A visit to tropical Australia has been at the top of my bucket list since I was 13. As we headed north on the Cook Highway, I was sure I was about to encounter a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There’s a reason UNESCO has designated this area as a World Heritage site. (Actually, there are four reasons, including geology, “exceptional natural beauty,” “superlative natural phenomena,” and the presence of endangered species.)
That’s a pretty impressive reputation. Would the Daintree live up to my expectations?
Daintree Village is several hours northwest of Cairns. Not wanting to drive all the way back to Cairns each night, we rented a room a few minutes from town—at a zoo! (No, we weren’t part of the exhibits— in fact the room was quite nice.) Daintree Wild is a private zoo filled with indigenous species. As guests, we were allowed to come and go as we pleased. I was able to get close-up photos of assorted birds, kangaroos, wallabys, and their cousins, not to mention some pretty impressive saltwater crocodiles.
After checking out the zoo, we headed into the village. A small park next to the public docks turned into an excellent birding spot. Figbirds and Helmeted Friarbirds fed in the trees, Emerald Doves hustled along the ground. I was just entranced by the butterflies, including a red and white beauty sipping nectar from the matching bottlebrush flowers.
The highlight of our time in the Daintree was the pair of river cruises offering close-up views of birds, reptiles, and plants along the Daintree River. Our first trip was at the end of the day. With the help of our well-informed guide, I quickly added several dozen birds to my life list. Realizing I was serious about my photography, he patiently maneuvered the open boat into just the right angle for capturing the best pictures. The next morning at dawn we repeated the experience with a different guide, seeing a number of new species and getting even more photos.
There we were, slowly drifting along the Daintree River. Trees lined the banks, reaching high overhead. Vines hung from branches decorated with bromeliads and orchids. Welcome Swallows darted overhead, reducing the mosquito population.
Brilliant blue Azure Kingfishers watched us pass as they waited for an opportunity to nab another fish. I was thrilled to see not one, but two Papuan Frogmouths, well camouflaged on their nests.
Shining Flycatchers were also nesting over the water. The two sexes look like completely different species—males are a solid midnight blue while females are a bright cranberry red and white, with the blue only appearing on the backs of their heads.
I was wondering what the hanging bundles of moss and lichen were, until I saw a Large-billed Gerygone emerge from one—more nests!
Of course, we all wanted to see the saltwater crocodiles that make this river such a dangerous place to take a dip. Scuff marks on the banks showed where they had earlier sunned themselves, but most were submerged in the warm water. Most—but not all! We carefully kept our arms inside the boat as our guide related true stories of past victims. (Did you know that in a crowd, it’s the smallest person who will be snatched?)
Parking the boat beneath a large tree hanging over the water, our guide used a laser to point out a huge Amethystine Python. Yikes! When we passed by at dusk on our return, we saw that the tree was home to a flock of roosting Cattle Egrets. No wonder the snake hung out there—dinner flew in every evening!
The next tree held a Green Tree Snake. It blended in so well, I began to wonder how many other snakes we passed by, never seeing them.
Night was falling by the time we returned to the dock. As we prepared to disembark, we were told to look up. Hundreds of flying foxes—huge fruit bats—were passing overhead, migrating south for the summer.
I did not want to leave. The Daintree is truly a magical place. While I’ve crossed it off my bucket list, a new entry replaces it: “Return to the Daintree.”