For aeons the Old World rainforests of the Daintree have provided a vibrant, living cultural landscape for the indigenous inhabitants of the region. Much more recently the Daintree rainforest has been a source of fascination, conjecture and speculation for many of the world’s most eminent natural history scientists. Sir Joseph Banks initiated scientific data collection of the coastal flora and fauna he encountered while travelling the eastern coast on HMS Endeavour in the 1770′s. The accumulation of scientific knowledge continues today with a collaborative research and industry approach under the banner of the Cooperative Research Centre for Tropical Rainforest Ecology and Management. With greater understanding, a picture is unravelling of a vastly more interesting and incredibly more complex bio-region than scientists could have predicted. One that is likely to converge in significance with the sacred qualities known to the indigenous custodians of the Daintree, since time immemorial.
Knowing the rainforests of the Daintree in all their moods and seasons and the intricacies, complexities and interrelationships of their inhabitants is the major undertaking of Cooper Creek Wilderness. It is a task that far exceeds the capabilities of any one generation. Accordingly, material and opinions accumulated from a wide variety of sources are balanced against the direct experiences and observations of an inhabitant within the very heart of this inspirational ecosystem.
Scientific speculation deviates dramatically from an indigenous Dreamtime and favours a geophysical beginning in the Devonian Era, some 350 million years ago. Australia was part of the southern supercontinent Gondwana, which also contained the subcontinent of India and the now island fragments including New Zealand, New Caledonia and New Guinea and the continents now known as Antarctica (East Gondwana) and South America and Africa (West Gondwana. The landscape of the Daintree was uplifted from two kilometres beneath the ocean surface, approximately 150 kilometres east of the coastline of the time. Dramatic erosion fulfilled the intermediate channel and outlying continental shelf over the following 90 millions years, traversing the remainder of the Devonian, Carboniferous and the beginning of the Permian Ages.
Gondwana began its break-up about 120 million years ago. By the middle of the Cretaceous Age, some 115 million years ago, the landscape of the Daintree as we know it today was firmly established. The granite inselbergs of Thornton Peak and Pieter Botte dominated the heights above a narrow coastal plain. Harder granites resisted erosive episodes and a series of deeply dissected stream and creek systems laid down complex patterns of soil from various granitic and metamorphic materials onto the coastal lowlands.
For 70 million years Australia remained attached to Antarctica maintaining equable warmth and wetness through equatorial currents between the poles. Beginning about 50 million years ago, Australia detached in the final stage of the break-up and drifted northwards in isolation bringing irrevocable and profound changes to global climate with the development of circumpolar currents and the formation of the Antarctic ice cap.
Extensive regional extinctions of species occurred as a result of global cooling and consequential aridity. However, the northward drift of Australia allowed the climate of its wet tropics to remain continuous with its Gondwanan origins. These remnant rainforests preserved during 35 million years of splendid isolation experienced incursions of fauna and flora following the collision of the Australian and Asian continental plates about 15 million years ago. The significance of this mixing is profound in that it mixed two evolutionary streams of flora and fauna, of likely common origin, which had been separated for at least 80 million years.
In the last period of the Tertiary Age, a series of glaciation events continued to as recently as 15,000 years ago. These Ice Ages, interspersed over nearly two million years, further diminished the Gondwanan rainforests of the time. North Queensland’s coincidental entry into the tropics brought refuge from glaciers but dry conditions promoted by these events brought fire. It was the refugial nature of the numerous steep, moist and protected valleys of the eastern fall of Thornton Peak, which allowed for a persistence of continuous survival of the closest modern day counterpart of the forests of Gondwana.
For the purposes of this presentation, the Daintree Rainforest proper is concentrated between the heights of the Alexandra Section in the south, the eastern fall of the Thornton Range to the west, the spurline continuous between Cape Tribulation and Mount Sorrow in the north and the reef-fringed waters of the Coral Sea to the east.
The outstanding natural values of the area have been recognised through a variety of protective initiatives including inscription within the World Heritage estate on the 9th December 1988 for that portion now formally the Daintree Cape Tribulation Section of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area.
The climate is seasonal and surprisingly mild. During the cooler months, June to August, high altitude air descends overnight from the mountain massif of Thornton Peak to linger until mid-morning on the coastal lowlands. Humidity drops remarkably and temperatures can descend to 10oC overnight. This cooling phenomenon allows the maintenance of plant and animal species that are almost exclusively found elsewhere in the wet tropics above 700 metres, compounding an already impressive biodiversity. It also provides pleasant conditions for visitors to the Daintree.
