Might of a magic forest

SUE WILLIAMS
Last updated 05:00 14/08/2013
silky
Tourism Queensland
GREEN GETAWAY: Silky Oaks is nestled in the lush Daintree Forest.

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We're standing in driving rain beneath the dripping canopy of the oldest rainforest on Earth.

It's muddy underfoot, drenching overhead and the river nearby, coursing its way through the thick undergrowth below, is rising rapidly.

The guide can't conceal a note of alarm in his voice as he watches how fast the water is rushing and how quickly it's inching its way up the banks.

"We've had such a lot of rain here this year," he says. "But these are quite unseasonal conditions. We'll have to keep an eye on the river."

Yet it's hard to share his unease. Breaking storms on a four-day trip away can prove a dampener anywhere else but in the middle of a rainforest.

Here, deep within the World Heritage-listed Daintree in far north Queensland, north of Cairns, the rain has the power to turn the experience into a magical one.

In the filtered light, the leaves of the giant eucalypts and ferns of the ancient cycads glow a deep, verdant, glossy green, and everything is wreathed in haloes of mist.

The smells of fresh peat and damp moss fill the warm afternoon air. Apart from the drumming of the steadily falling raindrops, there's an almost eerie, hushed silence.

It's a stark contrast with even half an hour ago when we arrived, peered over the Mossman Gorge from the lookout on the edge of the steep escarpment and started off down one of the many hiking trails, the Dreamtime gorge walk, with our Aboriginal guide.

Then, it was overcast but bright, and the air was filled with the screeching of birds - about 430 species live here at the last count, including 13 species found nowhere else in the world. We were looking forward to a traditional smoking ceremony along the way, bush tea and damper, and a swim at the "beach" fronting one part of the mighty Mossman River.

Something tells me won't be happening. Our guide picks up his pace.

He's been telling us stories of his old Kuku Yalanji culture, stopping to identify bush food - sometimes holding branches down so we can pick it fresh from the source - and explaining the medicinal value of plants along the way.

When the rain starts, the 135-million-year-old rainforest really comes alive. Myriad creatures - it contains 20 per cent of Australia's bird species, 65 per cent of its bat and butterfly species, nearly one-third of its frogs, marsupials and reptiles, and more than 12,000 species of insects - scurry, fly and buzz for cover.

The river starts rising before our very eyes. "I think we should get back," our guide says. "The river's rising so quickly, it could cut off the road later."

It's a reminder that some things in this comfortable, modern, technologically advanced world are still beyond our control.

Our base for this jaunt is Silky Oaks Lodge, overlooking the Mossman River, on the edge of the wilderness. Bought four years ago by a new owner, Dutchman Paul van Min, it's undergone a $4 million renovation to upgrade the suites and tree houses, build other cabins overlooking the rapids, rebuild the pool, improve the large spa treatment centre and create a restaurant with 180-degree rainforest views.

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It is now included in the Luxury Lodges of Australia group.

There is no TV or mobile reception, just the sounds of birds, the creaking and rustling of the forest and the river gurgling over the rocks below.

On the second day, I tried out a mountain bike then had a snorkel in the billabong at the front of the lodge, seeing jungle perch and freshwater turtles, although searching in vain for the resident platypus.

The next day, I took a yoga class then a kayak for a meander along the river.

But right now, we're walking fast to get back to the vehicle that dropped us at the start of our walk at the new $20-million Mossman Gorge Gateway Centre.

The bustling indigenous tourist business at the entrance to the gorge has an art gallery, cultural exhibits and activities.

We pick up our pace, and the guide thanks us and then steers us on and finally out through a clearing and watches us as we pile into the bus. "I'm so sorry," he says, "but you never know with the rain."

No need for apologies - seeing the forces of nature so vividly exercised is a luxury for any visitor to the Daintree in itself.

FIVE OTHER THINGS TO DO IN THE DAINTREE

RIVER DRIFT SNORKELLING Wetsuits and snorkelling gear are provided to drift through clear, cold and crocodile-free part of Mossman River. Costs A$99 ($113). backcountrybliss.com.au.

RIVER FISHING Take a charter boat and fish for barramundi, mangrove jack, trevally and even mud crabs, when in season. A half-day costs $100 ($114) a person and a full day $200 ($228.7). daintreefishing.com.au.

THE DAINTREE WILDLIFE ZOO The sanctuary is set within wetland reserves. Its wildlife includes emus, cassowaries and dingoes. daintreewild.com.au.

A TRIP TO THE REEF The Daintree is the only rainforest to meet the reef, and there are plenty of ways to get there: on the Quicksilver wavepiercer to the outer reef, the catamaran Wavedancer to the coral cay Low Isles, and the Calypso, a wide-bodied catamaran.

A DAY OUT IN KURANDA Take the Skyrail riding metres above the canopy to Kuranda, then take the train back.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION cairns-greatbarrierreef.org.au.

GETTING THERE Qantas, Virgin and Jetstar have regular flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Cairns. There are a number of tours to the Daintree from Cairns or Port Douglas, or you can drive yourself to various walking trails.

STAYING THERE Silky Oaks Lodge is an hour's drive from Cairns and has a pick-up service from the airport for guests. Rates from $440 ($503) a couple a night. Packages including meals and experiences are available. silkyoakslodge.com.au.

SEE + DO Tours can be booked through Silky Oaks. Walks can also be arranged through the Mossman Gorge Centre. The 1½-hour Dreamtime Gorge Walk with an indigenous guide is $50 ($57) for an adult and $25 ($28.5) for children. mossmangorge.com.au.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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