Thursday, August 30, 2012

Northern Queensland Part 3: Giant pythons, baby pheromones, and exotic ice cream

This is the third part in a series on a trip to the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest. See part 1 and part 2

In addition to the "discovery" of the Daintree, the 1960s were significant for another reason: aborigines won Australian citizenship and the right to receive the same wages as white people. Previously, they'd been used as unpaid labor on many of the cattle stations in Australia (and they actually weren't considered people, but part of the "Flora and Fauna"). In return for free labor, they were allowed to remain in their ancestral homes. With the right to be paid as equals secured, they were promptly kicked off the land. This happened throughout Australia, but the impact was particularly felt in the forest, which didn't become protected park land until 1981.

One of the consequences of removing the human factor from the Daintree -- a presence that had been around for tens of thousands of years -- was that the animal populations fell out of balance. Aborigines had hunted and eaten pythons. Without them keeping pythons in check, the snakes had flourished as the apex predator and were eating their way through the mammal and bird species. The Bennet's Tree Kangaroo, a small kangaroo that lives in trees, was particularly hard to find now, Neil said.
Bennet's tree kangaroo. Unfortunately, we didn't actually see one of these guys. Image source.

The pythons were practiced hunters. They'd often position themselves in ambushes for long periods of time, keeping their white underbellies flush against a tree trunk or root so they couldn't be seen, just waiting for an animal to come along looking for a bit of fruit or a seed. Pythons were particularly drawn by the pheromone signals put out when a Flying Fox bat was born and were wreaking havoc on this population.

Neil had often wondered if pythons picked up the pheromone signals of other mammals. He got his answer shortly before his wife gave birth to their first child. An old farmer who'd lived in the area for decades knocked on his door and told him the tragic tale of an Italian family that lived nearby in the 1930s.

Shortly after having their first child, the couple awoke to find a giant python in the baby's bassinet, with the baby inside the python. In his frantic run to get help, the husband drowned crossing a creek. The woman, devastated after the loss of her child and husband, returned to Italy. (The property this couple lived on was the same property Neil and his family now occupied. After the Italian woman went home, the property was unoccupied for decades, which was probably the reason the forest here was preserved: the logging companies couldn't find anyone to sell it to them).

The farmer was passing along this tale with a bit of wisdom: don't put your baby down or you risk the same fate. Neil reasoned that, just like a newborn bat gave off pheromones, a newborn child did the same. And since it was much bigger it would put out more powerful pheromones, which would likely attract the alpha python in the area. Sure enough, the morning after bringing their baby home from the hospital, he opened the front door to see a six meter snake (that's almost 20 feet!) circling the house. Even though the snake stopped its circling and disappeared back into the folds of the jungle after two weeks, Neil and his wife never let the child out of their arms for the first six months of its life, even sleeping with it. One of the parents always held the baby so its heat signature wouldn't be distinct from theirs--and the python wouldn't try to attack a grown adult. Neil figured that the indigenous people would have relied on this behavior from pythons to get themselves an easy meal after the birth of a child.

Neil recounted some other animal behavior that illustrated just how intertwined the aborigines were with the forest and how their absence had thrown things out of balance. A bird called the Black Butcherbird builds giant mounds on the ground and buries its eggs in the mound. This way the eggs are incubated but the bird doesn't have to risk its safety by sitting on a nest for weeks on end. Unfortunately, this also makes the eggs an easy snack for the Lace Monitor, a lizard that can grow to over two meters. As a result, the Butcherbird and aborigines developed a symbiotic relationship: when a monitor approached one of the egg mounds, the bird would cry out in a particular way and the aborigines -- knowing exactly where the mound was -- would come running and kill the monitor. They got a tasty meal and the bird kept its eggs safe. Thousands of years of symbiosis dies hard and these days the birds still cry out, but no one comes to help them.

It was, in many ways, a magical walk, a look into a world most of us come in contact with only a couple times a year on camping trips or day hikes, and even then we're hardly aware of what's happening around us. My favorite parts were the stands of giant fan palms, whose broad leaves created a roof in some places. This hike is definitely a worthwhile activity if you're visiting the area. We did the four hour version, but there's a two hour version as well.

After our walk we drove ten minutes south to the Heritage Lodge for lunch. The lodge's restaurant sits above a bend in Cooper Creak (which you can go swimming in, at least in this part, without fear of becoming a crocodile's lunch). In the deeper parts, the water was an amazing turquoise color. In other streams the deeper parts might be an emerald color. These hues were causes by the mineral content of the water, and were considered sacred places by the aborigines.
The blue water of Cooper Creek, seen from Heritage Lodge.

After lunch, Sharon and I went to the beach but the sun disappeared behind some clouds and the wind picked up, so we retreated back to the lodge. I didn't feel like sitting in the room, though, so I convinced her to get in the car and go explore the north side of Cape Trib, which had a short trail offering great views of the beach and mountains. We reconvened with her parents later in the evening and had an excellent dinner at a restaurant nearby called Whet, which had been recommended to us by pretty much everyone in the area (and fortunately Sharon had made a reservation there because it was quite busy).
View on the north side of Cape Trib.

Sunday was the sad day on every trip where you have to fly back home to reality. But our flight wasn't until the evening, so we could take our time getting back to Cairns. We started with breakfast at Cafe by the Sea on Thornton Beach. Despite the uninspired name, this small restaurant has the best location in the Daintree. It's steps to the beach, and we sat outside under the eucalyptus trees and watched the tide go out as we ate.
The view of Thornton Beach from Cafe by the Sea.
Thornton Beach.

Next we stopped at the Botanical Gardens, a raised boardwalk that winds through the forest closer to the shore. It was much different than the part of the forest we'd seen the previous day, but was still great to walk through, and the walk only took twenty minutes. Sharon spent much of the time trying to identify Stinging Plants.

Our final stop was at the Daintree Ice Cream Company, whose small shop is hidden behind an orchard containing all manner of tropical fruits. Sharon's dad's hobby is growing tropical fruit in his yard in Florida -- mangos, grapefruit, oranges -- so he was ecstatic. He corralled the caretaker and asked him a bunch of questions about growing fruit. The caretaker gave us a Soursop to try. If you've ever had a Starburst sour apple candy, a Soursop tastes like this, but not quite as strong. The consistency of the fruit is like a creamy peach, which put me off at first, but it is delicious. Then we walked to the ice cream stand itself, which only offered a four flavor taster. It was fine for us though, because the flavors were unique -- soursop, jackfruit, raspberry (ok, this one isn't that exotic), and wattleseed (which had a coffee flavor) -- and delicious. The orchard also has a beautiful setting, which palm trees and flowers spread throughout.
One of the amazing flowers in the orchard.
The view while eating your ice cream.

And after that we drove back along the beautiful coastal road to Cairns and the airport to fly home. If you're taking the time to visit Australia (or are living in Australia), I definitely recommend spending a couple days in the Daintree and doing a walk at Cooper Creek Wilderness.

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