Having pretty much recovered from our day on the Barrier Reef, we decided nonetheless to have something of a down day yesterday. Long experience shows that we are not particularly good at doing nothing, though, and so we decided to follow a short hiking trail upstream along the river and perhaps take a dip in the billabong along the way.
The trail, though short, was surprisingly treacherous, it being less a maintained trail than dry creek bed, paved (as it were) not with gravel or packed dirt but rather with tangled tree roots and smooth rocks, basically a twisted ankle waiting to happen. And indeed, in the rainy season it actually is a creek. But we made our way to the billabong — a pool about 50 yards across, fed by a low waterfall at the far end — and gingerly entered the dark clear water.
“Billabong” is the aboriginal word for “retracted testicles”, or at least it ought to be, given the temperature of the water; its source is a spring, a few miles further up in the mountains, and despite the heat of the day the water temperature was, um, brisk. I have never been good at the “dunk yourself and get it over with” technique at entering cold water; I am more of the “inch slowly forward and maximize the pain” school, and Alice even more so. So it took us a good ten minutes to make our way to the center of the pool, which was only about 6′ deep. Walking along the bottom was a little tricky since the bottom terrain was a mix of coarse sand — which your feet sink into — and large slippery boulders.
The boulders are actually kind of interesting because of their ubiquity: they line the creek beds and the lake bottom and there are large fields of them in and around the river. They are all surprisingly smooth and roundish, ranging in size from about six inches up to three or four feet. Here’s a pretty typical scene. The water is quite low at this time of year — we are 2/3 of the way into the dry season — and as a result there are large uncovered fields of boulders both in and in the general vicinity of the river.
The rainy season is a different story. The river becomes more of a torrent, and these rocks are thrown about like confetti, tumbling and crashing into other; there is even an upstream area called Bouncing Rocks where this effect is particularly violent. The result, of course, is that the river becomes a Brobdingnagian lapidary, impressively smoothing the rocks and over the course of time nudging them grain by grain towards their nearly-spherical shape.
A few minutes in the billabong was all that we needed, though the clarity of the water, despite its dark color, was kind of fun in itself. There were a lot of tiny fish darting about, and we were told that there is a resident platypus as well, though we did not see him.
We made our way back along the trail to our cabin. The light along the trails is surprisingly dusky even in full daylight; the rainforest canopy is quite dense and filters out a lot of the sky. Except down at the river bank, we don’t actually see much of the sky at all either from our cabin nor along the walkways that thread among the cabins throughout the grounds of the lodge. Looking straight up, you see a sliver of the sky maybe 20-30 degrees wide. This means that the day does not get light until comparatively late in the day; for the same reason, dusk and nightfall come artificially early.
This phenomenon was very noticeable when we took a guided nature hike last night, starting at about 5 PM. There were two other couples, one from Sydney and the other from Zurich, the six of us being led by a very pleasant local woman whose day job is teaching at an Aborigine school but who is a part-time naturalist. She showed up with a bunch of flashlights for us, which seemed a little silly at 5 PM, but which proved to absolutely unmissable less than hour later, when we found ourselves picking our way among the root-strewn trail in utter blackness.
The hike itself was pleasant though not earthshaking. She pointed out a number of different types of trees and plants, all of which were plentiful, and told us about a number of interesting local forest birds and animals, not a single one of which we saw. (Though we did see a wild turkey in a tree as soon as we got back to the lodge.). Outside of that, although we are surrounded constantly by the most exotic and ubiquitous birdsong — one of the real pleasures of this place, in fact — we haven’t actually seen much in the way of wildlife. Alice saw a bandicoot, and we’ve both seen a green pigeon and grouse-like ground birds that looks a lot like guinea hens, but that’s about it.
One thing that did strike me about the nature hike was the frequency with which the words “dangerous” and “poisonous”
crop up. Here we have the so-called “wait-a-while” pandanus tree, whose long fibrous barbed leaves will snag your clothing and lacerate your skin, in either case greatly impeding your forward progress. And there we have littering the ground a variety of brightly colored berries and seeds, toxic enough to cause a rash merely by touching them.
See, the unexpected thing about Australia is that, aside from the people themselves who are all very friendly, pretty much every other living here is trying to kill you. (This was explained most hilariously by writer Bill Bryson in his wonderful book about Australia, “In a Sunburned Country”. You should read it.) Those cuddly koalas? Foul tempered as all get-out and they’ll bite you in a heartbeat. The ever-comical platypus? Venomous claws on its rear feet. And this is not to mention all the great stuff in the Outback, including assorted fatally-equipped snakes and the famous funnel web spider, which is about as poisonous and nasty as anything with a name like “funnel web spider” ought to be.
Whew! We’ve only been here three days and I’m not sure how we’ve managed to survive this long. But we’re not taking any chances: this afternoon we are taking the lodge shuttle van down the mountain and into Port Douglas for lunch, shopping, and milling around in the much safer urban environment. All for now….