The atmosphere seemed to shift as we rolled off the Daintree River Ferry and onto the northern bank. Afternoon light was dappled by the thickening canopy and brushed across the LandCruiser as we relaxed into the day's final drive.
Our cohort had risen well before sunrise and followed a militaristic itinerary of scenic stop-offs, as we traversed the coastline from Townsville.
The pace had been blistering and tension had risen – though everyone in our three car convoy remained in good spirits – as we raced to beat the crowds before the last ferry ran at 4:30pm. It wasn't until later that we learned the ferry actually runs until midnight. Who was the one responsible for that Google search?
BEYOND THE RIVER
By this point the calming effect of the rainforest had started to wash through us and the day's hustle was soon forgotten. For me, this was new territory. I'd never been further north than the river. In fact, my memories of a childhood trip to Daintree National Park were focussed more vividly around gift-shops than the natural wonders. With the perspective of a few more years, I was happy to gaze out the window and let my mind drift into a simpler state.
Our eclectic convoy on this rainforest sojourn consisted of Hema's LandCruiser 79 dual-cab Map Patrol vehicle, with a monster V8 and more offroad mods than you could shake a UHF whip at; a 2019 Cub Escape camper, champing at the hitch for some rugged terrain, pulled by a Toyota Prado; and a 21-foot Wonderland Amaroo caravan hitched to a VW Touareg.
We were rewarded for our earlier haste with a little extra time to spend between the ferry and our destination, the Daintree Rainforest Retreat, so we took the opportunity to make a short detour toward the Daintree Discovery Centre – that was after finding the car park at Mount Alexandra Lookout too densely packed with rental-car hatchbacks for our entourage to gain access.
This proved to be a good call. After passing the Discovery Centre and spotting a few of the animated dinosaur statues lurking nearby, we came upon a living ancestor of those ancient beasts, a cassowary.
Trip photographer Phil snapped us all out of our nature-induced trances with a yell as we rounded a bend. He quickly explained that he'd spotted the bird crossing the road in the other direction.
A quick roundabout manoeuvre had us hot on the trail. Phil, videographer Anna and myself hopped out of the car and stalked along the roadside as the creature picked its way back into the dense undergrowth. We were careful to keep a distance from the flightless feathered spectacle – having just exchanged anecdotes of cassowary dangers on the drive, none of us wanted to find out if the stories of vicious attacks were true. Tim, for his part, kept the car idling nearby.
LIVING DOWN A CASSOWARY
After our ornithological episode we continued a short distance to our base-camp for the next two nights. We booked our stay at Daintree Rainforest Retreat at the very last minute when we had discovered that the tracks we'd intended to drive around Townsville were all closed by recent rain.
In those kinds of situations there's generally a mild air of trepidation upon arrival, but in this case we were pleased to discover cheerful red buildings set back into the forest, comfortable beds and well maintained facilities. Better still, it was right across the road from the Cow Bay Hotel, and by this point we were all ready for a feed.
The promise of pub fare had all eight of us sitting on the deck out the front of the hotel in no time. To one side was a long table of what we could only assume was a contingent of local regulars, winding down over glasses dripping with condensation and a few fresh yarns (probably a few recycled, too). Friendly staff, good food and a laid-back vibe; pending any new discoveries, we expected to return the following night.
THE BLOOMING BLOOMFIELD
The early morning that followed was embraced with varied levels of enthusiasm. Some sorted gear for the day ahead, Mark from Wonderland whipped up a five-star breakfast for the whole crew with an unplanned assortment of ingredients from the caravan's ample fridge, while some seemed to teeter on the brink of wakefulness as though their presence was no more than pretence so early in the day.
We drove north as the sky slowly brightened. With our windows down as we passed the Daintree Tea plantation, sweetened air rushed into the LandCruiser, helping our late-risers to recover their senses. Cape Tribulation Road led us back to the coast, treating us to an orange sunrise over water that flickered between the trees. We were on our way to the Bloomfield Track to put the Cub and Wonderland through their paces with some northern offroad exposure.
You're likely to receive mixed sentiments when talking about the Bloomfield, which runs up the coast from Cape Tribulation for 30-or-so kilometres to the town of Wujal Wujal. It's a popular thoroughfare for those heading up to The Tip, an easy day trip for folks holidaying at Cape Trib and a doable drive for novice 4WDers.
