The first time I ventured into the Daintree I nearly drove right over a python stretched across the full width of the road (that’s five metres or so). It was early dawn and I was watching out for kangaroos – I hadn’t thought to look down.
But the Daintree is the sort of place you should look down, up, left, right, and then do it all over again. There is no older tropical rainforest on Earth (the Daintree is over 180 million years old), a hectare of it is home to more species of flora and fauna than there are across the forests of Europe and North America… combined.
There are 12,000 insect species, 74 species of reptiles, 430 species of birds, 30 per cent of Australia’s frogs and 65 per cent of our butterflies. Naturalist David Attenborough calls Far North Queensland his favourite place on Earth – and that’s from a bloke who’s spent the past 75 years travelling the entire globe.
Spread across two areas of World Heritage-listed national park (separated by an agricultural area), the Daintree starts just west of Port Douglas and continues up almost to Cooktown, spreading across 1200 square kilometres of Far North Queensland.
And yet, visiting it is not just about adventure – jungle hikes beside croc-infested rivers, and that sort of thing. The Daintree is home to all sorts of activities and experiences, from luxury lodges and horse rides on the beach to Indigenous Dreamtime experiences – there are even tropical fruit ice-cream factories to visit. That’s the beauty of the place – it suits every kind of traveller, from those seeking the wild within the world’s largest continuous tropical rainforest to families looking for a way to entertain the kids for a day.
The easiest access to the forest is just 20 minutes’ drive west of Port Douglas (an hour’s drive north of Cairns). The main entrance to the southern-most section of the Daintree is at Mossman Gorge, beside the Mossman River.
First port of call is the Mossman Gorge Centre, one of the most iconic Aboriginal experiences in Queensland and run by traditional owners, the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people. Choose between self-guided rainforest walks, stopping to swim at freshwater swimming holes, or take the Dreamtime guided walk for an insight into the history of this ancient people. There’s an art gallery here too, and a cafe selling meals, created by local Indigenous chefs who incorporate bush tucker foraged from the area.
Take a drive north from Mossman Gorge and see how the forest grows right to the Coral Sea (and Great Barrier Reef) – the only place on Earth two World Heritage-listed areas meet. There are secret ways to access the Daintree along the way. You can’t beat drifting down the Daintree River with the current, listening to the sounds of the forest, on an inflatable river sled with Back Country Bliss Adventures.
Keep driving past the turn-off to Cape Tribulation to discover the tiny river town of Daintree Village – most tourists skip it altogether. You can sleep in a bayan (treehouse) within the Daintree just outside town, at the Daintree Ecolodge. All that protects you from the creatures of the forest is a mosquito screen. At night, I dine outside at Julaymba on a balcony overlooking a lagoon within the forest. This is one of the best restaurants in Tropical North Queensland; the local ingredients, like crocodile and rock lobster, are cooked with Indigenous flavours and techniques.
Daintree Village makes its living off the river that flows past it. It’s a pretty town where the streets are lined with frangipani and mango trees, and everything revolves around the crocs in its river. Try the Crocodile Express River Cruise, and the lattes are best at Croc Xpresso Cafe. Take one of Bruce Belcher’s Daintree River Cruises and you’ll see plants that date back to the dinosaur era… oh, and crocs.
To access the most spectacular and oldest part of the Daintree, you’ll have to cross a croc-filled river on an old-fashioned car ferry. Once you’re across – you’ll see the Cape Tribulation section of the Daintree National Park is one of Australia’s most stunning landscapes. It is sparsely populated – there are as many endangered southern cassowaries here as locals. I pass through thick forest, beside rugged coastal ranges and secret beaches fringed with rare littoral forest. The road to Cape Tribulation is all paved – but take your time to discover boardwalks leading through the forest to sandy bays, and be alert for crossing cassowaries (they grow up to 1.7 metres tall). Beyond Cape Tribulation, you’ll need a 4WD, but the road goes all the way to Cooktown.
There’s plenty to do in this part of the Daintree. Travellers often come for the day from Port Douglas, but you’re best to plan on a little longer for activities and to stay in the forest – there is everything from Cape Tribulation Beach House’s family cabins right on the beach to Black Palm’s luxury treehouses over a crystal-clear creek.
Eat local kangaroo, emu, buffalo or croc at third-generation local’s favourite, Mason’s Cafe, which sits beside a pristine swimming hole. There are some great places to eat amongst the forest, and bars you can’t miss either: you won’t want to leave Whet, a bar and restaurant deep in the forest.
There are also all sorts of activities to try up here at the end of the road, inside the Daintree. Jump in the saddle for a horseback journey along the beach with Cape Trib Horse Rides, or head out on a kayak or snorkelling tour to the fringing reef.
Whatever way you choose to do it, you can’t go wrong in the Daintree. Being surrounded by all that forest – the oldest still left on earth – is enough to send you to another state. Just keep an eye out for the crocs and pythons.
Take me there
Fly: Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin fly to Cairns. The Daintree starts 75 kilometres north-west of Cairns. All major rental car companies operate out of Cairns Airport.
Stay: Base yourself at Port Douglas, where there are over 50 accommodation options to choose from, or stay at Daintree Ecolodge (daintree-ecolodge.com.au) near Daintree Village, or the Cape Trib Beach House (capetribbeach.com.au) at Cape Tribulation.
Explore more: tropicalnorthqueensland.org.au