Travel Writers: Cape Fear

by Simon Mossman

image: saltie crocLocation: Cape Tribulation, Queensland, North Australia

Quite why our guide wanted to show us the swampy interior, just metres from the safety of Cape Tribulation’s sandy beach, was beyond us.

“It’s only about three metres big,” says Rob, referring to the saltie that inhabits the mangrove swamp.

A saltie. Right here where we’re standing. Somewhere. Hidden just under the surface of the water, no doubt. Stealthy and unseen, waiting for the right moment to strike. Sitting ducks, I thought. Sitting bulls even. In fact sitting-anything-larger – either way, no match for a 3-metre saltwater crocodile.

We are standing in a freezing stream, a run-off from the rainforests above. Though it’s only ankle-deep, thoughts of a croc lurking nearby are enough to make us turn around – but Rob ploughs deeper into the bush.

The saltwater or estuarine crocodile might be a relic from the dinosaur age but it still enjoys a decent life in tropical north Queensland. None of us, however, had any desire to play Crocodile Hunter though Rob was less fazed.

“Never seen it during the day,” he says, “You’ll most likely only see it after dark.”

Despite sitting alongside a lush tropical beach, the swamp was as a swamp should be – dark, dank, with a real sense of foreboding and little insects skimming across the water’s surface. The unmistakeable and putrid smell of sulphur, created by rotting leaves on the stream bed, hangs heavy in the air and infects every breath.

This is where the rainforest meets the reef, as the tourist brochures tell you incessantly: an advertising mantra hijacked by just about every tourist outfit from Cape Trib to Cairns and beyond, despite the Great Barrier Reef being a good few kilometres out to sea. However, here the rainforest truly meets the reef – a fringing reef frequented by dolphins, sting rays and turtles just metres from the shore.

After two hours kayaking around the Tribulation headland, we are lucky to spot a pod of dolphins and a couple of stingers zipping along the bottom before taking a break on the beach.

“The mangroves are part of an intricate eco-system,” said Rob, continuing further into the swamp. “In fact, with the trees blocking out so much of the sun, they are a virtual life-support system for the swamp.”

Rob goes on, explaining how the trees play their part by absorbing excess salt to save the myriad life forms from being poisoned but most of us are too busy looking at every twitch and ripple on the water’s surface.

It’s an uneasy feeling, knowing we are in another’s territory and, for once, at the top of their food chain.

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