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.

Palm Cove coconut treesWe 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 the thought!)

the Mangroves

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.

climbing Basket fern with nest-leaf

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.

the Bush

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 taken anywhere.

John has a Web site, too.

David C Nicholls
April 1999

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