When most people think of Australia, they think of kangaroos and the dry, flat expanse of the Outback. But this was not always so. Fossil records show forests once covered the Red Centre, but now only a fraction of these forests remain - Australia’s World Heritage listed Wet Tropics.
The rainforests of the Wet Tropics, regarded by world authorities as a living museum of flora and fauna, were World Heritage listed in 1988. The Wet Tropics covers an area of nearly 900,000 hectares of rainforest and tropical vegetation, stretching for more than 400 kilometres from just north of Townsville to just south of Cooktown. Here, pockets of primitive plants have remained undisturbed for millions of years, and rare, even previously unidentified species of birds, insects and mammals have emerged to delight biologists and nature lovers.
Bushwalking along well maintained trails, camping overnight (with permits), Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander interpretive heritage tours, ranger-guided walks, all terrain vehicle tours with commentary by qualified biologists are some of the ways to experience the rainforests of the Tropical North. Step into the cool shade of the Wet Tropics rainforest and take a walk back in time through some of the oldest jungles on earth.
Entering the rainforest, the temperature drops a couple of degrees and the light becomes soft and dappled under the thick green canopy of branches and leaves. Layers of twisting vines, palms and orchids wrap around tree buttresses, and the forest floor smells of growth and moist decay.
A small, furry, chocolate brown animal about the size of a rabbit searches for fallen fruits beside a rainforest stream. It’s a Musky Rat-kangaroo, the smallest and most primitive kangaroo. It scampers between king ferns, direct descendants of ferns which grew 200 million years ago. Their six metre fronds dwarf other plants along the creek, including the delicate Bowenia cycad, another living relic from the past, predating flowering plants by 100 million years.
These rainforests also harbour the greatest diversity of primitive flowering plants found anywhere else on earth. Once flowering plants evolved they quickly dispersed across the planet with help from animals which were attracted by their nectar, pollen and fruit.
Striding through the rainforest is the greatest rainforest gardener, the cassowary. These giant flightless birds help to spread over 100 different rainforest seeds, some of them too toxic for other animals to eat. But with only about 1200 adult cassowaries left, the survival of each individual bird is critical for the future of the rainforest. Their greatest threat is loss of habitat, an escalating problem that began when the region was settled over 100 years ago.
For more information contact the Wet Tropics Management Authority at www.wettropics.gov.au