Take a moment and picture Australia for me.
Are you doing it?
No, really. Picture it.
What do you see?
Kangaroos, right? (You’re probably smiling now because you are, in fact, picturing kangaroos.)
Koalas? (Now the rest of you are smiling.)
The Outback? Red Center? Long barren stretches of dry desert with dangerous snakes and scorpions? (Stop smiling.)
Or perhaps you’re picturing a whole different image: golden sandy beaches crawling with equally as golden sun-worshippers, ripply-muscled hunks, bikini-clad sheilas. Maybe sharks, jellyfish, stingrays.
Or you could be totally stereotypical and picturing Crocodile Dundee. (This here’s a knife!)
Or Steve Irwin.
In any case, I am willing to bet that most of you, if you haven’t been to Australia, are picturing any of the above scenarios. And I’m willing to bet more that you wouldn’t expect me to paint a picture of a tropical land, blanketed by dense jungle and rainforest, a relentlessly persistent rainfall, and humidity so thick you could cut it with Dundee’s knife.
But that’s the setting for today’s story. In Northern Queensland, at least. The beaches, desert, kangaroos, and koalas are elsewhere on the continent, which spans such a variety of ecosystems, climates, and landscapes you could venture from coast to coast and feel as though you just traveled the world.
The remote village of Cape Tribulation is set in the heart of the ancient Daintree Rainforest (the oldest rainforest in the world), boasting the notable fact that it lies at the only point where two World Heritage sites meet; the rainforest stretches right up to the beach, while the Great Barrier Reef is a mere 25-minute boat ride offshore.
Excited to be venturing into this unique marriage of nature, I saved a substantial part of my budget for activities here. I booked an open-sea kayak trip, a jungle ziplining tour, and my reef snorkel adventure, in addition to the day tour from Cairns which included a rainforest walk and crocodile river cruise.
Sounds incredible, right? I thought so. It was set to be one of the highlights of my trip, and as it drew closer, my excitement swelled.
One week before I was set to arrive in Cape Tribulation, the reef trip company contacted me to tell me that the wet season was so bad, they were not running until March. Because I’d be down in Sydney by that time, I had to cancel instead of rescheduling. Luckily, I had booked a combination package that included a trip through the Whitsunday Islands and snorkeling at the reef there (which is also more pristine than at Cairns), so I wouldn’t miss the reef altogether.
When the day came to depart Cairns for Cape Tribulation, the bus trip was….less than spectacular. With pouring rain bucketing down on the tropical north, we splashed through flooded roads, tea farms, and sugarcane fields, trying to admire the lush landscape despite the fact that it was entirely washed out with gray.
Our exploration of the beachside village of Port Douglas consisted of huddling beneath a shop awning while it poured. Our trek through the rainforest forced us to juggle umbrellas with cameras, trying to take pictures from beneath the cover, and left us with soaked socks. It was interesting and educational, but the “wow” factor I had anticipated was sorely lacking.
When we arrived at the Cape Tribulation Beach House, where two fellow passengers and I would be getting off to stay overnight, it took all of ten minutes for me to realize that booking three days here was a giant mistake. Since the reef trip had already been cancelled, there was precious little else to do besides trek through the forest some more, sit by the pool, or explore the remote beach. With no internet signal whatsoever (and the outrageous charge of $8/hour to use their slow computer terminals), I couldn’t blog or get work done. The cabins had no power outlets, and one had to HIRE dishes from reception at $10/set to use in the kitchen.
After slapping down the $8 for internet, I jumped straight online and booked the next two nights back at my Cairns hostel (which had been amazing, and will be getting its own blog post soon.) I emailed the ziplining company to see if I could possibly get on an earlier tour the next day, cancelled the kayak tour for a full refund, then headed to reception to cancel the rest of my reservation and get booked on the bus the next day – instead of three days from then.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not averse to nature. I love hiking, I’ve been smitten by the stunning scenery both here and in New Zealand, and I could photograph a single flower for an hour. But whether my nerves are frayed from six weeks on the road, or I was simply particularly lonely at that point in my trip, I couldn’t stomach the idea of being all alone in a remote rainforest with zero contact to the outside world for three days.
Perhaps if I had been better prepared, not so ignorant about the region, and didn’t have work to get done on a deadline, I would have made myself stay. Interestingly enough, though I happily acted on my impulse to get back to civilization, I was slightly concerned with myself for not being able to handle it. I love desolate beaches, quiet wanderings through mazes of trees, and the solitude that comes at watching a technicolor sunset – especially in a tucked-away corner of the world I had never seen before. I was actually a little angry with myself for not taking advantage of the time to get back in touch with myself, embrace the solitude, and even tap into a little spiritual stretching.
But this wasn’t like in the movies or guidebooks. The torrential rain and bleak skies meant no sunset, and walks through the rainforest or beach were dull and wet. Mosquitos feasted on me like vultures on a carcass, and when I stepped into the shower and came face-to-face with the biggest spider I’ve ever seen in my life, my nerves split right down the middle. Self-discovery and spirituality be damned.
