Among its other firsts for us, Australia was the first place we saw a rainforest. Jungle isn’t an image that people usually associate with Australia. But the northeastern state of Queensland—especially at its northern end where it heads toward New Guinea—contains mountainous areas covered in dense tropical forest.
We stayed in that jungle at the luxurious Silky Oaks rainforest lodge near Mossman Gorge and drove north into Daintree National Park. Later we semi-camped (in a canvas tent cabin with beds) in the woods at Lamington National Park south of Brisbane. Lamington is an old collapsed volcano covered in temperate rainforest, which is drier than the tropical rainforest farther north around Silky Oaks. (Because Australia is in the southern hemisphere, things get warmer and more tropical as you head north rather than south.)
Melissa and I have spent lots of time in forests in the United States. We’re used to tall trees and thick green undergrowth. But there’s something different about being in a rainforest. It feels deeper, more lush and humid, full of shadows and sounds (bird calls, things falling). At ground level, huge humped buttress roots curve away from the base of trees like thick snakes. Each big tree reaching up to the sky looks like its own ecosystem, its crevices and branches covered with vines and ferns and other plants.
One thing that made Australian rainforests extra special for us was the wildlife, which doesn’t look like anything we’re used to. Back home, if you’re walking in the woods and you hear a rustling in the underbrush, it’s usually a squirrel or a chipmunk. In Australia, we’d hear that sound and see creatures that looked like miniature kangaroos (pademelons and wallabies) hopping off into the distance. Other forest dwellers that were exotic to us included cockatoos and parrots, neon blue butterflies, rodent-like pointy-nosed bandicoots, and large black brush-turkeys with red heads and vertical fan-like tails.
The brush-turkeys have an unusual type of nest: a huge mound of dirt and leaves that they pile up with their beaks and feet. (One mound we saw was about 2 feet high and 10 feet long.) They lay their eggs in the mound, and the heat from the rotting vegetation incubates the eggs without the turkeys having to sit on them. The mounds are used year after year and get a little bigger each time.
Our campsite in Lamington National Park was surrounded by wildlife. One day, while Melissa was dozing in the tent and I was sitting under the awning outside, I leapt up and yelled in a fluster, “Melissa, there’s a dragon walking past our tent!” Down the gravel path came a 4-foot-long monitor lizard (called a goanna), looking like a slightly smaller version of a Komodo dragon. It sauntered by paying no attention to us—which was for the best, since we later learned that goannas can have a very painful bite.
Lamington was full of unusual bird sounds. There was the whipbird, whose call sounds like a sharp, loud, electric crack (it reminded me of something from a sci-fi movie); the mockingbird-like lyrebird, which repeats other birds’ songs; and an unseen bird we nicknamed the alarm-clock bird for its tendency to repeat the same note over and over for long periods.
The most amazing bird we encountered was an avian artist called the satin bowerbird. We never saw the bird itself, but we did see its handiwork, a display that males build to impress potential female mates. This bird’s bower consisted of twigs and grasses piled into a U shape (like an inverted arch). The area in front of the bower was decorated with neatly arranged blue objects: small blue plums and flower petals, but also blue bottle caps, caps from ballpoint pens, and the piece de resistance, a blue disposable razor. The guide at Lamington who showed us the bower said that different varieties of male bowerbirds use different color schemes, designed to match the color of the birds themselves.
Lamington National Park was reputedly home to koalas, but despite lots of peering up tall trees, we never managed to spot one. The only koalas we saw in Australia were in captivity, at the Wildlife Habitat zoo in Port Douglas and the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary near Brisbane.
An Aboriginal View of the Forest
Humans have also been part of the rainforest ecosystem in Australia for about 50,000 years. In Mossman Gorge National Park, we took a wonderful walking tour of the rainforest with members of the local Kuku Yalanji aboriginal community (the Ngadiku Dreamtime Walk). Our guide, Raymond, took us along forest trails, stopping at various trees and plants to tell us about their uses or (in the case of a stinging tree) their dangers. He fed us nuts from the forest, led us along a creek past a shady pool surrounded by mossy rocks that was traditionally the women’s bathing pool for his community, and rubbed different rocks in the water to make pigment colors for painting bodies and ceramics.
At one point in the walk, we came around a bend in the trail and glimpsed a wonder through the filtered light and hanging vines. It was a huge mass of strangler figs, with three or four big trunks and many smaller ones twining upward and meeting high above the ground, forming one vast tree with a hollow center. (Strangler figs grow from seeds that birds drop in the crooks of other trees. As the fig’s roots grow down toward the soil, they envelope the host tree and sometimes kill it.)
That massive tree form was as soaring, buttressed, smooth, and gray as any cathedral. Raymond said that the tree was perhaps 1,000 years old and that his community had performed initiations and other ceremonies there for many years. Soon after, we saw another “cathedral” fig, almost as tall and twisting as the first one.
Raymond’s accent and English could be hard to understand, and we strained to follow his words. At one point he told a story that struck us about his grandmother. When she was a girl, some officials came looking for children, and her mother, who was a great weaver, hid the daughter in a huge woven bag and said “there is no girl here.” Later, we realized that the story must date to the not-so-distant period when Aboriginal children were systematically taken away from their parents to be raised in white families or institutions. How blinkered societies can be! And how important it is to remember and acknowledge that.