Delve into nature and millennia of culture and mythology at the ethereal Mossman Gorge, Queensland, on a guided Ngadiku Dreamtime walk.
It’s the green that gets you. It sprawls across the canopy overhead, glistens among its leaves and clings to lichen-speckled trunks below. Thick, mossy blankets of it are draped aloft boulders and softly brush against you as you pass.
At Mossman Gorge, a southeastern part of the Daintree Rainforest some 80 kilometres north of Cairns, ethereal beauty comes decked out in 50 shades of green. It’s enough to inspire every rainforest cliché out there. For the record, the canopy towers, the waterfall cascades and, yes, the foliage is aptly lush.
But it’s the serenity of the place that’ll have you quietly awestruck. Beneath the soundtrack of birdcalls, the streaming river and intermittent raindrops (after all, what would a rainforest be without rain?), you can almost hear the whispers of inhabitants past from throughout its estimated 135-million-year history.
Yes, 135 million years. After all, this is one of the oldest surviving tracts of rainforest in the world. It predates the more famous Amazon by, oh, you know, just a casual tens of millions of years.
Meet Roy and Boy
On a guided Ngadiku Dreamtime walk, led by local elder Uncle Roy Gibson, I learn to take in not only the primordial, Jurassic-like setting of the rainforest but also its ongoing role in Aboriginal Kuku Yalanji culture. A culture that has encompassed this place for almost unfathomable millennia, through to this day.
And this is how, at the rainforest’s edge, I find myself performing a perfunctory twirl and breathing in the burning wood, herbs and plumes of smoke that unfurl around my legs. This traditional smoking ceremony wards off bad spirits and welcomes us to Country. Now we may proceed.
But we do so slowly, led by Roy along the very same route he has used since childhood. He takes us around the rainforest with the casual familiarity of someone pottering about their own backyard. Which, really, isn’t too far off.
“It’s my baby,” he coos as we enter. “I was born and bred here, know it inside out.”
And what a place to grow up in. Pale, green-tinged light sifts through the chinks of the formidable canopy, and a soft whirr of birds and insects hums through the humid air. Taking in the scene, I reflect on what it must be like to call one of the world’s oldest living rainforests home.
The track meanders around the corner, and suddenly Roy exclaims, “This is my little boy!”
It takes me several moments to make out the ‘boy’ in question. Almost perfectly camouflaged on a green and brown specked branch is a Boyd’s forest dragon, endemic to the region (incredibly, a quarter of species in the Wet Tropics are found nowhere else*). He has a jagged spine and three spiky barbs protruding in a scaly mohawk along the back of his head.
“What’s his name?” I ask, leaning closer.
“His name is Boy!” cackles Roy.**
Pausing now and then to take in Roy’s insights, we walk on in silence as the raindrops grow steadier. Locals say that Mossman Gorge is at its most scenic during rainfall, when its leaves gleam and its aromas are drawn out by the downpour. Sure enough, as the rain filters through the treetops, the scene is lent a primordial, almost spiritual feel.
Ancient yet alive
But for such an ancient swathe of land, the Daintree is holding up pretty well.*** And very much alive. From the tiniest insect skulking along the forest floor or burrowing into a dead branch, to the nearly-2-metre-tall cassowaries reputedly wandering about,**** to the spectacular procession of flowers, fungi, ferns and cycads — everything has its place. And is uniquely adapted to its little (or not -so-little) niche of the ecosystem. Hence why tropical rainforests like this are the most biodiverse places on earth.***** Serene it may be, but this place remains an epicentre of buzzing, squawking, scuttering life.
And to state the obvious, no one knows this — and how intricately interconnected all these moving parts are — better than the Aboriginal peoples of the Daintree. Take something as minute as sawdust. When the Kuku Yalanji spotted sawdust in a fallen tree, Roy explains, they knew it meant that there were witchetty grubs (aka wood-eating moth larvae) about. Which meant hollow logs would soon be there for the taking, perfect for crafting canoes from.
For the Kuku Yalanji, this part of the rainforest has long been like a living, breathing one-stop shop. Branches are stocked with a seasonal assortment of nuts and berries, the river supplies fish, and then there’s brush-turkey hunting season.
Some traditional culinary delights are right under our unsuspecting noses. Roy takes a sample of the Daintree nut and, with a loud crack, splits it open on a rock. It’d take only eight of these minuscule nuts to make a person totally full, he swears, eagerly swallowing the flesh inside. Sampling its twin, I’m met with an interesting taste which the food blogger next to me describes as a blend of tamarind and coconut. Not bad at all.
Beyond food, this place has also served as a sort of pharmacy, hardware store and more. The Kuku Yalanji have also crafted medicine, and building materials for shields, boomerangs and traditional bark shelters from the all-natural wares of the rainforest.
A potential means of communication is even on offer in the form of the gargantuan exposed buttress roots of a huge red cedar tree: when hit with a rock, the deep, booming sound reverberates around the surrounding forest. This nifty trick, as Roy explains, was traditionally used to signal when someone was injured or sick so help could reach them quickly.
