RTW Post #23: A Cautionary Tale

11/26/13 - 11/29/13: Cairns, Queensland, Australia

We celebrated Thanksgiving in an igloo by the sea in 100 degree heat with crocodiles swimming off shore. This sounds like the ravings of a lunatic, but I can assure you that it’s all true.

Igloo By The Sea

After flying north to Cairns, Australia, we secured a rental car and checked into our airbnb on Trinity Beach. The place was called “igloo by the sea” because the small abode was shaped like an igloo, only this igloo was formed out of stucco instead of ice. Think "Flintstones" without the dinosaurs and foot-powered cars. The surrounding terrain reinforced the prehistoric motif, with the wild foliage, towering palm trees, and, like I said, crocodiles off shore. It’s not everyday you see warnings on the beach to watch out for saltwater crocodiles, but as we walked onto the sand we saw a big sign stating that just two days prior a crocodile had been sighted in the water. Katie was unnerved. I can’t say this news, or the “beware of jellies” alerts, made for romantic strolls on the beach. No, it was more like me strolling while Katie dragged me away from the water’s edge; an affectionate hand-in-hand tug-of-war. I couldn’t blame her since two of the deadliest creatures on earth could be floating in the ocean beside us. No, not crocodiles. Jellyfish. One being the box jellyfish, which is the size of a grapefruit and has the stinging power to kill a human. The other is the irukandji jellyfish. It’s as small as a pinhead but can deliver a sting 100 times more potent than a cobra. Suffice to say, we wouldn’t be cooling our heals in the water of Trinity Beach.

Warning: Crocodile Sighting!!

Stories like this, filled with threats of imminent danger hidden in the world around us, were commonplace in Australia. We ran into many-a-person who was happy to recount tales of death dolled out from the indiscriminate power of nature. One such person was our tour guide, Matthew, who worked for Billy Tea’s Safaris. Since we were only a hop, skip, and a jump away from Australia’s Daintree Rainforest it seemed a shame not to see it, so we signed up for a day trip through the jungle with Billy Tea’s. Luckily, we survived to tell the tale…

The Unsuspecting Tourist

After buckling into a modified off-road landcruiser with 10 other guests, we rumbled our way north to Daintree River where we boarded a small ferry that took us down the waterway. Our guide on the boat, Tui, was happy to feed us stories about the famous saltwater crocodiles that lived on the river. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: “But I thought they were saltwater crocodiles, not freshwater crocodiles.” Yes, that’s correct. But “salties,” more formally known as estuarine crocodiles, don’t like to live in saltwater, they like to live in freshwater. They only use the ocean to travel up and down the coast and visit different estuaries. The Daintree River happens to be one of their favorite haunts. Below the surface of the dark water are hundreds of salties ready to strike at any moment. Their leader is an alpha-male named “Scarface.” He mates with all the females in the river and kills any other males who oppose him. These crocodiles will even eat their own young…

Scooter, The Adolescent Crocodile

We had our eyes peeled for Scarface the entire time, hoping he’d rise to the surface and splash us with his mighty tail. Maybe even growl! Our adventure-seeking hearts were disappointed, though, when he failed to make an appearance. Apparently, he’s 15 feet of pure power and adrenaline with a scar etched across his face (thus the name). He would’ve been a sight to see! Instead his smaller, weaker relative appeared. His name was “Scooter” and we found him sunning himself in the mud. At approximately 7 feet long, he’s no match for Scarface, so he spends all his time on high alert, ready to bolt if the alpha should attack. We watched Scooter for a few minutes, keeping a safe distance so as not to disturb his mud bath. Aside from that, our treacherous voyage down the river turned out to be a leisurely cruise with a few small birds and a lot of murky water. But never forget, death could be waiting just below the surface…

(Seriously, though, no one swims in that water unless they’re suicidal.)

A Cassowary

Next up was a walking tour through the beautiful, exotic Daintree Rainforest. Right away we were lucky enough to spot a cassowary a few feet into the foliage. If you’ve never heard of a cassowary (as I hadn’t) it’s a large flightless bird around the size of an ostrich. Its body is covered in black plumage and its neck is long and blue with a red wattle hanging off the front. Its most distinct feature is its dinosaur-like crown, a thin ridge of bone that runs along the top of its head. These birds are endangered and protected in the rainforest. They are incredibly important to the native flora. The cassowary alone is responsible for 30 different plant species’ continued existence. Only their digestion of the seeds allows them to germinate, so if the cassowary should ever go extinct these plants would die right along with them.

The Tiny Teeth Of The Lawyer Vine

The good news is that cassowaries aren’t completely helpless. Far from it. They know how to take care of themselves. Make no mistake, my friends, these shy creatures can be surprisingly fierce when threatened. They’ve even been known to kill people!! They’ll kick you, peck you, or even eviscerate you with their razor sharp claws. So, unless you’re anxious to reenact a scene from Jurassic Park, I’d keep well away.  

