A skyrail gondola heads into the rain forest in Caravoica, about 15 minutes from Cairns. The rail is more than 5 miles long, starting at sea level and rising about 4,000 feet.

Harmony comes after
avoiding croc’s mouth

A tour through Daintree park
is fraught with dangers

CAIRNS, QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA » Cooper Creek is more like a slow-moving river, half as wide as a football field in some places, as it meanders along dense mangrove forests from Daintree National Park to the Coral Sea. The water is the color of ripe, green papaya and so dark that it's impossible to determine whether my canopy-covered boat is in one or 10 feet of water.

Stay safe outdoors

» Weather/environment: Australian sunlight has high UV levels, and skin damage occurs rapidly. Protect against sunburn at all times, but especially in summer. Use a wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, protective clothes and shoes.

» Observe beach safety: Swim only at patrolled beaches, between flagged areas. Always check for warning signs. If you intend to swim in shallow coastal waters north of Gladstone, be informed about box jellyfish (marine stingers) that are generally found in shallow water near creek or river mouths, more likely after local rains. Stinger season usually runs from December to March in the Gladstone (south) area, and from October to June in the Cairns (north) area. Most popular beaches in stinger areas are netted to provide swimmer protection. Always wear thick-soled shoes when walking in shallow tropical waters or reef walking to protect oneself from the highly camouflaged stone fish. It has dorsal spikes which will rupture skin and inject a poison that causes extreme pain and swelling, sometimes death.

It's the only tour boat permitted in the Cape Tribulation section of the national park. I'm here to see the famed estuarine, or saltwater, crocodiles, and Dillon's expertise in finding them is the best around.

"That's a 4-meter girl, 20 years old, on the bank," says Ernie Dillon, 45, owner and operator of Cape Tribulation Wilderness Cruises and Fishing Safaris (www.capetribcruises.com/cruises).

The "girl" he's talking about is no beach beauty. Lying statue-like on the muddy bank just 20 feet from our boat, this "salty" is about to become a mother. She's plopped under a large basket fern and atop a mound of decaying vegetation that helps keep dozens of eggs warm.

"She's a cranky old girl," says Dillon. "Very protective. The other day I saw her eat a 40-kilogram turtle that came too close. She once snagged a dog out of a canoe."

On cue, the "good old girl" raises her head as we venture closer and opens her mouth, hissing. Our motorized water craft, with low 18-inch rails, seems very vulnerable.

When the croc raises her massive body off the nest and takes a step forward, Dillon says, "Yeah, yeah, yeah," before steering us into deeper water.

Further along, I see dozens of female crocs resting on the banks, where much of the vegetation has been crushed under the reptiles' enormous weight.

"You're lucky," Ernie tells me. "Air temperatures are starting to climb, so most of the day the crocs spend underwater cooling off. That's where all the bulls are now."

I wonder how warm the water really is. I start to put my hand in the water when I'm suddenly jerked back into the middle of the boat right onto my okole, cameras hitting me in the face.

"Oh no, don't ever do that," says my Swiss-born guide Sven Staedler, of BTS Tours (www.btstours.com). "Never, never, never."

With the poor water visibility, there's no way of knowing what's under the surface.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Dillon chimes in, grinning as I pick myself up. "If you were lucky, a croc would have just taken off an arm."

And if I wasn't lucky?

"Oh well, then under you go and ... that's that," Dillon said. "No sense in going after you at that point. That's that."

I have an overwhelming need for a shot or three of Australian's Bundaberg rum. Instead, I slink to a center seat.

The Barron River leads from the Daintree National Park to Karanda.

The Daintree Cape Tribulation Section of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area is the special meeting place of two World Heritage sites: the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics of Queensland. Cooper Creek Wilderness has a premier position in the heart of the Daintree World Heritage rain forests of the Wet Tropics of Queensland, Staedler says.

For more than 135 million years, Cooper Creek lowland rain forests has been the habitat of many species of flora and fauna. "It's a living museum," Staedler says.

Dillon docks the boat where we started, a sandy spot with several "Beware of Croc" signs tacked to trees and road signs. My knees are still shaking over what could have been "That's that."

Staedler, a sturdy and tanned 6-foot-4 with an accent that slips between Swiss and Aussie, suggests we have a beer at a jungle bar a few miles down the highway.

"Good idea," I say.

Walking back to our Landcruiser, I spot a 3-foot reptile trotting in my direction down the middle of the road.

"Jesus," I say, climbing on the hood of the truck. "There are crocs everywhere!"

"Aw, no worries, mate, it's just a goanna," Staedler says. "Australia pretty much has the lion's share of 'em with about 25 of the world's 30 species."

As the creature saunters by the truck, it's constantly flicking its forked tongue to pick up scent particles from the air.

The scare over, and properly refreshed, we make a 20-minute drive to the Cockatoo Hill Retreat (www.cockatoohillretreat.com.au), passing thick rain forests, vistas of distant beaches and several signs indicating we're in cassowary country.

