How to conquer the Daintree Rainforest in 4 days
Millenials may well consider anything that predates the 1980s ‘ancient’, but for something ultra-long in the tooth – more than 100 million years old, that is – look no further than the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest.
It’s home to the world’s highest concentration of plants once munched by dinosaurs and the stomping ground for Aussie Big Bird, the flightless Southern Cassowary – the third tallest and second heaviest bird in the world.
So, step back (or zipline) through time in the real-life set of Avatar – the only place in the world where two World Heritage icons meet; the world’s oldest rainforest and the largest living structure on Earth, the Great Barrier Reef.
DAY 1 – Drive from Cairns to the Daintree Rainforest
Spanning a breathtakingly beautiful and biodiverse area between Mossman Gorge and the Bloomfield River, the Daintree Rainforest is easily accessible by road from Cairns: approximately a two-hour drive along the Captain Cook Highway, recognised among the world’s most spectacular coastal drives.
(It also doubles as the cycle leg of the prestigious Cairns Airport IRONMAN Asia-Pacific Championship until 2018.)
Take the tropical Hogwarts Express
Break up the journey with a pit stop at Skyrail Rainforest Cableway in Kuranda (a quaint rainforest village 25km northwest of Cairns), promising a 7.5km bird’s-eye view over the world’s oldest living continuous rainforest.
Harry Potter fans, take note: Cairns is also a terminal station for the historic Kuranda Scenic Railway – arguably a tropical version of Hogwarts Express, with a journey just as magical, passing rainforest, waterfalls and jaw-dropping ravines.
Peckish but not partial to Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans? Kuranda has a tempting array of cafes to suit every craving.
Go croc spotting
With surplus energy to burn, head north towards Cape Tribulation. No visit to the Daintree is complete without a Daintree River cruise, particularly if you want to spot crocodiles on the 30th anniversary of Crocodile Dundee.
Follow the lead of a bevy of celebrities, including Ed Sheeran, The Cat Empire, Lou Reed and even the man who invented the Toilet Duck, and jump aboard a Solar Whisper wildlife cruise.
Drive time: 90 minutes from Kuranda. Take note: The last one-hour cruise of the day departs at 3:30pm.
Get a bird’s-eye view
If you started early, there’s time for one last stop at the award-winning Daintree Discovery Centre, roughly 40-minutes drive north, including a vehicle ferry crossing on the mighty Daintree River.
Established in 1989, the centre throws open its doors to discovery at every level, from the forest floor to neck-craning reaches of the rainforest canopy. Australian Geographic named its aerial walkway among Australia’s Top 10, with a network of platforms and elevated walkways providing safe and easy viewing of wild cassowaries.
Sleep in the rainforest
Time to put your feet up (or exfoliate them): a short 15-minute drive away lies Heritage Lodge & Spa.
This five-star clutch of 20 secluded cabins, perfect for birdwatchers and nature lovers, is perched on the edge of Cooper Creek, punctuated with private swimming holes as it winds through the rainforest to the Great Barrier Reef.
DAY 2- Become one with nature
Listen up, nature lovers! Forget setting an alarm and wake up the natural way… to birdsong. No less than 368 species call this rainforest home. If you’re still feeling sleepy, take the plunge in Cooper Creek, swimming with jungle perch and turtles.
Heritage Lodge & Spa owners Vicki and Alan Bidwell claim guests are also virtually guaranteed to spot an elusive musky rat kangaroo, commonly seen from cabin balconies.
This little kangaroo – Australia’s smallest and oldest – has something of a miracle relationship with a plant colloquially known as the idiot fruit (Idiospermum australiense), one of the rarest and most primitive flowering plants in the world, dating back to the Jurassic period.
Meet the Daintree’s green dinosaurs
“It blows my mind to think that we still have fruit falling from trees in this rainforest that the dinosaurs would have been feeding on,” says naturalist guide David Mainwaring of the idiot fruit.
He runs Daintree Wonder Tours out of Port Douglas and is an expert on green dinosaurs, AKA “Plants that evolved with chemicals in their leaves to deter dinosaurs eating them, but not the fruit. Remnant trees from a bygone era that shouldn’t be here anymore. They’re just freaks of nature.”
As for the little musky rat kangaroo? Sounding like a rainforest cousin of Disney’s loveable but forgetful Dory, it picks up the ancient idiot fruit seed for scatter hoarding, much like squirrels burying acorns to consume later. Sadly, its hippocampus is not as developed, meaning it forgets where the stash is hidden, allowing the seeds to germinate.