For tourism, the Daintree is arguably the most important tropical rainforest destination in Australia. Annual visitation exceeds 400,000 and expenditure has been estimated at somewhere between eighty and one hundred million dollars added to the local and regional economies. Survey data indicates that the most important reasons for visiting the Daintree are the expectations of undisturbed rainforest, good walking tracks, birds and wildlife, remote wilderness and ecological information.
However, current management practice choreographs coincidental arrival en masse, and congested ferry and over-crowded boardwalks through disturbed forest with little chance of seeing wildlife.
Attempts by visitors to sidestep the industry’s preferred style of visitation have resulted in unprecedented increases in the self-drive market.
Tour operators claim low visitor satisfaction with the Daintree as a rainforest wilderness experience, due to overcrowding and the extent of development now present, but do not modify their itineraries to provide a more intimate access to available wilderness within the area. Rather, they continue to lobby for more subsidised boardwalks requiring long cramped travel-intensive day tours that underpin overnight accommodation in Cairns and Port Douglas.
Like a bull in a china shop, the momentum of a hundred-million-dollar tourism industry has collided with the prehistoric rainforests of the Daintree, at a time when they are already teetering precariously on the brink of extinction.
The Daintree has survived catastrophic glacier and volcanic wrought violence, substantial global climate changes and the rise and fall of sea levels, only to be overwhelmed by the mercenary enthusiasms of humankind. But beneath the public illusion of conservation management lies the greatest threat of all.
The ‘Daintree’ is a national icon that occupies a principle position in Australia’s environmental conscience and for Queensland, it represents the flagship in the State’s fleet of protected area estates. There would be few Australians without an opinion on the Daintree.
It evokes profound images of the ancient and environmentally sacred. Its rainforests contain a living museum including the most extensive remnant populations of primitive angiosperms and the greatest concentration of plant and animal species, whose conservation status are either rare or threatened with extinction, anywhere in the world.
Globally, it contains a treasure-trove of biodiversity, rare and endemic species and a continuous living history depicting the evolution of plant and animal species over a greater period than any other natural terrestrial landscape in the world.
But there are substantial inconsistencies between reality and the illusion of Australia’s ‘management’ of this global icon. Political grandstanding fuels bureaucratic growth and the deployment of a seemingly endless string of high-priced consultants and multi-million dollar “rescue” programs and studies.
Land tenure within the Daintree is complex. The rainforest habitat is mostly continuous and indistinguishable across the change of tenure between public and privately owned estate.
From a visitor’s perspective, the major portions of rainforest landscape viewed through the windows of the tour-bus are on freehold land. Private property bought in fee simple under Australia’s most absolute investment in land. Perhaps inconsistent with a national expectation, but reality, nevertheless. Whilst the majority is not, two percent of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area is also freehold land.
Cooper Creek Wilderness occupies a strategically significant portion of this two-percent within the middle reach of the celebrated Cooper Creek catchment. A number of tributary feeders to the major Cooper Creek channel have deposited a variety of soil types resulting in associated vegetation communities. Cooper Creek Wilderness encapsulates the majority of attributes of the greater Daintree including flora relicts, primitive animals, examples of ongoing evolution and speciation, rare and endemic flora and fauna and living links with recent past incursions of flora and fauna from south-east Asia.
Cooper Creek Wilderness is also privately owned and therefore protected from the ravages of popular public access and bureaucratic inefficiencies, though certainly not immune. It supplies the very same environmental goods and services as neighbouring publicly-owned World Heritage estate, but visitor access and particularly commercial tourism may elect to pay either the full life-cycle costs to the former (as per user-pays) or virtually nothing at all, to the latter.
Neither the ACCC nor other Australian Competition Councils regard the environmental functions and mandates of government land management agencies as business activities; therefore, they are not required to maintain competitive neutrality. In addition, Section 51 of the ”Trade Practices Act 1974” essentially provides that regard will not be had to conduct which is specifically authorised or approved by any Federal legislation or by specific State or Territory regulation, regardless of tourism impacts conferring such substantial exclusionary influences to fair trade upon non-government tenures.
Cooper Creek Wildernesss has embarked upon the construction of a multifaceted knowledge-base, which will (hopefully) achieve an added dimension to Cooper Creek Wilderness’ presentation obligations, as defined within the World Heritage Convention. In order to transmit the values of conservation and protection of the Daintree Rainforests to future generations, it is essential that its wealth and diversity be brought to the attention of the current generation.
It also serves as a planning resource for ethical travellers, seeking access to the secret places of the world, which are by their very nature, so difficult to find. It is also hoped that the extraordinary potential of the Daintree to model an integrated approach of sustainable management through world’s best eco-tourism, is assisted by this knowledge base.
The eyes of the world are on the Daintree. Let us hope that they might see a model worthy of emulation for the undisputed benefits of all…