Being instructed to strip off and slip into a rubber suit is a little disconcerting at first – especially when you’re standing in the middle of a remote sugarcane plantation, with no water in sight, and the person issuing the order is a bloke with a beard and an excited glint in his eye.
“Trust me,” says Barney, the bearded one. “You’re about to have a totally unique experience.” Excellent. I’m all for unique experiences, as long as they’re not like a scene from Deliverance.
But Barney doesn’t look like the banjo-playing type, and I do trust him. We’re only two minutes into the trip, but as I hop around the field, struggling to get into my wetsuit, I’m pretty confident that this isn’t going to be a typical Tuesday afternoon. I’m just wondering where the water is.
In Tropical North Queensland, donning snorkelling equipment and jumping into the drink is like brushing your teeth – if it’s not happening at least twice a day, it should be. However, we’re a few kilometres inland here, on the verdant verge of the Daintree Rainforest, and both beach and reef feel very distant.
Barney slings me a mask and points at the trees. “The river is this way,” he shouts enthusiastically, stashing the keys from his 4WD into a drybag and tucking a purpose-built ‘river sled’ (which looks a lot like a lilo) under one arm. “Let’s get into it.”
Visitors to this neck of the woods generally come to explore the two things that make the region famous: the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest.
Every day, boatloads of tourists head out to the reef’s popular snorkelling spots to accidently flipper each other in the face while trying to find Nemo; hundreds of others take walking tours through the rainforest, such as those offered at Mossman Gorge. Both are good experiences in their own right, but no one, it seems, has thought much about the connection between the forest and the reef.
No one, that is, except my new mate Barney. A little while back he realised that the actual neck of the woods – the waterways behind the beaches, the zone where the rainforest’s rivers run before meeting the Coral Sea – were being completely overlooked, if not by fisherman, certainly by snorkellers.
There’s at least one good reason for that, and it’s weighing heavily on my mind as we hike a short distance through the bush from the sugarcane field to the Mossman River, where we’re about to go swimming.
“What about crocs?” I eventually ask, having sat nervously on the question all day. As far as I’m concerned, estuarine crocodiles – aka salties – are easily the scariest creatures on the entire planet, and every bridge and river crossing that I’ve ever seen in North Queensland has featured a big bold sign warning these animals are present, and that interaction with them will inevitably end in tears. Just in case there’s any ambiguity in the message, the signs are usually accompanied by an image of a stickman getting chomped. Under no circumstances do I want to be that stickman.
“What about crocs?” I eventually ask, having sat nervously on the question all day.
“Nah, it’s fine,” Barney reassures me, as we rinse our masks in the river and prepare to take the plunge. “Look, the water is crystal clear. Crocs like to hang out and hunt in murky waters – it means they can maintain their element of surprise.”
This seems to make sense – the water runs like gin – although I hope that we’re not the first people to test out the theory. They’d certainly have surprise on their side if they jumped us from behind right now. Forcing such thoughts to the back of my brain, I drop into the gurgling waters of the Mossman.
“It’s also too cold for crocs,” Barney continues when we come up for air. I definitely buy this argument. The fast-flowing water feels freezing after the humidity of the tropical air and, although it’s beautifully refreshing, I’m grateful for the wetsuit, which had seemed totally ridiculous when I was sweating and swearing while trying to pull it on a few moments ago.
“We actually conduct full river checks before each tour,” Barney explains. “To ensure no crocs have changed their mind and made their way up river into the cold, clear waters. Swimming in rivers here is not something I’d recommend doing unguided.”
This trip is an education as much as an experience. Throughout the drift tour, Barney explains how the nutrients from the rainforest, carried out into the Coral Sea by the Mossman and Daintree rivers, sustain much of the ecosystem that provides the foundation for the Great Barrier Reef, by providing food for the coral polyps.
The river’s very own freshwater ecosystem is in your face the minute you dip your head beneath the surface. “You’ll see at least 10 different types of tropical river fish today,” Barney had promised me earlier and, sure enough, as soon as I secure my mask and submerge myself in the river’s cool embrace I’m surrounded by jungle perch, glass fish, gobies, Pacific blue-eye, threadfin and pipefish.
As if to deliberately collect as many nutrients as possible before delivering its contribution to the great briny soup of the sea, the Mossman wends a curvaceous course across the flanks of the hinterland here. Carried along by the flow we drift around countless corners and into spots that Barney has named – at the Cathedral the verdant vegetation of the forest has twisted into a living altar.
In places the flow is strong, and the best technique is to swim against the current until you find something you can cling to while watching the fish fly past. Elsewhere we drift into eddies and pools, where we relax in the calm corners of the river and explore the banks.
Overhead and all around us the rainforest is a festival of fecundity, buzzing with animal and plant activity. Colourful kingfishers dart between the branches and huge impressively patterned butterflies flutter precariously close to the water. The canopy is so dense in parts that plants struggle to get enough light to survive on the ground, so instead epiphytes cling to the bows of the trees, bursting into bloom many metres up in the air.
Barney spots something sitting on the semi-submerged roots of a tree and calls me over for a look. It’s a white-lipped green tree frog. If he’s bothered by our sudden presence, he doesn’t show it; or perhaps he’s just too stuffed to move – with more than 12,000 known species of insect here the 54 types of frog that call the Daintree home will never go hungry.
Saw-shelled turtles and spotted eels are plentiful in the Mossman too, and the waterway is also home to platypuses. Sightings of these super-shy creatures are common enough that Barney has named one of the river’s elbows Platypus Corner. He tells me they often swim between snorkellers during morning trips, but there’s no platypus action this afternoon. By way of compensation, a wild passionfruit floats past. Barney grabs the fruit and we split it – it’s as sweet as honey.
Such is the snaking nature of the Mossman that even after three hours of snorkelling and drifting around its bends, it’s just a short walk back along the road to the car. Barney does the honours, as I contemplate the serenity of my surrounds. Earlier in the week I’d gone diving and snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef – along with the noisy hordes. The contrast is stark.
I’ll return to the reef – because swimming through such a kaleidoscopic explosion of colours and life never gets old – but I’ll look at it with new eyes now I know where the coral’s lunch comes from.
More than simply giving me an appreciation of the relationship between the rainforest and the reef, though, the drift trip along the Mossman has taken me back to the first time I ever put on a dive mask – a time when the entire experience was new and utterly mind-blowing. River snorkelling is a totally different kettle of fish to anything you’ll do in the ocean. It genuinely is a unique experience – and not just because it involves running around in sugarcane fields dressed like a gimp.
Flights to Cairns leave from all major Australian cities, with prices varying depending on how early you book and what time of year you want to go. Port Douglas is an hour’s drive from Cairns.
Backcountry Bliss Adventures runs three-hour river snorkelling tours along the Mossman River every day except Christmas and New Year Day, for about US$72 per person (pick-up included).
NOTE: never swim unguided in North Queensland’s rivers or estuaries, where saltwater crocodiles could be present.