Nature on the wing
Ripples break the still surface of the Daintree River, gradually fanning out towards the shore as our boat glides along. In the distance, thickly vegetated hills are shrouded in mist. Suddenly the silence is broken by a flight of swallows that circle us before darting off into nearby trees.
Dawn is the best time of day to catch what our guide and self-confessed “bird nerd” Murray Hunt describes as the “special creatures of the river” at their most active. “I might hit the alarm clock when it goes off in the morning but I fall in love with the river again each day,” Hunt says. “Every day the Daintree produces something and I don’t know what it’s going to be.”
As we mosey along what Hunt describes as a “long, winding, confused” river in the 10-person boat, he educates us on the endemic flora and fauna. Our first encounter is a large black darter bird sitting in a damson plum tree. A professional spear fisherman, it has a sharp bill and flexible neck so its head snaps forward to impale prey. Then there’s the magpie geese we see flying overhead. Hunt says male geese have two or three “girlfriends” and are real sweet talkers, convincing the females to all lay their eggs in the same nest. This way they can keep an eye out for predators such as crocodiles, sea eagles and snakes.
As if on cue, we spot an amethystine python lying curled along a branch a few metres above the water; the snake is so called because in the sunlight its colour resembles an amethyst. The Daintree River, in Tropical North Queensland, is home to more than 30 species of mangrove, making it one of the most diverse in the world. The tallest and most common is the green apple mangrove, which produces a fruit that looks and smells like an apple but “tastes bloody horrible”. The orange mangrove produces fruit shaped like a cigar.
Through our binoculars, we watch a juvenile whitebellied sea eagle perched in a tree. Hunt recently saw a similar bird plunge in front of the boat to pluck a file snake from the water. He grew up in Dural, in Sydney’s northwest, where he would while away the hours observing wild parrots. He had been on the cruise several times when it was run by his predecessor, and took over the business seven years ago. Before that, he worked as a guide at Uluru and Kakadu national parks in the Northern Territory, and on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island.
We veer off the river into Barratt Creek, which Hunt describes as “a botanical wonderland”. “Each rainforest tree has around 50 plants — mosses, lichens, ferns, maybe even an orchid or two,” he says, before pointing out a new species of plant with small mauve flowers called Daintree wisteria and identified by a botanist two years ago.
The Daintree River is known for three birds — the great billed heron, little kingfishers and the Papuan frog mouth, which have impressive camouflage, so we are lucky to spot several this morning. We see a saltwater crocodile on the bank that disappears into the water when he spots us. We also tick off the azure kingfisher and sacred kingfisher, but my highlight is the wompoo fruit dove we see on its nest. With a purple chest, pale blue face and splash of yellow and green on its wings, it is simply beautiful.
Angela Saurine was a guest of Tourism and Events Queensland.
Daintree River, top; azure kingfisher, above