"Got a nasty kick if you corner it," Staedler says.

Who would corner a bird with such enormous feet, I wonder.

When we get to the retreat, owner Gilles Germain is behind the bar. "Can I get ya pot a Fourex, mate?" he says, ready to pop open two bottles of XXXX, the beer associated with Queensland.

"From the cradle to the grave, it's the beer that we judge all others by," Staedler says.

"Hear you almost had a go of it on Cooper Creek. We haven't lost a Yank in a couple weeks to the crocs, have we, Sven," Germain says cheerfully as the two click beer glasses and laugh at my expense. I can't help joining in.

Germain opens more bottles, and the two men carry on like brothers, extolling the virtues of Queensland, the ruggedness, the fearsome creatures and future adventures. Staedler is saving up to pay for a six-month trip to the Northern Territories. I met dozens more Australians buying four-wheel drives or camper vans for exploring their country.

People who live in Queensland consider themselves strictly Queenslanders. "We think of ourselves as somehow different, that our lifestyle is more relaxed, that we spend most of our time at the finest stretch of coastline in the world, by the beach, in the sun, slowly knocking back icy cold beers with our mates," Germain said.

Certainly, Queensland seems the epitome of the classic Australian "No worries mate, she'll be all right" attitude. That lifestyle is "the best in the world, in my humble opinion," says Staedler.

A ferry navigates the Daintree River.

Cockatoo Hill Retreat is in the living heart of the Daintree coastal wilderness, beyond the Daintree River, which we crossed on a small open-air ferry. It's two hours north of Cairns.

We sit on high stools at a driftwood bar in an open-air room made of bamboo next to two Crocodile Dundee look-alikes with deeply tanned, chiseled faces, dusty shorts and shirts, boots and leather hats. Their accent is thick, but I can understand a few words like "salties," "bloody mean bugger" and "decapitation."

Gilles, who brings me a thick roast beef sandwich, says the men have just returned from a cattle ranch "up north" where they were hired to get rid of a crocodile killing cattle "in a bloody awful way."

"When we got there we found all these decapitated cows along a river," one man says. "The bloke would wait in the shallows until a cow came to drink, then take it by the head and just rip it off."

As Dillon would say, "That's that."

Staedler and I head back toward Port Douglas an hour south, first stopping at Mossman Gorge where I'll join a group for a walk into the rain forest, led by a Kuku Yalanji guide from the area's traditional Aboriginal landowners.

Aborigines are Australia's indigenous people, with a population of about 400,000, about 2 percent of Australia's population.

The name "aborigine" derives from the Latin, meaning "original inhabitants." Australian Aborigines migrated from Asia at least 30,000 years ago.

It's quiet except for the birds, insects and the Mossman River, which tumbles its way over and around huge granite boulders, creating cool, clear freshwater swimming holes filled with jungle perch. The riverside is clustered with fig trees and tree ferns.

But at the Mossman Gorge ranger center, we find the tour group has left. An Aborigine ranger named Michael shakes his head, and after making it clear that nothing could be done, turns and walks away. And that's that.

On the drive out, Staedler pulls over at a park adjacent to the Mossman River where a few adults and children are swimming. I start to take a short cut through the forest around an immense blue quandong, a giant tree with blue fruit, when Staedler grabs me for a second time in a day.

I was about to rub against something called a "wait-a-while vine." The thin strands of vine are covered with small spikes that grab clothing, rip skin and generally tear up anything they touch.

"Thanks again," I say, retreating to the trail.

I'm sweaty and tired. In true "tropo" style, I dive fully clothed into a deep pool, which elicits a round of applause from my new swim mates.

It's late afternoon when I arrive back at Cairns under a warm gray sky, threatening rain. It feels like a muggy day in Hilo. I'm staying at the Cairns Resort by Outrigger because the Hawaii hotel chain is familiar, centrally located overlooking Cairns' main street, the Esplanade, Trinity Bay and a magnificent public saltwater pool.

Cairns is the primary port for Great Barrier Reef tours. It's also well regarded as an international destination for shopping, dining and guided trips to Tropical North Queensland's cultural attractions and World Heritage rain forest parks. The natural surroundings of the Coral Sea and the rain forest-clad mountain ranges combine to make the city a stunning location.

I'll spend a couple of days here, hit some of the local attractions -- Hartley's Crocodile Adventures (www.crocodileadventures.com) and Skyrail (www.skyrail.com.au) -- and try to mingle with some locals.

The shoreline is no beach destination, comprising mud flats and estuary, although bird life is plentiful with pelicans, egrets and gulls. The makai side of the street is gloriously undeveloped except for benches, picnic tables and bike and walking paths.

The thickening clouds ensure there's no sunset tonight. Just about the time it starts drizzling, I'm crossing the street to the Rattle and Hum restaurant where I've been told the kangaroo kebabs ($21.95) can't be beat and finally get to taste "Bundi" rum and coke.

