Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Gwen Hyatt

When planning this trip, weeks previously, I had cast an eye over friends’ holiday snaps, the odd guide book and the internet, but at that stage, it was only a dream and conjuring up the actual experience had proved impossible. As today’s tour bus sped along the coast, I saw ‘Snapper Island’, named because it resembles a crocodile peeping up out of the water; it looked so different from its image on Google Earth. I sat back and relaxed; it all began to feel real. More crocs were to come.

The campsites in Queensland offer an excellent service: after you’ve cooked and eaten your barbeque at the immaculate communal facilities, you meander over to the site office with a vague notion of a trip you might quite like to take the following day. They greet you like old friends, make some phone calls and organise your trip for you, complete with bus transfer from the campsite.

The morning dawned; we got up at leisure. Dennis, the site manager, pulled up on his tractor to tell us, in his customary drawl, that our transport had arrived. We set out for a croc spotting experience on the Daintree River. Our bus driver chatted amiably, punctuating every other sentence with a reference to the late Steve Irwin, and asking us why we Poms drank so much tea. No stereotypes here then!

We reached our destination and boarded the boat. The river was wide, calm and blue, and it wound its way through the thick, green rainforest with low branches overhanging the water. The river bank was besieged by a series of curious root systems: grasping fingers, eerily warning from the murky depths. The banks were muddy; the sun was shining; the boat was white and canopied – the images were perfect, reminding me of nature documentaries I watched as a child – and we were there.

The boat glided almost effortlessly and silently through the calm waters which lapped at the bow. We glimpsed a night heron, a forest kingfisher and countless egrets and lapwings. The birds chirruped and chattered, oblivious to our mission. The tour guide murmured a commentary in a hushed tone. The tourists held their breath and waited. And then we saw one; and another; real crocodiles, inches away! The most impressive was ‘Fat Albert’, over five metres in length, who was basking in the sun, relaxing his jaw muscles. Unfortunately, this meant he was baring all of his sixty-six teeth at us in a menacing way. I didn’t want to get too close to him; we got closer.

The hour’s cruise was over all too soon and it was back on the bus and off to Mossman Gorge for rainforest walking or river swimming. The views were breathtaking, just like all the postcards we’d seen in souvenir shops on the drive up from Brisbane – picture perfect again. What was most fantastic though, was actually being there, in amongst a proper rainforest. The trees were tall, the foliage was dense, the rocks were mossy, the sunlight fell in shafts creating dappled patterns on the floor below, the roots were tangled and gnarled and vines hung down like dreadlocks. There was a hush over the place, broken only occasionally by a squawk from an unseen parrot. We even had to cross a rickety swing bridge and it would not have been surprising had Tarzan come swinging and calling around the corner.

That evening, as the cloak of Southern hemisphere darkness suddenly engulfed us, we ate our meal with the creatures of the night, whose unidentifiable eyes gleamed greedily from the bush. Having partaken of a bottle or two of finest Australian Shiraz and listened to the rhythmic rise and fall of Aussie banter all around, I went to the toilet block to wash before settling down for the night. I heard the unmistakable whirr of a camera shutter and whirled round, ready to rebuke the imagined pervert. I discovered a woman, who may well have consumed one or two bottles of her own, taking photographs of a bright green tree frog with orange eyes. We watched and photographed the frog and also observed some scampering yellow geckos. When the wildlife extends to the campsite washrooms, it has to be conceded that Australia is not just another country, it is truly another world.