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Discovering the Rainforest

Discovering the Rainforest
 
 

EVERY rainforest is different. It is not until you get below the canopy and explore the different ecosystems in each layer that you begin to realise how complex it is.

At the entrance to the discovery centre
At the entrance to the discovery centre

After a few minutes at the lookout gazing over the ancient forest we piled back into the bus and set off back down to the main road and followed it through the jungle for another five minutes before stopping outside the Daintree Discovery Centre. A large stainless steel leaf shaped sign with Daintree Discovery Centre written on it marked the entrance.

At the entrance Greg introduced us to Chris, the discovery centre guide. Chris started with showing us a large colourful sign showing where we will be going this morning. The map seemed to cover a small area of jungle with sky walks covering different parts of the forest. Chris would have been in his mid-thirties and he was wearing a purple polo top which formed part of the staff uniform. He had a narrow face with a big smile and frizzy sun-bleached hair just a little too long. He explained the centre was built in 1989 and considered to be a world class ecotourism facility.

Sign out the front
Sign out the front

Chris led us along a short ramp into a wooden souvenir shop nestled in the depths of the thick jungle foliage. This was known as the eco shop. We walked through it to a corrugated iron veranda on the other side which he called coffee shop. There we sat down and had Anzac biscuits and drinks. There he boldly told us that he had spent all night cooking them. Then to top it off he said people come here to see the reef, the rainforest, and to try his Anzac biscuits.

Anzac biscuits are popular in Australasia, significant in our culture as it was considered a special recipe sent by wives to the ANZAC soldiers abroad in World War 1. The recipe was such that they didn’t spoil easily from long distance travel to the other side of the world by sea. They are still a common biscuit in this part of the world made from rolled oats, flour, desiccated coconut, sugar, butter, golden syrup baking soda and boiling water.

Once morning tea was finished, Chris led us from the large veranda onto a large steel framed aerial walkway through the forest high above the ground. At the start of the aerial walkway was a small whiteboard. The whiteboard was covered in writing with various local news snippets on it. There were apparently a few white lipped green tree frogs living just behind the sign. Then there was a statement that the Kuku Yalanji rainforest Aboriginal people call this time of year the Buluriji – the cold time. Well it was twenty six degrees today, which Chris told us was average at this time of year. In summer the average highs are around thirty two degrees. The temperature difference between summer and winter wasn’t much, but it was very humid in summer. This time of year was considered significantly colder than the rest of the year.

Daintree jungle
Daintree jungle
Daintree jungle
Daintree jungle

The Kuku Yalanji are the aboriginal people originating from the rainforest regions of Far North Queensland. They are commonly known as the rainforest people, particularly in light of most perceptions of Aboriginal tribes living in the arid outback. There were between three and five such forest tribes living in this general area prior to European settlement.

We walked out onto the aerial walkway. The trees of the forest here seemed to be too young and small to be what I would consider to be pristine jungle. The jungle canopy certainly wasn’t as high as in other jungle areas I had been to previously in Borneo, Cambodia or the Amazon.

Daintree jungle
Daintree jungle

About a minute out from the eco shop we stopped to have a look at a small birds nest made from twigs knotted together in a short sack. This was the tell-tale nest of the yellow bellied sunbird. Chris explained this nest had been abandoned as it was in such close proximity to the trail where many people walked.

The trees here had very long slender trunks and all were covered with epiphytes. The vegetation at the middle level was otherwise very sparse. The ground now about ten metres below us was covered in dense foliage, including the king fern. The canopy overhead was covered in thick vegetation filtering out about ninety percent of all light. Chris told us that less than five percent of the light reaching the canopy actually reaches the ground.

The building we had left just a couple of minutes ago was almost invisible through the dense foliage. Looking down I could hardly see the ground, but I could hear a stream bubbling almost directly below, creating a very nice ambience to this dazzling rainforest setting.

Daintree jungle
Daintree jungle

The vines of strangler figs climbed the trees in erratic directions. They are supposed to climb straight up and down their host trees, but the frequent summer storms and cyclones cause a lot of the host trees to fall or otherwise die, leaving the vines hanging onto whatever they have fallen on. This results in a tangle of mossy vines spreading out in all directions between the trees.

The junctions of most branches were abundant in epiphytes. Large birds nest ferns grew exceptionally well often filled with smaller hanging ferns and other plants. The tangle of hanging plants made a most interesting juxtaposition with the huge birds nest ferns, especially evolved to capture the leaf litter dropping from the canopy above.

There was a large hole in the canopy where a tree had fallen due to a severe cyclone two years ago. Chris explained the trees here were relatively short and small compared to other jungles around the world due to the frequent cyclones that come through devastating the area. This made sense to me. The giants of Borneo are such as the island is known as the land beneath the wind – too close to the equator to be affected by cyclones or typhoons. At this latitude they strike with particular ferocity and regularity.

Daintree jungle
Daintree jungle

Here the competition for sunlight is fierce. When space in the canopy becomes available following a cyclone, the smaller trees grow as quickly as possible to reach for the sunlight. Their trunks are very thin as all their energy goes into heading upwards. Finally when they do reach the height of the canopy, they expand their foliage, gradually thickening their trunks to establish their territory.

The trees are not alone in the competition for survival though. Epiphytes grow at every branch junction. Most are small tassel ferns or other small plants. The strangler figs on the other hand can grow to enormous dimensions. They establish themselves from a seed in a bird’s droppings deposited on a trunk. Once the seed germinates it sends a root down towards the ground, and a runner with leaves growing up the tree. Eventually the root reaches the ground where it establishes itself in the soil to take in a much higher concentration of nutrients. The head of the plant continues growing upwards into the canopy, then shares the canopy with the tree’s foliage. As the fig continues to establish itself, it sends down more roots, eventually wrapping themselves around the tree. The fig continues to grow until it finally kills the host tree about a hundred years after establishing itself.

