Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Road Trip part four -- the strangest bird in Australia

It was Bill Bryson who first got me interested in seeing a cassowary.
Before reading his book about Australia -- sold here as Down Under, and sold everywhere else as In A Sunburned Country -- I had never heard of cassowaries. But Bryson is fascinated by the deadly and dangerous critters of Oz, and among his catalogue of the spiders, snakes, jellyfish and the incredible number of other Australian things that can kill you, he mentions the cassowary. I don't recall his exact phrase, but he says something about this elusive flightless bird that lives in the jungles of north Queensland and kills its prey by leaping in the air and slashing with a single, oversized claw on the front of its foot. Since cassowaries are nearly as big as emus, that's a pretty serious slash. People have been killed by cassowaries.
Naturally we added them to the list of creatures we wanted to see.

We have, in fact, seen some since arriving here. It was at Australia Zoo, and we spent a few minutes marvelling at these really odd looking birds.The colours on their head are truly bizarre, and what looks like a rooster's comb on the top is really a bone, or an extension of the beak, or something else that's neither feathery nor fleshy. In fact they're so odd that we began to suspect they aren't really a bird at all. We decided they are, in fact, people dressed up in costume. Some sort of elaborate Australian hoax they play on tourists. The down under version of the jackelope.
If that's the case, though, it seems that a lot of people are in on the joke: travel around Cape Tribulation and you see signs by the side of the road all over the place asking drivers to slow down to avoid the cassowaries.After seeing so many signs we decided these improbable creatures were likely real -- after all, if huge jumping rats (aka kangaroos) and platypuses are real, then why not flightless birds with day-glo heads and deadly kung fu kicks? So we started looking for them.
Every time we stopped somewhere that had cassowary warning signs along the road, we would ask about sightings. We were directed to this trail or that trail, spots where there had been plenty of sightings. But each time we came up empty-handed.
We felt sure we would see one once we got north of the Daintree River, to a region that's sometimes called Cassowary Country. It's a truly remarkable spot, where you can stand in the rainforest, look across a beach and see where the Great Barrier Reef comes as close to the mainland as it does anywhere. You have to take a ferry across the river as there are no bridges, and the road twists and turns through the jungle. Every few kilometres you come across a roadhouse, a caravan park, a little resort or a shop. It could feel very twee and touristy, but it doesn't. Instead the whole place has kept an air of being a little secluded spot at the end of the road. Which it is, sort of -- once you get to Cape Tribulation, about 40 kms north of the river, it's the end of the road for people driving conventional vehicles. The rest of the way to Cooktown the road is suitable for four wheel drives only. If you want to get to Cooktown in a regular car, you have to backtrack and go 100 km inland before heading another 200 kms north.
We didn't go as far as Cooktown. Instead we waded along the sand at Cape Tribulation -- which Captain Cook named after he ran his ship onto the Barrier Reef -- and dipped our toes in the 30 degree water, keeping a close eye out for crocs. We stopped at a small tropical fruit orchard and had ice cream made with wattle seed and black sapote. We peered through the dust-storm haze to try and glimpse Mount Sorrow, also named by Capt. Cook (he was having a really rough time when he explored this part of the coast). And we hiked the trails where we'd been told we might see a cassowary. No luck.
A few days later, we stopped for the night at Mission Beach. This funky little beach town is known as cassowary central: the warning signs were the size of billboards, and the caravan park had photos of cassowaries walking right past the camp kitchen. The woman at the front desk said the birds didn't come to the park any longer, since they had been relocated, but she told us we had a good chance of seeing them if we hiked the fan palm trail.
The trail was lovely -- fan palms are really striking, and they cast a dappled, lime green light over the whole place. The narrow track twists and turns through the forest, and at times you can't see more than five metres down the track, which made me have second thoughts about whether I wanted to run into a deadly kicking bird at such close quarters. I needn't have worried, though: once again, we reached the end of the trail without a sign of a cassowary.
We're back in southeast Queensland now, and unless we go back to Australia Zoo we have absolutely no chance of seeing a cassowary. On Sunday morning I was chatting to a man about our travels in the north and told him of our quest. He said his brother recently moved to Cape Tribulation. And has he seen any cassowaries, I asked? The man shook his head. "Been there five months, and hasn't seen one." It made me feel a bit better.

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