A walk at dawn
near Palm Cove
Palm Cove, for those who don't know
it, is part of what they call the "Northern Beaches", north of the city of Cairns
in tropical Far North Queensland, Australia. It's about 25 minutes drive out of
the city along the Captain Cook Highway. Fifteen years ago it was a delightful
little beach settlement, with a single lane of bitumen along the beach front under
the Coconut Palms. The beach itself is a long arc of sand stretching the length
of the Northern beaches. Palm Cove is at the northern most part of this arc. It
looks out over the Coral Sea. These days, it has been spruced up a bit with several
up-market resorts. Fortunately it hasn't lost its charm. You can still sit under
the palm trees on a balmy tropical night eating fish and chips on the beach.
spent a week up there last October, staying at one of the resorts this time, rather
than one of the old, original places. On two previous visits we had done the usual
touristy things, like visiting the magnificent outer parts of the Great Barrier
Reef, travelling up to the rainforest at Cape Tribulation, and driving north to
the rather wilder places like Cooktown. This time we were into gentler activities.
At the tours desk at the resort, always a place to look out for tours and new
places to explore, we came across a brochure from a group known as Nainoo. They
promised nature walks at dawn and dusk along the shoreline and into the Bush that
borders Palm Cove to the south.
I had walked along the beach here
on a number of occasions, both this time and on two previous visits. I'd even
wandered into the Bush behind the top of the beach to see the mangrove lagoon.
But I'd never thought about taking a serious walk through the area. This is what
Nainoo was proposing: a guided walk through the mangroves and coastal Bush, early
in the freshness of the morning, or later in the day just at sunset.
We looked at the schedule: the morning
walk started at about 5.30 am - a lot earlier than I am wont to rise. The schedule
was tied to sunrise and sunset. Somehow this had a much more natural feel to it
than the rigid clock-driven timetables of the conventional tours. Also the sunrise
walk promised a view of the sun rising out of the Coral Sea. It sounded well worth
getting up for, so we booked for the walk the next day.
We duly woke at around five am and
walked down to the end of the road along the beach at Palm Cove, in the half light
before dawn. After a minute or so our guide, John Felan, arrived. On this particular
walk no-one else had booked, so we had the tour to ourselves.
John introduced himself. Though
Australian, he had lead Safari tours through Africa for many years. He has a detailed
knowledge of the Bush around Palm Cove and an obvious affinity for things natural.
We walked along the beach a little
way, away from the settlement, to sit and wait for sunrise. The wait was not long
and the view was spectacular. The high Cirrus cloud at first glowed red then slowly
changed to brilliant white, and the sun emerged from between clouds right on the
horizon, sitting most likely over the outer Barrier Reef. It made me think that,
perhaps, getting up for sunrise was something I should do more often. (Perish
With the sun in the sky, we headed
up the beach and into the vegetation. Immediately we came upon the mangrove lagoon.
Under the overcanopy of mangroves and taller trees, the lagoon was still and dark.
The odd frog croaked. John explained the ecology of mangroves - he pointed out
several different sorts of mangrove that inhabited different zones away from the
beach, the different ways the seeds took advantage of the conditions - all sorts
of things I had never expected about these amazing trees. I had previously thought
that mangroves were just mangroves. Not at all. They are a family of many members
and great individual idiosyncrasy.
Away from the lagoon itself, but
in tidal areas that are occasionally waterlogged, other types of mangrove grow,
some with huge buttress roots to retain a hold on the soil. Higher up grew all
manner of other trees: among them Black Bean, and even one huge Kauri Pine. I
had never seen a Kauri so close to the shore before. There are plenty in the rainforest
that clothes the hills to the west of Cairns, but one down near the beach was
a surprise. Another remarkable specimen was the largest Pandanus Palm that I have
ever seen. Immense, perhaps three times the size of any I'd seen elsewhere in
Australia or in the Pacific Islands. Here and there, Basket Ferns (Drynaria) clambered
up the tree trunks.
We traversed up the gentle slope
and into thicker Bush that started to resemble coastal rainforest. All the while,
John pointed out the numerous birds singing and staking out their territories
in the early forest morning. He takes delight in showing all these to his guests,
and he communicates his enthusiasm most effectively. Here and there, he pointed
to epiphytic orchids high in the trees. I was interested in the ferns. Though
not familiar with the local species, I saw perhaps a dozen I could differentiate:
one or two Cyathea tree ferns; several species of ground ferns growing on the
banks of seasonal creeks; a most unusual fern that climbed up tree trunks with
a hairy roots, that grew nest leaves to catch plant matter falling from the canopy
above, to host the main plant; and the climbing fern Lygodium that scrambles upwards
like miniature ferny ivy.
We walked further through the heavier
forest. Like many such forests, the plants at ground level were quite sparse so
the going was very easy. In fact the entire walk was straight forward. There was
never any "Bush bashing" to be done. The trick was to know where to walk, what
was to be seen, what grew where, how things all worked together and the history
of the region. This was where John's experience was invaluable. He had obviously
been through the area many times and knew it like the back of his hand. The path
he took, though apparently at random, was obviously well chosen. A walk by oneself
would have missed most of the interesting bits.
We climbed out of the forest into
open areas where the vegetation had been cleared for cane field and later abandoned.
Agile Wallabies - like small gentle-eyed kangaroos - sat just on the edge of the
tree line. Normally they spread out onto the grassy areas, but that day there
was some sporting event on in the distance, so they stayed closer to the trees.
The whole area had been bought up
by an overseas developer some years ago, but fortunately they have done little
with it, so much of it is as Nature grew it.
We walked back into the trees and
back through the coastal Bush towards Palm Cove. The Sun was starting to make
its presence felt. The cool of the morning had given way to the heat of the tropical
day. Finally we emerged back into Palm Cove, two hours after we had started. We
bade goodbye to John, after a uniquely memorable experience. One that had been
a quite unexpected delight, and should not be missed by anyone with a feel for
the natural environment. And without any doubt the best value of any tour we have
John has a Web
David C Nicholls
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