When the track was built in the early 80s there was a great deal of controversy surrounding the decision to chop through the Daintree Rainforest, manifesting in protests and blockades. Due to these concerns, the track was built without switchbacks to reduce the amount of forest that needed to be sacrificed, and as a result there are some sustained steep sections with gradients in the mid 30s.
The hubbub took place well before the rainforest was granted World Heritage listing, although it's easy to imagine that the wrath of conservationists over the building of the track only fuelled campaigning for the classification. In recent years the steep sections up the Cowie and Donovan Ranges have been paved, making it a much easier drive and souring the experience for some offroad purists.
The track looked to be in good knick – we passed the grading crew at work further on – so we dropped tyre pressures and set off. We reached the first river crossing, which also happens to be the most picturesque, and decided to spend some time there getting a feel for the ease with which both the Cub camper and Wonderland caravan could negotiate the rocky bottom – both seemed effortless. While we were there we also witnessed just how busy the track is these days, as vehicles came and went every five or ten minutes.
A SLICE OF EVERYTHING
As far as the caravan was concerned, we expected the true challenge would be the steep sections. Kev from Wonderland pushed the Touareg up the long, steep Cowie Range ascent without faltering and the van followed dutifully. At the top we took in the views; no doubt the VW had earned a quick break.
The Cub Camper's offroad pedigree meant we'd have to be more imaginative to test its mettle, but the opportunity soon presented itself. Completely unphased by the suggestion that he back the trailer down a dry creek bed strewn with boulders the size of microwaves (or should we say letterboxes, in those parts), Matt from Cub artfully manoeuvred the nimble trailer back about 30 metres before pulling forward so that the camper's right wheel rolled onto the biggest boulder in sight, resting into an impressive stance.
Having crossed through the lush forest without incident, we pushed on through Wujal Wujal for our lunch spot, the Lion's Den Hotel. If you like a remote pub with a bit of character, then the Lion's Den is for you. Inside, it's jam packed with curiosities and local doo-dads, and the walls are utterly covered with the signatures of those who've passed through on earlier journeys. Those looking for more than a feed can set up out back in the caravan park or book a cabin for a night or two. I can't speak from experience, but it strikes me as the kind of place that would host some memorable evenings.
With a good feed in our bellies, we headed south to spend some time in Wujal Wujal. Unfortunately, the town's Art and Culture Centre was closed for building work, so we passed on by and headed to the nearby waterfalls. The monstrous cascades sit across a large pool, which is surrounded by impressive rock walls. Rumour has it there's a big ol' croc lurking in the water at the base of the falls, so I kept one eye on the water as I scrambled around the boulders in search of the ideal vantage point.
Back down the Bloomfield and onward to base camp, we parked the rigs and arrived to discover that since it was Thursday, it was pizza night at the Cow Bay Hotel. I'd consider myself a fair connoisseur of the dish, but we had among us someone even more qualified to speak on such things; one of our party made no secret that he moonlights as a wood-fire pizza chef. Needless to say, we all watched on as he sampled his first slice. The verdict was evident; he was impressed. With another pre-dawn departure time scheduled for the following day, I squirrelled a couple of pieces away at the motel for a quick breakfast.
RESTORATION IN THE RAINFOREST
Our final morning in Tropical North Queensland had us heading back up the idyllic Cape Tribulation Camping area for a sunrise photo shoot. If you're after a patch of paradise to pitch a tent on, there are few places better than this. To one side, the campground is bordered by a thick wall of rainforest, while the other side faces the beach.
As others went about setting up for the shoot, Phil and I took one of the short walking tracks that opens onto a wide sandy beach, which was cast in the orange light of a rising sun. It feels cruel that swimming on these picturesque beaches is so dangerous. However, after having been assured that a fairly hefty croc made residence at the creek on one end of the beach, we felt no temptation to wade into the glowing sea.
The morning passed by and swollen SD cards were traded for fresh ones. When everything had been captured we packed up and made a dash for Cairns, arriving just in time for those of us departing by air to settle in for our flight. I picked up where I'd left off reading after my flight into Townsville earlier that week. Funny, I thought, all those days in a tropical paradise and I hadn't once picked up my book – we'd been so busy. Yet in spite of that I left feeling refreshed and energised. The physiological effects of nature are well outside of my pay-grade, but one thing was obvious as we taxied down the runway; there's a certain restorative property to the Daintree Rainforest that I've not experienced anywhere else.