Journey to the Centre of the Earth

A trip to Queensland in Australia is a life-altering experience in more ways than one.

Written by Malavika Bhattacharya | Updated: May 7, 2017 12:00:37 am

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On the edge of Australia’s hundred-million-year-old Daintree Rainforest, smoke rises from the ground in tendrils, mixing with the sweet-spicy scent of the wet earth and the trees. Our Aboriginal guide, Sean, chants, as our small group circles the bonfire of wood and dried plants, cleansing us of bad spirits before we can enter this sacred land.

For centuries, the Kuku Yalanji people inhabited this land, traversing the paths to the Mossman river in the southern part of Queensland’s Daintree Rainforest. Today, the elders of the clan allow visitors into their home to learn about their traditional way of life. Cleansed of evil spirits in the traditional “smoking” ceremony, I follow Sean — a member of the Kuku Yalanji — on a 90-minute Dreamtime Walk through Mossman Gorge.

Here, within one of the oldest continuously living rainforests in the world, the canopy is dense, as 100-metre tall red cedars, gnarled oaks, shorter fan palms, and ferns jostle for space. As we navigate narrow paths, Sean reveals the secrets of the forest: bioluminescent fungus on trees, drinking water stored in hanging vines, candlenuts used for their oil, stones used as nutcrackers, and ferns that apparently dinosaurs once snacked on.

Natural colours produced by rubbing stones.

Give and take is the way of the land. The seemingly innocuous plants are poisonous, but their natural antidotes are almost always found in the vicinity. When a six-year-old boy in our group falls and grazes his knee on a rock, Sean mashes up a leaf and applies the pulp to the wound. The Kuku Yalanji coexisted with the rainforest for millennia, and everything they needed — medicine, sustenance, and even accoutrements — came from the land. To produce natural colours, Sean rubs some stones on a large rock until splotches of red, ochre, and black form. He dots these colours on his forearm, demonstrating how his ancestors used to adorn themselves.

Home to two Unesco World Heritage Sites — the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics — Queensland packs in vastly different landscapes and experiences. From lush rainforest, I move to the mangrove-flanked banks of the Daintree river, where I board a low boat to explore the waterways. As soon as we glide into the river, a stealthy pair of eyes emerges from the water, and there’s a slight rustle on the banks.

Two large crocodiles — a male and a female — just a few feet from us.

Saltwater crocodiles are abundant.

Saltwater crocodiles are abundant in these parts, finding an ideal home in the murky waters and densely vegetated banks. Over the next hour, the boat meanders from the main river into narrow channels, where the mangrove’s aerial roots poke up from the earth like needles, and a tangle of branches from opposite banks stretch to meet it the middle. In this primordial setting, an experienced naturalist points out hard-to-spot fauna: a python as thick as a tree trunk, a curious owl, white egrets.

We spot tiny crocodiles the size of my palm, under a year old, alongside larger ones, sunning themselves on the rocks. “Daytime is simply used to charge up their batteries so they can function better at night,” our guide says. He goes on to tell us that these territorial, hierarchical creatures take nearly 50 years to reach full size, and even then, the males keep growing. Suddenly, we spot a humungous croc eyeing us. “Ah, there’s Scarface”, the boatman
says cheerily.

The resident alpha male in these parts, weighing 400 kg and nearly 4.5-metre long, Scarface lives up to his name, with deep gashes across his face and several bite marks on his serrated, metre-long tail. The best spots in the sun are reserved for him; no other crocodile dares pick a fight.

Queensland’s best-known natural wonder, however, is the Great Barrier Reef — the prime reason for my visit to this fascinating state. One windy morning, I climb aboard a Quicksilver catamaran to head to Agincourt Reef on the outer fringes of the Great Barrier Reef.

An aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef.

Quicksilver’s reef cruise deposits us on their pontoon, where there are a variety of activities, food and drink to be had. My mission, however, is singular. I’ve already signed up for the first dive while on board, so I suit up right away in a protective stinger suit (to protect from jellyfish), layer on a wetsuit, strap on a belt of lead weights, grab an oxygen cylinder and wait to jump in. I can’t help but notice how remarkably blue the water is. Even though I’ve dived before, my heart thumps as I descend into the depths of the Pacific, home to the largest-known coral reef system and thousands of aquatic species. The ocean bed is a garden of fantastical coral formations in pinks, greens, and yellows. Orange clown fish dart in and out of the soft coral, blue seaworms scuttle into the sand, great clam fish remain stoic, and out of nowhere, a swirling, heaving school of silvery fish surround me.

Today, amidst the disheartening news of the Great Barrier Reef’s decline, I feel lucky to have experienced this magical underwater world two years ago. Large-scale coral bleaching affected the reef in 2016, and when I think back to the thriving, colourful environment below the ocean, I can’t help but question the impact that tourists like me have on this delicate ecosystem. To truly embark on a journey of a lifetime will be to find ways to mitigate our footprint. Only then can life in these most fragile and fascinating ecosystems not only survive, but also, thrive.

The writer is a freelance journalist who writes on travel, culture and the outdoors.

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