Somehow, I made it through the day by listening to music, reading on my iPad (once I unplugged the fan and charged it on the only power outlet in the room), and sitting at the outdoor bistro staring at the rain in the trees, lost in thought. When night fell, I got ready for bed early – and encountered spiders that could have been Aragog’s cousins, a possum that I swear was plotting to launch a surprise attack on me when I hiked to the bathroom, and salamanders that played tag on the rafters above my head while I tried to pee in peace.
When morning came, bringing sunlight streaming through the window, I jumped out of bed and packed, eager to explore what I could for a few hours before the bus came to take me back to blessed civilization. And unfortunately, there were no earlier ziplining tours, and I admit I was pretty heartbroken over missing that. Granted, it’s my own fault, but it is still a sore loss.
Determined to make the most of what had turned out to be the biggest disappointment of my trip, I wandered out onto the secluded beach to admire it – and nearly stepped on a whole family of sand crabs.
These little critters amused me for a good twenty minutes, as they darted in and out of their hole-homes, watching me out of their jelly-like, oblong eyes. When I finally moved on, I found a low-lying branch from a giant, gnarled tree where I could perch. As I drew closer, my eyes suddenly focused on the biggest lobster I’ve ever seen, who had the same idea I did.
I really, really want to know how he climbed the tree. Maybe lobsters can do that here. Nothing would surprise me at this point.
Turns out, as I discovered another one on the neighboring branch, that they were actually just the molted shells of the lobsters; they weren’t alive.
So I climbed onto the branch behind them and allowed myself to slip into a trance, lulled by the rhythmic lapping of the waves, the hum of the cicadas in the trees behind me, and the utter peace of what truly was, despite my shortcomings, a tropical paradise.
Still, the bus’ arrival could not have been more welcome. And when I ran into one of my friends, Andrew, from the hostel in Cairns (he was doing the day trip I had done the day before), I could have hugged him.
On the ride back, we stopped for the lookout points and the crocodile cruise, which was rather a quintessential Australian experience. We floated down a brown river flanked by mangroves and dense tropical tree life, and I could almost channel Steve Irwin as we hunted for glimpses of a crocodile.
Those powerful beasts reign as supreme rulers in northern Queensland: the top of the food chain, king of all predators, with 300 lbs. of downforce in their jaws, and camouflage so stealthy that even a boat full of sharpened eyes had trouble spotting them. It was extremely exciting to get so up close to them, but I’ll tell you one thing: you couldn’t pay me enough to be anywhere along that river besides inside a great big boat.
The adventure was almost over, but the Daintree insisted on leaving me with a souvenir: at some point the day before, probably when I was sitting in the bistro slapping at stinging insects and mosquitos, I was bitten on the leg by what I thought was a harmless mosquito. Twin bumps had sprung up, not particularly itchy or painful, but red and swollen…and when morning came, I noticed they were oozing a yellowish fluid.
Curious, I asked Andrew, and then our guide, Shane, if that was normal. Upon closer inspection, he smiled wryly and pointed at the larger bump.
“See those two marks right there? The vertical ones? Those are fang marks. You were bitten by a spider, love.”
I was bitten by a spider. In Australia. Home to most of the deadliest spiders in the world. In the rainforest.
“Oh,” I said. (Really, what else do you say to that?)
Shane grinned and told me, matter-of-factly, to monitor my behavior over the next 24 hours: if I felt dizzy or nauseas, go see a doctor. Because I could have been poisoned.
“Oh,” I said again, wondering how in the world I had been bitten by a spider large enough to leave fang marks, and not known it. I immediately imagined Aragog’s cousin.
I figured I should probably have Shane inspect my other mosquito bites, to make sure none of them had been administered by giant deadly spiders either, but to my relief he confirmed the bloodthirsty buggers. “Be careful about dengue fever, though,” he warned. “If you get muscle soreness, achiness, a headache, or nausea, go see a doctor right away.”
Lovely. So basically, if I feel anything less than perfect over the next 24 hours, get to a doc straight away because I could have been poisoned by a spider or infected with Australia’s form of malaria.
Luckily, those 24-48 hours have passed, and I’m in the clear. Save for two beautiful scars on my right calf, and Shane and Andrew’s permission to inflate the story as big as I can to everyone back home: I fought the beast off with my bare hands, wrestled it to the ground, shot it with a pistol (twice), and then burned its body in Cape Tribulation as a sacrificial offering to the rainforest gods.
The rest of the bus ride home was safe, and we got some beautiful lookout points before the rainstorms burst in with a vengeance.
So that’s how I escaped spider poisoning, dengue fever, giant shower-dwelling cousins of Aragog, tree-climbing lobsters, a bloodthirsty possum (no, really, he was plotting something), and crocodiles on the river.
I am so holding all of this over my friends’ heads back home.