Getting Jurassic in the Daintree Rainforest
Visiting the Daintree Rainforest lets visitors encounter the oldest rainforest on earth with many surprises along the way.
Hot Take: A long, but tremendous day in Australia’s jungles is sure to satisfy your wanderlust. (4.5 stars)
Pro Tip: Take a rental car to get a more personalized and intimate experience.
Queensland Australia’s ‘far north’ is more rainforest than desert (with more crocodiles and spiders than we care to admit) and makes for a tremendous day trip from Cairns (or Port Douglas). While the Great Barrier Reef will (rightly) always be the headliner of the area, spending a day to trek to the Daintree is highly recommended!
Captain Cook Highway
The first thing to know about a trip to the Daintree is that the adventure is in the journey, not just a destination. Fortunately, that adventure starts on the superb Captain Cook Highway (which is recognized as Australia’s second best drive, only behind the Great Ocean Road). The trip up the coast from Cairns to Port Douglas may be just 47 miles (75 km) and only take an hour, but my what a drive it is (we ended up doing the drive 3 times during our stay because we loved the trip).
Our first stop was the Mossman Gorge, where (after paying the ~$8 each for the bus ride) we began the hike on board-walked paths past a small river and through the forest. We did all 2 miles (~3 km) of trails along the River Circuit Pathway, then Rainforest Circuit Pathway. Though this stop took 1.5 hours (and can be skipped if you get a late start), we really enjoyed being in a forest so different than the ones we are used to.
The next stop north was the ferry that provides the only access into the main portion of Daintree National Park. The admission to the National Park and the ferry fee are all rolled into one fee and charged by the carload (~$30). Matt is a big nerd and loved being out on the river on such a k'nex set of a cable guided barge in a river infested with crocodiles (it channeled his inner Steve Irwin). It’s hard to explain, but crossing the river that way also provides a physical barrier to let you know that you are entering something special and primordial (after all, Australians claim the Daintree to be the oldest rainforest in the world).
After a quick look about at the overlook on the way in, the next major stop is the Daintree Discovery Centre. While the Centre itself has a paid boardwalk focused on kids, the secret gem is the Jindalba Boardwalk that is just down the road past it. The Jindalba Boardwalk is a free, half mile (700 meter) loop where cassowaries (giant flightless jungle birds) are often spotted. While we didn’t see any, one of the (only) 3 other couples we passed had.
Turtle Rock Café
Not all of the animal life in the Daintree is in the forest, as we learned at our quite excellent pit stop for lunch at the Turtle Rock Café. Quick note: often cafes in tourist traps like the Daintree are overpriced and marginal, but the Turtle Rock Café was neither and delivered us a wonderful meal in the company of a beautiful (and quite bold) peacock.
Cape Trib Exotic Fruit Farm
After lunch, we made our way to one of the highlights of the day, the fruit tasting class at the Cape Trib Exotic Fruit Farm. At $25 each, it was the most expensive thing we did all day, but it was totally worth it to learn from the owner and sample a dozen different fruit varieties (all picked at the peak of ripeness) that we had never tried before (many of which are not commercially available). [list of fruits] Our favorite was the [fruit name], which looked like a sunset and tasted like a blend of a delicate custard with cheesecake (it takes 18 months to ripen, so don’t expect to find it in a store near you). After the tasting, the owner lead us around the property and showed us some of the crazy ways that mother nature creates fruit.
Cape Tribulation Beach
The northernmost part of our journey was our stop at Cape Tribulation Beach, where Captain Cook, after ‘discovering’ Australia almost lost his ship and crew when they ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef (hence he named it Cape Tribulation despite the lovely way it looks today). The highlight of the beach is the free 1/3 mile (600 meter) Kuliki Boardwalk that runs from the parking lot through the mangroves to an overlook spot where you can see the entire bay (when we got there at 4:15p, we had the entire boardwalk and overlook to ourselves). Make sure you take a moment to soak up the history of the place and put yourself in Captain Cook’s shoes while you gaze at the natural beauty.
Daintree Ice Cream Co.
After a big day of exploring, we made it to the Daintree Ice Cream Co. just as it was closing at 5p. The ice cream shop is basically an open-air café set into a fruit plantation in the Daintree and features a taster of 4 different jungle fruit ice creams that you won’t be able to get anywhere else on the planet. The flavors change constantly (and we had never even hear of two of the fruits in ours) and the combination of natural beauty, a long day of exploring, and wonderful new tastes on our tongues was the perfect way to end the day. So with bellies and hearts full, we set off for a tremendous sunset drive back down the coast (as Californians, our only quibble with the whole day would be that the sun sets on the wrong side – over land instead of over the ocean). The road home had one last treat in store for us…just before we left Daintree National Forest, we spotted a cassowary on the side of the road. We pulled over and were mesmerized for a full 5 minutes while the mother and chick grazed in the bush about 10 feet (3 meters) away from our car. As the third-tallest living bird (the mother stool as tall as a human with a baby the size of a dog) and basically unchanged from the time of the dinosaurs, the experience was pure magic!