As for the "roo," it tastes good, not gamey. Flavor? Well, beef doesn't taste like lamb, beef tastes like beef, and kangaroo tastes like kangaroo.

I'm comfortably buzzed after my second Bundi, satiated by the roo and surprisingly refreshed, so I walk a block inland where there are several pharmacies, curio shops where boomerang sales are booming, clothing boutiques and tobacco stores selling Cuban cigars.

While I sit down on a bench, a 50-something Aboriginal man in jeans, a T-shirt with Aboriginal designs, and muddy boots introduces himself as John Savage.

We talked for a while, and I explained my experience at Mossman Gorge.

"That wasn't personal, but there are rules how things are done," he said. "You don't just go into a place like that on your own. It is very sacred."

I had thought of Mossman Gorge simply as a grand place to hike.

"When you're led into the gorge, an elder will introduce you to the land in the same way that his father introduced him, in the same way many of his ancestors had been traditionally introduced to the land," Savage said. "When you first walk in, you're quiet so you can listen to the trees, your footsteps, the birds, to get a sense of the place and the culture it belongs to."

Living for two decades in Hawaii, I should have known how Australia's native people feel about their own aina. Acting like a dumb tourist earlier in the day, I could have been eaten by a croc, and now I'm acting like an ugly American.

Another Aborigine, a friend of Savage, carrying a didgeridoo, a long wooden trumpet, joined us. As the man played the instrument, Savage sang a droning song in a tongue I couldn't understand. I started to take a photo, and Savage gently pushed the camera back onto my lap.

"Simply enjoy the moment," he said.

I do, and when I close my eyes I feel like I'm in their "Dreamtime."

"There are many misconceptions about Aborigines today," Savage said later. "We don't run around half naked with spears. The Aboriginal way is about finding harmony between our needs and the needs of the land.

"It's difficult to find harmony in living within the Western age of technology and social system, balanced with maintaining and practicing our ancient ways. We live in houses, we have e-mail, cars and phones, but we see the land in a different way. We sense the life of the land, our heritage, and we know our place within the Aboriginal scheme."

What about stories that Aborigine society has problems with alcohol, drugs, violence and a lack of will to conform?

Savage smiles. "Show me a part of British or any society that doesn't have those same issues," he says. "Aborigines always have been unfairly banded and labeled. Let's not forget what happened to my people when the white Europeans arrived: genocide, stolen children and violent abuse. But we really hold no bitterness. We're intent on moving forward, celebrating our culture and welcoming one and all."

THE MEN SAY goodbye, and I head back to the hotel where a tour bus is parked in front and David Capper, the Outrigger's general manager in Cairns, is talking to the driver. Suddenly I remember: I have an event to attend at the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park (www.tjapukai.com.au).

"Ready are you now, mate?" Capper asks.

A cross-cultural group of entertainers created Australia's first Aboriginal dance theater in the small village of Kuranda, near Cairns. The Tjapukai Dance Theatre showcases the culture of Tropical North Queensland.

Seven arenas allow visitors to experience the rain forest people's culture: History Theatre, Creation Theatre, original Dance Theatre and the interactive Camp Village, where visitors learn didgeridoo playing and boomerang throwing.

The evening is cool and breezy. The group, all tourists, is lead by an Aborigine through the "History Museum" where audio thunder claps and fake mist herald the appearance of Gadja, a Dreamtime spirit wearing a glowing, UV fiber-optic costume. He's a good spirit who talks about the past. Then, his opposite appears. The Quinkan towers nearly 20 feet above the audience, luring us into the past.

Outside, I'm handed tap sticks. We're asked to join the Tjapukai lakeside to become part of an ancient corroboree ritual. The Tjapukai hurl a fire spear across the lake where it makes contact with the ancient tribal lands to become a mushrooming fireball, illuminating the lakeside and audience. I can feel the heat on my face.

A canoe appears, guided by Tjapukai carrying flaming torches. Dancers from the corroboree guide the canoe and its people to the shore. We follow their light as their torches create a path from the darkness to the glowing restaurant overlooking Caravonica Lakes.

A stage performance has Aboriginal dancers trying to blend indigenous culture with Broadway-style theater and black humor.

The tribe's hunters conduct a slapstick, unsuccessful kangaroo hunt, and then must sing for their supper: "The No Food Blues" is a routine straight off Broadway.

When I climb back on the bus, it's very dark, and a fine fog makes the night mysterious. I wonder what it would be like at Cooper Creek right now, walking down that highway of lizards without a flashlight, taking that Mossman Gorge bush walk. The phrase "And that's that" keeps running through my mind.

In Cairns, the Esplanade, saltwater pool and shoreline benches are empty. It feels like I'm at the end of the world in a place of glorious intrigue caught between a rich past and a ripe future.

It's only my first day.



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