While sunlight dances on the rainforest floor, the lush canopy beckons. So, channel your inner Sean Connery from Medicine Man and get ready to soar to new heights on a Jungle Surfing tour in Cape Tribulation – an hour’s drive north, deep in the most ancient section of Daintree National Park.
First up, check in to Cape Trib Beach House, the only resort in the Daintree with beachfront rooms.
Jungle Surfing offers courtesy pick-up for its daily ziplining tours, suspended between six canopy platforms. According to Queen of the Jungle, Sheena Walshaw (aka Jungle Surfing MD), it’s the only tourist attraction where rare and elusive Bennett’s tree kangaroos are regularly spotted.
“We asked Roger Martin, a research fellow at James Cook University to come and check out our little population,” says Sheena. “Although we only started seeing them regularly about 18 months ago, Roger thinks the tree kangaroos have probably been up in the canopy watching us since we began jungle surfing in 2003.
“They seem quite fascinated by the weird flying humans!”
Paddle where the rainforest meets the reef
Jungle Surfing also works closely with Paddletrek Kayak Adventures, offering afternoon paddle tours of Cape Tribulation Bay, exploring pristine beaches, mangroves, fringing reef and marine wildlife including turtles, dolphins, dugongs, sting rays and even whales in winter months.
At the end of an adventure-packed day, there’s no better place to unwind than at Cape Trib Beach House’s al fresco restaurant and bar, before drifting off to sleep to the unique ‘swish-swash’ of rainforest-meets-reef.
DAY 3 – Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef
Rise and shine. It’s time to find Nemo and more than 1600 of his mates on a half-day Ocean Safari tour of the Great Barrier Reef, starting 8am at Cape Tribulation beach.
Hold on for a 25-minute boat ride-of-your-life, before flipping through snorkelling idylls of the Mackay and Undine reefs, coming face to face with marine turtles (the Great Barrier Reef is home to six of the world’s seven species of marine turtles), eagle rays and a myriad of tropical fish.
Grab a spot of lunch at Turtle Rock Café, co-located at Ocean Safari’s office (and also renowned for kick-ass locally grown coffee), before driving about 30 minutes south to the Daintree Ice Cream Company.
Described by travel bible Lonely Planet as possibly ‘the most scenic ice-cream company ever’ and set on 22 acres, it includes an organic orchard, ornamental tropical gardens, shop front, ice-cream making facilities and even an International Humane Society Land Heritage Trust wildlife sanctuary.
Ice-cream flavours on offer include black sapote and roasted wattleseed.
Sleep like a celebrity
Pull up stumps for the afternoon and kick back like an A-lister at one of Australia’s premier eco-luxury digs, Silky Oaks Lodge, situated on the Mossman Gorge River. This award-winning treehouse lodge has pocketed a slew of accolades, including from Condé Nast Traveler and Australian Gourmet Traveller.
Its open-sided Treehouse Restaurant, with stellar rainforest and river views, boasts a line-up of chefs who oversee a menu of modern Australian cuisine, locally sourced and made from scratch, including jams, bread and ice-cream. Drive time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
DAY 4 – Extend your stay
Don’t even think about checking out of Silky Oaks Lodge before sidling up for some pampering at Healing Waters Spa.
In fact, it’s hard to leave this treehouse sanctuary after just one night, particularly at a glance of tempting packages including the two-night ‘Kuku Yalanji Dreamtime’, complete with gourmet breakfasts, a la carte dinners and a Kuku Yalanji Dreamtime guided walk through Mossman Gorge.
Complimentary lodge inclusions cover yoga, guided rainforest walks and use of river canoes, while high-end packages stretch to helicopter tours, safaris, spa treatments, Dom Perignon and more.
The Willy Wonka of the north
Chase away end-of-holiday blues by heading to Whyanbeel Valley, just north of Mossman, for a Golden Ticket to the finest quality chocolate produced in the most ethical and equitable way possible.
Fourth generation farmer-turned tour guide George Puglisi is as chuffed as Willy Wonka with his unique Sweet Farm Tours, billed as Australia’s first cocoa and sugar cane tourism venture. His family is also the largest supplier to the nation’s only commercially-grown estate chocolate, Daintree Estate.
Pull into Port
Finally, don’t leave this magical corner of the world without experiencing the laid back charm of resort town, Port Douglas, a favourite haunt of A-listers from Matthew McConaughey to Glenn Close, Kylie Minogue and George Clooney.
Have one for the road at the popular Iron Bar hotel, where McConaughey shouted 600 patrons a drink on his 37th birthday and Pink pulled up on a motorbike, drank cocktails, watched cane toad racing and played air guitar on a pool cue. Only in the tropics!