt for the vintage Kuranda Scenic Railway, which maneuvers 93 curves, 37 bridges, and 15 hand-carved tunnels as it climbs through dramatic Barron Gorge National Park—just one piece in the patchwork of 41 national parks and state forests that make up the 2.2-million-acre Wet Tropics. On arrival, I make a beeline for the butterfly sanctuary to watch the Cairns birdwing, Australia’s largest native butterfly, flap its wings, which can span nearly six inches—no doubt influencing events on the other side of the planet. Inside the nearby Birdworld aviary, colorful macaws and lorikeets fly overhead as I approach another winged wonder: the flightless southern cassowary. Up close, the bird looks positively extraterrestrial, with an electric-blue neck, cherry-red wattles, and a hornlike crest. Raising itself to my eye level, the cassowary bats its long lashes, sealing my first Australian crush.

Returning from Kuranda, I sail above the birds’ natural habitat on the Skyrail, an aerial gondola with rain forest views so sweeping they served as a reference for the forest scenes in Avatar. Below me, huge basket ferns sprawl like penthouses and metallic starlings chatter in their nests. Larger mammals, like the elusive Lumholtz’s tree kangaroo, evade my gaze. “Rain forest creatures don’t want to be seen,” explains ranger Lance Neville, “but at any one time a hundred pairs of eyes are watching you.”

While the Skyrail presents a new angle on the Wet Tropics, I discover a more timeless perspective an hour’s drive north of Cairns at Mossman Gorge, where aboriginal guide Rodney Dockrill takes me through dense rain forest long inhabited by the Kuku Yalanji people. He leads me to sacred birthing pools and rock paintings, points out the buttress roots that were once used to make boomerangs, and offers me a tangy taste of green tree ant. Packed with vitamin C, the insect is the perfect appetizer before that night’s dinner: savory crocodile cheesecake, served in the treetop restaurant at Silky Oaks Lodge.

The crocodiles have their revenge the next morning, refusing to appear at their usual sunning spots along the Daintree River as I cruise its mangrove-lined waters—the first stop on a tour through the northern reaches of Daintree National Park. There is still plenty to see: cannonball nuts the size of soccer balls, a lone osprey in a gum tree, a colony of bats. As the boat captain regales us with crocodile stories (“Two little boys were playing along the riverbank with their puppy dog . . .”), I wonder at the hardy souls who reside in the wilderness north of the ferry crossing, without power, water, a sewage system, or cell-phone towers.

At least they have the Daintree Ice Cream Company, which uses a generator and solar power to chill such exotic flavors as creamy soursop, nutty wattleseed, and sweet mamey sapote. You won’t find idiot fruit on the menu, as the seeds are toxic enough to kill a cow, but the primitive plant deserves appreciation for ensuring the Daintree’s protection. In 1970, scientists dated the species back 135 million years to the Gondwana supercontinent, establishing the rain forest as an ecosystem that outlasted the dinosaurs. Such survival depended on clever strategies still on display in the forest today, from the Boyd’s forest dragon, whose precise camouflage blends its lizard form seamlessly into a tree trunk, to the aptly named wait-a-while, a vine whose wicked barbs catch on people’s clothing in an attempt to hitch a ride up into the sunlit canopy.

Having escaped the plant’s clutches, I arrive at Cape Tribulation (so named by a frustrated James Cook when his ship hit a reef here in 1770), a headland where the Daintree gives way to the waters of the Great Barrier Reef. Giddily I anticipate the colorful characters that wait somewhere beneath the waves, from angelfish and sand-sucking sea cucumbers to the many-spotted sweetlips—dead ringers for Mick Jagger.

Next morning I am bound for Agincourt Reef, a maze of coral on the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef, where a floating facility supports snorkelers, scuba divers, and even a semi-submersible submarine. Eagerly I board the vessel and it surges into an underwater wonderland. All around me, damselfish shift from blue to green like Christmas lights. Shimmering schools of silvery fish dart past coral shaped into delicate plates, spiky horns, and boulders the size of minivans. I spy giant clams with glowing indigo interiors, coral-crunching parrot fish, black-and-white-striped sergeant majors—even a reef shark gliding harmlessly along the sandy floor. The day ends too quickly. As the ship turns landward and begins its rhythmic rise and fall, I mentally run through the day’s kaleidoscope of colors, the jigsaw puzzle of shapes and sizes. Sighing with satisfaction, I lean back and finally close my eyes.

Photography by Andréa Johnson; courtesy of Ben Lewis (percula clown fish, divers at Great Barrier Reef)

This article was first published in March 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.