Strange Geographies: Cape Tribulation

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When most people picture Australia, the endless brown wastelands of the Outback come to mind; after all, it is the world's driest country. But there's a lesser-known landscape nestled far in the country's remote northeast that's anything but dry and barren; through the Wet Tropics of Far North Queensland run mighty rivers and dramatic waterfalls, ancient rainforests that house 18% of the nation's bird population in just 0.2% of its landmass, and endure a mind-blowing 250 inches of rain a year -- most of which falls between February and April. It also boasts some of Australia's most beautiful beaches, which are just a dozen or so miles by boat or seaplane from the edge of the Great Barrier Reef.

Cape Tribulation is literally where the road ends -- at least for any vehicle other than a heavy-duty 4x4 snorkle truck -- and the Reef is how it got its name. Captain Cook ran aground on it on June 10, 1770, nearly sinking, and recorded in his log: that "the north point [was named] Cape Tribulation because here began all our troubles." He had a bad time of it in the Wet Tropics, giving nearby landmarks colorful names like Mount Sorrow, Mount Awful and Weary Bay. That's the other side of the coin when it comes to visiting Cape Tribulation, as I did last March -- it's beautiful and remote, but the potential dangers and pitfalls are many. Read on to see what I found there.

Bordering the Cape is the Daintree rainforest. At more than 135 million years old, it's the oldest and one of the most spectacular rainforests on the planet. As it was explained to me by park rangers, the reason it's survived for so long is that plate tectonics over the eons haven't shifted the Tropical Far North much; Antarctica, for instance, may have had rainforests 135 million years ago, but its dramatic shift south buried them under mountains of ice. Daintree, on the other hand, has had a pretty consistent climate for the last 135 million years or so (despite ice ages and so on). It's not hard to imagine dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures running around in the thick, humid underbrush -- because they did. The 600 million year old zamia fern, for instance, developed an underground root system to defend against browsing dinosaurs.

There are plenty of above-ground root systems, too -- many of which are as thick around as a bodybuilder's bicep.

Water is everywhere: you've never been anywhere so humid in your life.

This spider had to have been five inches long -- and it wasn't the largest I saw, by far.

Not far away, an unbelievable confluence of waterfalls creates a deafening but beautiful sight.

Cape Tribulation itself juts out into the water like the sleeping head of a snake.


Exotic fruits and vegetables are everywhere. I stayed in a cabin on a fruit farm while on the Cape, and I'm not sure I recognized a single fruit or plant.

2 flowers

These were all delicious. In there somewhere are a West Indian lime, a yellow sapote, a breadfruit (that's the big one), a longan, an abiu, a dragonfruit (the crazy-looking pink one), a salak, a davidson plum (extremely bitter), an atemoya and a rollimia.

The tasty, hypercolor insides of a dragonfruit:

This farm that grew those also grows durian, the powerful and clothes-penetrating aroma of which is often likened to rotting flesh -- unfortunately, they didn't have any on hand to sample.

Close by is a place called the Copper River, known for its robust population of crocodiles. We hired a guide to take us out to look for crocs, but only found one -- faraway and frightened of us.




Despite the beauty of the landscape, there was much to be wary of. We were there during box jellyfish season -- which is nearly half the year -- during which you can't swim in the ocean for fear of becoming entangled in the incredibly poisonous and painful appendages of one of these creatures, which in recent years have become something of a plague along Queensland beaches.

If you happen to get stung and somehow make it out of the water and back up the trailhead, you'll find a handy jug of vinegar waiting to be poured on your wounds. In a pinch, urine will also do.

The only way you can swim in the ocean during box jellyfish season (near the shore, at least) is inside these specially-designed jellyfish nets that some of the tourist towns have set up. It's kind of a depressing way to enjoy the vast beach, though.

Crocodiles are an ever-present danger, as well. There are scary warning signs near just about every body of fresh water.

And yet, twenty feet away ...

But it's not just animals that are out to get you -- some of the plants lurking in Queensland's primeval rainforests are just as dangerous. Take, for instance, "the stinging tree."

In case the fine print is a bit too small to read, here's a close-up. I think nothing in Australia made me more paranoid than this sign.
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Hell, there are even warning signs on the vending machines! Is nowhere safe??

Creepy crawly nasties aside, though, Cape Trib is an strange an amazing place, and I think it can truly be said that there's nowhere else like it on the planet.

Check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

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November 30, 2009 - 2:30am
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