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Saltwater crocs, toxic trees, crazy cassowaries: Find your wild side in this corner of Australia

When did I become such a wimp? When I backpacked around Australia 23 years ago with my future husband we hitchhiked – a lot – to hike and camp in remote areas. It was risky, but it was the only way to see more and spend less. And I'll never forget the time we lost the trail and then half our tent in the midst of a three-day coastal walk in Victoria – not to mention the many times we let our rides take us home for free meals. (They were such kind people, really!) Reading my old travel diaries recently I was shocked at how unadventurous I've become – but kids, marriage, middle-age and a full-time job will do that to you.

So I've come back Down Under – not backpacking, thankfully – to recapture some of that derring-do. Still, I can't help but think that standing shin deep in mud and tidal water in a mangrove swamp – home to crocodiles, maybe even deadly box jellyfish and the irukandji jellyfish – is a bad idea. Am I ready to ignore every bit of advice I've received since landing in Northern Queensland four days ago?

Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail

Brandon Walker of the Kuku Yalanji tribe, whose family has lived along Cooya Beach, 73 kilometres north of Cairns, for thousands of years, hands me a thin, two-metre-long bamboo spear.

When I point out it is unlikely to protect me from reptile attack (though it might make a nice toothpick for the croc), Brandon points out that it will help me catch a nice, juicy crab.
Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail

Ignoring the “danger crocodile” signs (red triangle, wide open croc jaw), he leads me into the bush where the mangroves meet the sea. My protests elicit scoffs; he’s been wandering through this area his entire life, as have generations of his family. “My aunties taught us how to hunt here – they’d send my brother and I back to the house with bags of clams, then we’d have to find them again.”

Drawing on this past, Brandon and his brother Linc now run Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tours, sharing their childhood adventures and knowledge of the bush with visitors as they forage for a seafood lunch. Brandon explains why we won’t meet our end here – his answer is a blend of geographical fact and Aboriginal legend – and it’s persuasive enough that I follow him in.

I am drawn to the wildlife in Australia, terrifying as some of it may be. Much of this country’s flora and fauna can hurt, if not outright kill you if you’re not careful.

Shark attacks off both coasts routinely make the news. Saltwater crocs dine on dogs and small children. Lethal stonefish are easily missed. The rain forest stinging tree injects a neurotoxin into your skin, causing excruciating pain that lasts for months. Twenty of the world’s 25 deadliest snakes live here, not to mention venomous spiders that like to hide in your boots and bush toilets (and that can eat through your tent – trust me).
Jesse McCookie

The allure is that many of the animals don’t live anywhere else. Separated from the rest of the world millions of years ago, species evolved entirely on their own. Many of these unique creatures can be found in North Queensland – it’s where the Wet Tropics rain forest meets the Great Barrier Reef. These diverse ecosystems make it one of the richest wildlife regions in Australia, where scientists are still discovering new species.

On the Daintree River, about 100 kilometres north of Cairns, small tour boats ply the rain forest waterway looking for crocs, snakes and anything in between. It’s a good place to spot crocodiles in the wild – as long as they want to be seen. Mick Casey, our guide, was a character straight out of Aussie central casting – accent, attitude and great storytelling. He makes the sex life of plants as fascinating as the crocodiles we soon spy sun-baking. Seeing these beasts from an open, low-in-the-water boat is breathtaking and chilling. Crocs can move with lightning speed, and we’re in so close that mangrove branches are in my lap.
Harltey’s Crocodile Adventures

Natuaralist Alan Gillanders is another great wildlife enthusiast. He’s delightfully nerdy – a committed “greenie” known by his colleagues as “the possum whisperer,” who passionately rattles off details and stories on a nighttime walk. More than half of Australia’s mammals are nocturnal, and to see them in action you need flashlights to look for the “shine” caused by light reflecting off the back their eyes. Without the light, I can’t see my hand in front of my face – I hope we don’t stumble upon any of the stinging trees he’s warned us about. But only possums, bandicoots and bats are out tonight. When I ask Alan about the deadly rep of Australian wildlife, he laughs: “It’s largely a reputation rather than fact. There are lots of dangerous plants and animals in [Canada]. In fact, I’ve a friend in your country who wants me to come snow camping and it scares the hell out of me!”

I ponder the difference between sleeping outside in the winter and stumbling upon a hungry “saltie” – the largest and deadliest of all reptiles – as I wander around Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. The 10-hectare wildlife park, 40 minutes north of Cairns, is perfect for ticking species off your must-see list in a hurry. (I do not, after all, have nine months to spend looking this time out.) Koalas, parrots, snakes, turtles, wetland birds – they’re all here, but the main focus is a large lagoon teeming with crocs where visitors take a 25-minute boat ride to watch them being fed. Chicken parts are hung off a long pole and dunked repeatedly in the billabong. When you least expect it, one jumps. If it’s the 800-kilogram, 5.4 metre-long “Ted” who rises right beside you, you’ll feel the “thunk” of his snapping jaw in your gut. (For an extra fee you can feed them yourself on a private tour with a wildlife handler – and they’ll tie on the chicken head.)
Saif Ismailji/Tourism and Events Queensland

You can also feed the locals at Cairns Tropical Zoo, which offers more up close and personal time than you’d expect. This is where I finally see a cassowary – human-sized birds that run up to 50 kilometres an hour and, if provoked, can strike out with a dagger-like claw on each foot. Despite hiking through cassowary habits last time I was in Queensland, I never saw one. Now I’m feeding grapes to two of the great birds with my bare hands (albeit through a chain-link fence). I also hand-feed lemurs, cuddle a wombat and a koala, hold a young crocodile, and spend quality time with a ’roo and her joey. Then I try not to feel guilty about last night’s dinner: Ochre, one of Cairns top restaurants, dishes up fine plates of Australian bush meat – kangaroo sirloin, pulled emu, roasted wallaby, green-ant gravlax and crocodile wontons. When I brag about it on the phone later, my kids nearly hang up on me.