Daintree jungle
Daintree jungle

Chris explained the Daintree rainforest has thirty percent of all of Australia’s frog, reptile and marsupial species, sixty five percent of all bat and butterfly species, eighteen percent of bird species and over twelve thousand species of insect all packed into this tiny corner of the country.

A few more metres along the sky walk I saw palm trees growing on the forest floor, standing about three or four metres high.

Out of the dense jungle a towering structure appeared in front of us. It had several levels going up to the top of the canopy. We entered the first level which was at the same level as the sky walk. There was a large board showing the different kinds of fruit available in the forest.

Chris explained that most of the native fruit found here is toxic to humans, but there are some edible varieties the Aboriginal people ate.

Daintree jungle
Daintree jungle
Above the canopy
Above the canopy

From the platform we were standing on Chris told us we were heading up towards the top of the tower. There were a couple of unfit people who opted out, but I knew the views from the top were going to be amazing. I had climbed a much higher tower than this in the Amazon, but the platform of that one had only been about two square metres in size. This one was a good fifteen square metres.

We followed the stairs up to the next level, just below the base of the high canopy. Here stood a large board showing life sized photos of the different butterfly species found here. They were amazing. Unfortunately there weren’t any flying around here today. The butterflies on display included the huge birdwings, the largest butterflies in the world, and a few other incredibly well coloured butterflies. They were brightly coloured to attract a mate.

Above the canopy
Above the canopy

We continued climbing the stairs finally reaching the top level at about twenty metres above the forest floor. Up here the sun was extremely bright. It was very dark looking down past the bright green foliage. Most of the canopy top was below us, apart from the very tallest trees. The forest had a totally different feel up here. No longer could we see the intense competition for light as we had seen down below. Up here was where the trees had made it. The vertical trunks and swinging vines had given way to masses of bright green canopy foliage under the bright blue sky.

From here we could see a few hills surrounding the gully that enclosed the discovery centre. The tallest of these hills was Mount Thornton. The forest continued in all directions for as far as the eye could see – just up to the nearest ridge in any direction.

The bright sunny platform had its own weather station. An aerial was attached to the side of the platform containing wind vanes and an anemometer for measuring the wind speed. Nearby was a rain gauge. Chris mentioned this was one of the wettest areas in Australia, and one of the wettest in the world. Here they record an average of 3900 millimetres of rain per year. That’s three times as much as I get at home. The past two years have been particularly wet though, and two years ago they recorded 8000 millimetres at this station.

Walking the forest floor
Walking the forest floor

This was not the wettest part of Australia though. An area a little south of Cairns receives an average of 4200 millimetres per year, with one rain gauge in the area recording 12,000 millimetres in 2010. Both areas were expecting to break records again this year. These figures were amazing especially considering Australia is the driest continent in the world.

After a few more minutes up at the top of the tower having photo shots, we started heading back down into the dark jungle. At the bottom of the stairs almost hidden in the foliage was the timber stained Interpretive Display Centre.

Here there were a few tables containing dried seeds and bones that we could touch. There was also a display along the wall showing the timbers of the trees that grew here.
From there we continued along the sky walk a few metres to the bush tucker hut. Here were displays of a number of plants in the area that were edible.

From the bush tucker hut we walked another ten metres to the reptile house. This was a dark hut that was lit during night and dark during the day. A model of a large python wrapped around a log was directly above our heads as we entered. Inside were a few nocturnal snakes and large lizards that live in the area. The displays were lit with red light which is apparently invisible to their eyes.

Daintree jungle
Daintree jungle
Walking the forest floor
Walking the forest floor

Upon leaving the reptile house we followed wooden stairs down the bush tucker trail down to the dark ground level. Here the ground was covered with a thick leaf litter with a weak earthy smell to it. Now we were at the mammal display. There weren’t many animals around as they are all apparently nocturnal. The sign showed a lot of unusual small mammals such as kangaroo rats, quolls, and swamp wallabies.

Then we reached the small stream that flowed down the bottom of the gully. I guessed during the rainy season this was often a raging torrent. We followed it upstream for about fifty metres to an enormous strangler fig that was over two hundred years old. It rose high above our heads leaning ominously towards us. It was hollow indicating it had suffocated a very large tree which had put up a struggle for over a hundred years but had now died and rotted out completely in the early half of last century. There were large palm trees with flaying fronds like tree ferns behind us. The strangler fig was an impressive sight.

After seeing the stranger fig we walked along the path up towards the eco shop, passing flightless bird displays including the cassowary. Chris told us to ask Greg about the parenting habits of the Cassowary, and warned that some of us wouldn’t like the answer.

Daintree jungle
Daintree jungle
Daintree jungle
Daintree jungle

We passed a sign showing the giant ripper lizard. Fortunately for us this has been extinct for about 68,000 years. The sign said a complete skeleton has not been discovered yet, but it is believed they grew anything up to 1400 kilogrammes and seven metres long. It would have been capable of bringing down and killing an animal ten times its size. This was the largest venomous lizard to have ever lived. It was closely related to the komodo dragon in Indonesia.

The track suddenly rose quite steeply uphill for about ten metres before suddenly returning to the eco shop. Here we had a few minutes to browse and buy souvenirs before the bus was due to leave. There was quite a big range of souvenirs for sale here, and I ended up buying a ceramic green tree frog which I thought would go really well on the landing in my stairwell at home.

With souvenirs bought (probably at a rather inflated price), we all returned to the bus where we thanked Chris and joined Greg again.

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24 July 2012

 

Daintree Nat Park

Australia

 

16°14'S
145°26'E
70 - 90m ASL

 

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