But for all its generous bounty of goods and wares, the rainforest is far from an all-benevolent nurturer. Take the stinging tree. It grows only in the sparse patches of sunlight, forming an almost heart shape, dotted with enticing little red cherries. As the name suggests, however, the plant is laced with tiny, stinging mottles that can itch for months. And if you get stung, then scratch or apply water — the usual, instinctive reactions — it’ll only make it all worse.
Most powerful of all is hearing firsthand the rainforest’s role in the Dreamtime. Seated in a clearing that serves as a natural amphitheatre, we’re asked to close our eyes and listen to a traditional cultural performance by local storyteller Rob.
Combined with the rainforest soundscape, his melodic retelling of ancestral Dreaming stories — integral to the way of life here for millennia — weaves me into a semi-trance, until … silence. I reopen my eyes and, in the dappled sunlight, the landscape around us is imbued with a whole new significance.
Hues of meaning
Pressing on, the sound of the waters gradually grows closer. Through gaps between the trees, I begin to steal glances of the star attraction of this corner of the Daintree: the colourful waters of Mossman River itself.
Huge, lichen-splotched granite boulders lie dormant, their edges rounded smooth by centuries of rushing water — and what water it is. Up close it’s impeccably clear and, yep, you guessed it: green. Really green. Depending on when it last rained, the water fluctuates from green-cordial-style lime to gleaming emerald to the muted olive it is during my visit. I make a mental note to return during summer because, green or not, this is one hell of a swimming spot.*****
After some strong Daintree tea and locally made damper, we leave the rainforest and set out for our final stop, the Mossman Gorge Centre.
This Centre, along with the guided Dreamtime walks, were part of Roy’s vision, some 20 years in the making, to share this special part of the Daintree with visitors. Opening in 2012, and boasting an on-site training facility, the Centre is an important source of employment and traineeships for the local community. Indigenous staff make up 90% of the workforce.
The Mossman Gorge Centre is also a huge stride forward environmentally, by funneling visitors to the eponymous gorge either on foot or aboard eco-friendly electric buses rather than driving there directly. Thus saving the pristine rainforest environment, wildlife and most importantly the Aboriginal community who live there from the risk of collisions, exhaust fume pollution and free-for-all parking that were previously bugbears when some 90,000 vehicles per year used to travel along the winding, dead-end road to the gorge.*******
The Centre also has an on-site restaurant, the Mayi Cafe (mayi = bush tucker), where we finished up our walk by enjoying a sample of tasty local produce — namely saltwater barramundi paired with lemon-myrtle butter — and checking out some Far North Queensland Indigenous art.
Which I enjoy, don’t get me wrong. But my mind is still stuck on the hidden depth of the landscape I’d just seen. And struck by how much detail I would have missed without being guided around the rainforest by the ultimate local — a local with thousands of years of insight up his sleeve and the deepest of connections to this place.
It helped redirect our gaze beyond the trees to see the forest, as it were, in all its natural and cultural glory. In the end it wasn’t the palette of seemingly every shade of green that stayed with me, but the varied hues of meaning of this ancient rainforest.
Note: This is an edited version of a story that originally appeared in Australian Traveller. My travels here were supported by Voyagers Indigenous Tourism and Tigerair.
*It’s a pretty staggering line-up: more than 700 plant species are endemic to the area, and according to the Wet Tropics Management Authority:
Some of the ancient plants in the rainforest have been around for hundreds of millions of years. The Wet Tropics provides an unparalleled living record of the ecological and evolutionary processes that shaped the flora and fauna of Australia over the past 415 million years.
Plus, the region is home to nearly half of Australia’s birds (430 in the Daintree Rainforest alone), about a third of Australia’s mammals (12 of which, including tree-kangaroos, musky rat-kangaroos, striped possums and green possums, are found nowhere else on earth), 30% of Australia’s frog and reptile species, 65% of the country’s bat and butterfly species, about 12,000 insect species (source here), and just over one-third of our freshwater fish. *catches breath* All this in a region covering just 1% of the Australian continent.
**Presumably at my dumb, earnest white girl question.
***That’s not to say it’s totally protected and safe from any threats, just quietly. Clearing for residential and agricultural development, the negative impacts of tourism, invasive weeds and feral animal species, and of course climate change are among the threats to the Daintree Rainforest overall today. According to not-for-profit Rainforest Rescue (noting this is for the entire Daintree area, not the Mossman Gorge region specifically):
Between five to ten allotments are developed for rural residential housing every year.
****Still never seen one in the wild 🙁
*****Just one hectare of the Daintree can contain more than 30,000 species of animals and plants (source). Crazy, right?
******After returning six years later, can confirm.
*******This was controversial with locals in the early days. But in the words of Sustainability Matters:
Prior to the centre being constructed, up to 90,000 vehicles used to travel up the gorge each year along a winding, narrow dead-end road… All of this traffic passed through the Mossman Gorge Aboriginal Community and presented safety and quality of life issues for residents.