What wasn’t on the menu at Ochre was turtle – only Aboriginals can kill the animal as part of their traditional hunt. But a day spent at the Great Barrier Reef is a good way to search for the endangered green sea turtle in its habitat. Guided snorkelling tours, scuba dives or goofy dry-hair “helmet” dives get you close to the reef’s 1,500 species of fish and 400 types of coral, not to mention turtles and the odd reef shark. They cost extra but get you get a better view than what you see in the roped-off snorkelling area or aboard Quicksilver’s semi-submersible vessels. Since I’m living large this time, I choose to return to port by helicopter and it’s an awe-inspiring way to see the world’s largest coral reef.
Peter Lik/Tourism and Events Queensland

Looking back, I can see why I followed Brandon into the bush against my better judgment. The boat tours, the croc feeding, the koala cuddling, the chopper flight – I’d been more coddled than I’d have cared to admit. I was ready to step off into the unknown, with no chain-link fence between me and whatever came next – like I did when I stuck out my thumb 23 years ago.

In the mangrove swamp, Brandon shows me how to use a clam shell as a boomerang, how to turn a nut into a candle, what plants I should never eat and what seeds clear up pink eye. The mud sucks around my ankles; suddenly, I’m thigh deep in the tide – I’ve sunken into a crab hole and nearly drop the lunch bucket of snails and crabs. I pull myself out of it just as Brandon calls back: “Here, this crab’s smaller, see if you can get him!”
Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail

There’s a glint in his eye and a challenge in his voice: He doesn’t think I can do it. But this is one tourist who’s already out of her comfort zone, who’s tossed aside city-slicker misgivings, who’s ruined a pedicure by using her toes to dig in the mud for clams, who’s eaten Aussie bush meat and alienated her family. Kill my own lunch? Why not? As long as I make it back alive to tell the tale.

The writer was a guest of Tourism and Events Queensland. It did not review or approve the story.
Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail


  • From Canada, fly direct to Brisbane, Queensland, from Qantas hubs in Dallas (16 hours) and Los Angeles (13 hours). Then it’s another 2 1/2 hours to Cairns on Qantas, Jetstar or Virgin Australia.


  • Silky Oaks Lodge: True luxe in the rain forest, complete with comfy hammocks on each treehouse balcony where you lie and listen to the Mossman River. Swimming holes, a restaurant that feels like you’re in the treetops and a proper spa make the haven complete. Treehouses from $410 ($398 Australian dollars, all prices below are in Australian dollars); Mossman,
  • Rose Gums Wilderness Retreat: Gorgeous cabins that feel like treehouses in the rain-forest canopy. Take a short walk at the right time of day and they almost guarantee platypus sightings here. Plus, every morning there’s a musky-rat kangaroo and parrot feeding. Tree houses from $304, includes one breakfast. Malanda,
  • Thala Beach Lodge: About a 10-minute drive from the resort town of Port Douglas is this luxe eco-escape. Under a eucalyptus forest, private cabins are scattered up and down a cliff overlooking the ocean. Head downhill to the two-kilometre-long beach where you’ll find hammocks in the pine trees and a quiet bar. Bungalows from $289. Oak Beach, Port Douglas,

Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail


  • Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tours: If you’re going to learn anything about this country, it’s a good idea to understand how the non-Europeans see it. Bush walks with Brandon and Linc Walker are unlike any tour you’ve had before. A seafood lunch (foraged by you, cooked by your guide) is included. From $75. Cooya Beach,
  • Alan’s Wildlife Tours: Who better to take your small group wildlife tour from than a man nicknamed “the possum whisperer”? In the Atherton Tablelands, naturalist Alan Gillanders offers a variety of animal experiences. If you’re booking the nocturnal tour, hope for a drizzly night: You’ll see more. From $80. Yungaburra,
  • Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures: Natural rain-forest surroundings and too many crocodiles to count make this a must see. A croc-feeding boat tour is included with admission or book a private tour for $125 if you’ve got the chutzpah to feed the beasts yourself. Admission $35. Wangetti Beach, QLD,
  • Cairns Tropical Zoo: Queensland is one of two states left in Australia where you can hold a koala, and this is a good, animal-sensitive place to do it. Walk among the kangaroos and through the birds of prey aviary for an immersion-like experience. Pay $125 extra for the Zootastic experience and you can hand feed lemurs, cassowaries, crocs and cuddle a wombat. Admission $34. Cairns, QLD,
  • Daintree River Cruise Centre: Putter along the rain forest waterway with eagle-eyed guides who know just where the saltwater crocs are sunning themselves and get you in real close for a photo. From $25. Mossman/Daintree Road,
  • Quicksilver Cruises: Climb aboard a 450-passenger Wavepiercer catamaran for the 90-minute ride to the outer reef. Lunch is served on a two-level pontoon and snorkelling equipment is included along with an underwater viewing area and semi-submersible boat rides. Book a dive or snorkel tour to get beyond the rope boundary, but the marine biologists I snorkelled with gave the same reef spiel in the water as they’d delivered for free on the trip out. Helicopter Reef tours are an unforgettable way to see the UNESCO spot. Reef trips from $225; scenic chopper flights from $165.;

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