Delve into culture, mythology and millennia of history 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 amid 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 section 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, pre-dating the more famous Amazon by, oh, you know, just 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 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.”
Not a bad place to grow up in, either. 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.
As the track meanders around the corner, Roy exclaims, “This is my little boy!”
It takes me several moments to make out the ‘boy’ in question. Almost camouflaged with a green and brown specked vine is a Boyd’s forest dragon, endemic to the region (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 an almost spiritual, primordial feel.
Ancient yet alive
But for such an ancient swathe of land, the Daintree is holding up pretty well. After all, the rainforest is where Mother Nature shows off her creativity to an extent that few other ecosystems can rival. From the tiniest insect skulking along the forest floor to the cassowaries reputedly wandering about, each of the rainforest’s components is finetuned by its uniqueness and isolation, and interwoven in a particularly intricate tapestry. It may be serene, but this place also remains an epicentre of life.
For the Kuku Yalanji in particular, this rainforest has long been like a living, breathing one-stop shop (and more). Branches are stocked with a seasonal assortment of nuts and berries, the river supplies fish, and then there’s bush turkey hunting season.
Some traditional culinary delights are right under our unsuspecting noses. Roy takes a sample of the Daintree Nut and, with a sudden 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 taste a blend of tamarind and coconut. Not bad.
Beyond food, the Kuku Yalanji have also crafted medicine, and building materials for canoes, shields, boomerangs and traditional bark shelters from the wares of the rainforest. A potential means of communication is even on offer in the form of the often gargantuan buttress roots.
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 worsened by the usual instinctive reactions of scratching or applying water.
More powerful still is hearing firsthand the rainforest’s role in the Dreamtime. Seated in a natural amphitheatre, we’re treated to a traditional performance and storytelling by Rob.
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 this rainforest’s star attraction: 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.
It was Roy’s vision, some 20 years in the making, to share this special part of the Daintree with visitors through not only guided Dreamtime walks but also the nearby Mossman Gorge Centre — our final stop. Opening in 2012 with 90 per cent Indigenous staff and an on-site training facility, the Centre is an important source of employment and traineeships for the local community.
After some strong Daintree tea and local damper, we leave the rainforest and set out for the Centre to enjoy a sample of tasty local produce and 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 seen, and how much detail I’d have missed without being guided by the ultimate local — a local with centuries of insight up his sleeve.
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 rainforest’s varied hues of meaning.