We left the Bloomfield River at first light, in anticipation of a long hoof down to Cape Tribulation. First the climb up the escarpment from the River, then across the open forest plateau, before descending down into the full-on rainforest and along the track just in from the beaches to Cape Tribulation. Nearly forty kilometres, so we’d certainly need the full day.
A great day to be doing the walk, and we were sweating like pigs by the time we’d scaled the hill and were tramping across the plateau. Feeling good though, and seemed to be doing well time-wise.
Wow, what an incredible contrast there is to reach the end of the flat stretch. Baking in the semi-sunshine, it’s easy to make good time through the wooded grassland. Where the plateau tumbles down to the thin coastal plain though, everything changes. Sheltered from the blazing sun by the escarpment, the dry open forest transforms to an impenetrable wall of dripping green jungle, with the track violently cut through it a few years earlier rapidly swallowed up and over-shadowed by the towering rainforest trees.
Down, down, down the ‘road’ slides, demanding constant maintenance just to keep it open for the 4-wheel drive soft-arsed ‘adventurers’ who ply it. Crazy, pretending to insist on motor access to a world where Nature rules so imperiously. The highest rainfall in the country falls in these parts; more fool the arrogance, which thinks to dominate Her.
We arrive at the foot of the escarpment, only mildly lacerated by the treacherous What-a-while vine that drapes the path wherever the sun offers encouragement. The beach is only a hundred metres from the track here, and the sound of lapping waves seduces us to pause for a short break; it’s only early afternoon – we’ve made good time – and will surely reach Cape Trib by nightfall at this rate.
We follow the sinuous path that has been compacted through the roots and vines by years of walkers before us, to greet the Coral Sea and catch our breath.
Catch our breath is right, and not only with the view, for beyond the aquamarine coast and well short of where the horizon should be, there is a black line and threatening thunderstorm. It’s heading onshore, and fast, leaving no doubt about the transformation about to unfold.
Action stations! With a ridge pole offered by a fallen branch slung between the limbs of a mangrove tree, we frantically gather palm fronds to fashion a shelter, creating a thick, sloped wedge against the approaching deluge. The dense forest on the inland side protects against any possibility of rain entering our refuge from that side.
By the time the first drops are splattering thunderously on the beach ten minutes later, we are high and dry and well prepared, even to the point of smugly coaxing life from the small fire we’ve lit. There’s no shortage of driftwood and forest litter to ensure we had a healthy stock of fuel to cook ourselves a cuppa tea, and later a meal.
Enthusiastic with the instant house we’d created, our plans to reach the Cape by evening had been shelved. The idea of battling through torrential rainfall and swollen creek crossings has no appeal at all, and even seems downright foolish to consider.
It’s no passing thunderstorm, but a fully-fledged that sets in for the rest of the day, bucketing down, imprisoning us in out makeshift shelter. But hey, we’re dry, well fed, and enjoying this romantic unexpected highlight to our tropical adventure. What could be better? No worries at all.
None at all, until way beyond nightfall. The rain had eased by then, though way too late to consider walking any further, so we cooked a very Spartan meal with the limited food we’d carried, and Kerrilyn curled up to sleep while I continued toying with the fire, mesmerising myself in the flames and coals.
All good, for an hour or so. Then, as the wind died away completely, the sounds of the night began to intrude. The forest stirs under cover of darkness, and another world begins it’s shift. Small voices and exclamation, smooth calls, in sharp twitters, dulcet whistles and strange songs. Other noises too: the percussion as twigs and branches, fronds and leaves fall from on high; rustling of small bodies swishing past leaves; dragging of material over the back there, and now actually quite close. Hmmm, and what can that be? The sound of footsteps cracking dry branches, over to the left, closer the creek.
Oh shit! Surely not? The thought dawns on me, of what sort of creatures might be making these various noises of the night. What could that one be? Foot on wood, and sound of dragging. Something quite heavy even; a larger animal apparently. It occurs to me that we’re in forest that is the territory of animals quite different than those found in the sub-tropical rainforest where we’re from, a couple of thousand kilometres further south.
For example: crocodiles! Enormous, powerful, lightning-fast, saltwater crocs, live in exactly these hereabouts. Huge, cold-blooded, jaws like elephant-traps, reptilian carnivores certainly partial to a morsel of sweet human flesh for supper. Fucking hell, what an idiot I am. Huddled under a open palm-leaf lean-to, with nothing more than a blazing brand and Swiss Army knife to protect us.
Now the Swiss are the ingenious creators of a pocket knife that performs quite a remarkable number of functions very well, but among them there is nothing designed to tackle a tonne of ravenous reptile that wouldn’t raise a crocodile sweat in take out a pair of brainless hippies dreaming of romance. Fucking hell again; there’s absolutely nothing to be done, except wait. And listen.
All night long I wait, and listen, and wonder, while my wife snoozes peacefully on, sometimes snoring quietly, oblivious to the mortal danger of possibly becoming a midnight snack for a monstrous killing machine. How many words can I find to describe this situation? Dumb, crazy, idiotic, stupid, stoned, naïve, barmy, insane, thoughtless, imbecilic, gormless, mad … well, who cares how many. Dead men tell no tales.
Well, clearly there was no crocodile. Dawn finally fades the night towards day, a million sleepless moments later. The day is grey and threatening, quite apart from any animal threats. I prepare a sweet chai to fuel our flight, rouse Kerrilyn from her innocence, and explain our precarious situation in few words. Having washed down a bowl of basic muesli with the chai, we raise camp, bid farewell to our refuge, and set out for the Cape, still some hours away.
Ha, not more than five or six metres behind our shelter, there is an enormous leaf and twig dome, several metres broad and almost a metre high; a bush-turkey’s next. All night long, the fellow has been foraging around in the forest, scavenging material to maintain the nest, adjusting and rearranging to maintain the perfect temperature in the next to incubate his eggs, burrowing his head in the pile frequently to gauge the warmth of the decomposing material. Just right for hatching. My sleepless night has been disturbed mostly by the noise of a medium sized ground bird fussing around with his nursing.
Reaching the track again, we are stopped almost immediately by another bird, ambushed by a cassowary on the path, ten metres or so ahead of us. Though not rating in comparison with six metres of teeth and muscle, it’s quite intimidating nevertheless, confronted by a two metre tall flightless bird with a reputation for having a cranky foul humour and occasional fierce aggression towards featherless bipeds like us.
He stands his ground, apparently well aware of his capacity, and fossicks for breakfast while we respect his ritual. Appetite sated, he eventually retires deeper into the forest, and we continue on our way.
A wet day, of intermittent squalls, fording swollen creeks, looking out for reptilian locals, but seeing none. Almost an anti-climax to yesterday’s night of anonymous rustling. I might think twice in future, about romantic sleepovers on tropical beaches.