As we moved away from the man-eating raptor, Matthew pointed out native plants growing on either side of us. Our feet shuffled along the wooden walkway in a pleasing promenade. Sun filtered down through the jungle canopy feeding the ground below. Naturally, we were told to walk with caution, for danger lurked all around us. The cassowary plum, for instance, is a tree that sprouts plump, delicious fruits…for cassowaries, that is. For humans, though, the sap is poisonous! One touch and a rash will cover your skin! And then there’s the lawyer vine – a tall, thick palm tree with needle-thin vines that hang down from the top. These vines appear harmless at first glance, but if one latches onto you with its tiny teeth it’s a struggle to pull free. Their fibers are so strong that Matthew has been yanked right off his motorbike while riding through jungle. He even knows a woman who was once sitting on the passenger side of a jeep with her arm hanging out the window when a lawyer vine caught on her bare arm and skinned it up to the elbow – I kid you not. So, yes, the jungle is a beguiling place filled with wonder and beauty. Just don’t touch anything.

Feeding Time

All this talk of poisonous plants and flayed skin was getting me hungry, which was perfect because lunch was right around the bend! Matthew cooked up steaks on the grill while we were led to a small kangaroo sanctuary where we were allowed to feed these adorable creatures…with care. Another guide was with us, and she told us to crouch down so that we’d be closer to their level and not appear threatening. I was happy to comply. Their legs, you know, can kick so hard they’ll break your ribs, and kangaroo boxing was not on the day’s itinerary.

Once done with our delicious steaks we drove further north to a freshwater stream for a quick swim. I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking: “But you said that saltwater crocodiles liked fresh water. They could be in there!!!”  I was thinking the same thing, but they assured us the creek was perfectly safe. Seeing as they do these tours every day, and since I hadn’t read a bad review detailing a gruesome death on Trip Advisor, I decided to risk it and cool off because it was bloody hot outside! They don’t call it a rainforest for nothing, you know. Ever since we arrived in Cairns a thin sheen of sweat blanketed us. Slipping into a cold stream of water was a welcome change, especially since the beach outside our door was strictly off-limits (per Katie).

Cooling Off In The Freshwater Stream

The water was very clear, so it encouraged confidence that a man-eating monster wasn’t concealed underneath eager for stupid tourists to take a dip. Rain had been falling on and off all day, and just then it started drizzling again. It made for a unique experience, feeling the cool, fat raindrops splash down on me as I wadded into the water. It was incredibly refreshing and definitely my favorite part of the tour. I was the first person in and then a few others joined me, even my dear, brave Katie. We enjoyed the swim as long as we could before being called back to dry land by the guides. They had a smorgasbord of tropical fruits waiting to be sampled. Unfortunately, I can’t remember most of their names, but I do remember that dragon fruit, though it was the most exotic looking, had the blandest flavor of any fruit I’ve ever eaten. It tasted like nothing, really. What a disappointment.

But I was quickly cheered up when they served us “Billy Tea.” This tea is where the tour company gets its name, so it makes sense that they’d give us a sip. It’s your standard black tea, actually, named after the billycan used to brew it. A billycan is a large metal tin once used to carry canned goods. Once emptied, early Australians would convert it to a boiling pot, placing it over an open fire to make tea. Waste not, want not. Matthew gave us a good show by swinging the boiling hot billycan filled with tea in a giant circle. The centrifugal force shoved all the loose tea leaves to the bottom of the can, effectively filtering the tea before serving it. It was a daring stunt, I’ll give him that. And as I write this I realize they even managed to make tea dangerous.

Cape Tribulation

Our final stop before journey’s end was a visit to the infamous Cape Tribulation. This is the sight where Captain Cook’s ship ran aground back in 1770 whilst navigating the Australian coastline. He called it Cape Tribulation because, as he wrote, “…here begun all our troubles.” Luckily, they managed to refloat the boat the next day, and Captain Cook continued his ardent explorations across the oceans of the world for many more illustrious years…until he was murdered by Hawaiians in 1779.

Gee, I Can't Wait To Jump Into the Ocean!

As with the ocean outside our beachfront igloo, we didn’t dare dip our toes into the beckoning water. Instead, we merely sauntered along the beach and savored the charming vista: lush green hills and undulating waves of blue. It was overcast, which was a treat since it knocked the temperature down few notches. Mangrove trees were growing on one end of the bay with pools of salty water rippling at their roots. I was keen to walk amongst them but Katie warned that crocodiles could be laying in wait. On second thought, we climbed up to a viewpoint. No need to tempt fate!

On the long drive home my eyelids drooped. I found myself drifting in and out of consciousness. I would’ve been fearful of the getting my arm flayed if there’d been any windows open, but we were perfectly safe in our little off-road cocoon. When we arrived home our stomachs rumbled for dinner. We prepared our meal and said a note of thanks for family, friends, and Thanksgiving leftovers. It’s even better the next day, don’t you think? Just make sure you get the food nice and hot before you eat it or you could get a foodborne illness. I bet there’s an Aussie out there who could tell me a tale or two about the terrors of microwaved meals…