Soon after we arrived, we knew that this stop on the Australian leg of our trip would be unique from all the rest. Our journey took us north to the ecologically fascinating Cairns, where the Great Barrier Reef curves inward and nestles up to the Daintree Rainforest.
An octopus' garden
Photo disclaimer: all the amazing pictures of fishies and people in this section were taken by one of our guides aboard the ship :)
On our first full day up north, we headed out for an all-day snorkeling trip on the reef. Before we hopped aboard, we made sure to pop enough Dramamine for a whole pirate ship, prepping our game faces for the rough seas on the way to the snorkel site.
The reef is surprisingly close to the surface, so it was easy to dive down for a closer inspection of the buzzing community of fish, mollusks, turtles, and more that call it home. This shallow depth also allows for increased light, letting you see the brilliance of the many-colored corals which would be washed out further down.
We particularly loved diving down to see the huge, shimmery-eyed Giant Clams, which slam shut when you wave a hand over them.
Our final stop of the trip was at a cleaning station, where turtles come to get algae and other grime cleaned off of them by brightly-colored wrasses. Luckily, we saw a few turtles being cleaned before they became embarrassed at getting caught in the bath and swam away.
And, of course, we found Nemo.
The next morning, we drove north into the Daintree Rainforest to what we thought would be a self-guided romp through the trees.
When we arrived at the spot the Tripadvisor entry pointed us to, however, it was the backyard of a man who gave walking tours around his World Heritage parcel of land. The four-hour tour would be starting in a bit, he said, after he'd finished his lunch, so we downed a quick Snickers bar and prepared for a good long traipse.
It felt a bit random at first, but once we started walking around with our guide it was clear we'd made the right choice. He was, without a doubt, the most knowledgeable and scientifically/culturally curious person we've ever met. He was loaded with facts about the plants and animals in the forest, carefully explaining the relationships between them and the former Aboriginal inhabitants.
One of his stories of partnerships between Aboriginal people and rainforest animals that we especially loved is that of the butcher bird. These birds eat lizards, but when they encounter one that's too big for them to take down on their own such as a python or giant goana, they fly to the nearest human and start squawking at them. If the human then follows the bird, it will lead them back to the reptile and wait for them to kill it. The humans benefit from the early warning system about large, dangerous pythons, and the birds happily accept some snake meat for their services.
Our guide was also an absolute ace at spotting inconspicuous creatures. We definitely would have missed 90% of the animals we encountered without his careful eye. We constantly stopped to look at a seemingly ordinary branch, only to find something expertly camouflaged living on it. Did you spot the spider above on your first try? We sure didn't.
It was a truly amazing experience to meet somebody so in tune with a piece of land and the life within it, and without the super vague Tripadvisor entry we might never have found him at all!
Living fossils in the ancient forest
As you walk through the forest, you start to get the feeling that time has forgotten this place, and you'd be right.
A little background: during the early Jurassic period, the huge prehistoric landmass known as Gondwana (which included Australia, Africa, Antarctica, South America, India, and the Arabian Peninsula) started to break apart into the continents we know today. At the time, most of the earth was covered in lush rainforest. Then, about 55 million years ago, Australia started to split away from what remained of this landmass, and the once dominant rainforest began to retreat toward the equator as the earth's climate cooled. Today, the rainforests of northern Australia and Papua New Guinea are the last remnants of Gondwanan rainforest, the oldest on the planet.
For this reason, the flora and fauna have had to evolve relatively little to adapt to the changing world. Many of the world's remaining primitive plants and trees are here, as well as reptile species that likely bumped elbows with dinosaurs.
There's also the cassowary, an impressively giant living fossil of a bird which we were lucky enough to see on our guide's driveway. With only about 2000 left in all of Australia, we didn't think we'd ever actually get to see one in the wild. This fella must have sensed his celebrity, as he strutted down the road in front of our Toyota Corolla with his chick in tow for about 100 meters before disappearing into the trees.
We've got a brief stopover in Sydney, our last destination in what has felt like the shortest month ever in Australia.