The geophysical character of Thornton Peak provides the major contribution to the Daintree’s extraordinary survival. Over millions of years, moisture-laden south-east tradewinds have confronted the mountain massif with an insistency that results in an unofficial annual rainfall of well in excess of eight metres. It is almost certainly Australia’s wettest point.
Whilst it may be clear elsewhere in the Daintree, Thornton Peak is almost always shrouded under a dense blanket of rain-producing cloud.
Occupying the middle reach of the windward catchment, Cooper Creek Wilderness receives between four-an-a-half and five metres of rain or half Thornton Peak’s annual quota.
Rainfall, the quintessential ingredient of tropical rainforest, concentrates its bombardment on the exposed granite summit of Thornton Peak, from whence it begins its furious plummet through the remarkable filtration of the Daintree rainforest to the Coral Sea. For the relatively short distances travelled, rainfall within the Daintree traverses a remarkable landscape.
The significance of the numerous deeply incised creeks and gullies to the perseverance of the ancient rainforests of the Daintree cannot be over-emphasised. As was mentioned previously, over the past twenty million years a series of glaciation events or Ice Ages, although having failed to reach north Queensland, brought associated dry conditions that were suitable for fire. The refuge of the deep gorges and mountain fastness during drier climatic events allowed protection of biodiversity and subsequent recovery into the lowland portions when circumstances became suitable for the more competitive rainforest communities.
The creeks are the major byways for the transmission of genetic diversity across climatic episodes. Genetic material of plant species, often appropriately described as rainforest dinosaurs, is carried by swollen creeks during peak flood events and deposited downstream in the wake of subsiding water levels.
The annual rainfall pattern is very seasonal. Around eighty percent of the year’s total falls between mid-November and March, the heavy wet season, which brings the dry season to a dramatic conclusion.
The Daintree rainforest is most vibrant and alive in the heavy wet. It is an inevitable frustration that its dramatic onslaught isolates visitors by flash-flooding rivers, to then abate within several hours, allowing the rather urgent perception of a last chance escape. Urgency compounded by non-refundable flight schedules that allowed only the briefest possible visit to the Daintree.
Still, there are those who make allowance for the possibility of unpredictable deluge so that they may experience the Daintree in all its awe-inspiring glory. Others particularly come for the benefits of a saturated nocturnal foray, where tree frogs descend from their canopy refuges for performances with tens of thousands of participants.
The annual cycle of monsoonal troughs is accompanied by the threat of cyclones. During the second week of February 1999, a tropical low developed off the east-coast of Cape York Peninsula in the Coral Sea. Upper-level conditions became favourable for tropical development, and the system began to intensify quite rapidly. On the 10th February, it officially became Tropical Cyclone Rona.
From its initial position, about 175 nautical miles east of Cooktown on the Queensland coast, Cyclone Rona moved southward but soon turned to the west-southwest under the steering influence of a subtropical ridge to the southeast of the cyclone. The storm accelerated to a speed of about 10 knots by the time it reached the Queensland coast.
Tropical Cyclone Rona continued to intensify until the eye made landfall just north of the resort town of Port Douglas around midnight on 11th February 1999.
The Tropical Cyclone advice had Rona classified as a Severe Tropical Cyclone with peak estimated gusts of 180 km/hr. With an attendant estimated central pressure of 970 millibars, it seems likely that Rona perhaps did reach hurricane intensity shortly before making landfall.
Although the eye moved inland just north of Port Douglas, Cow Bay, an idyllic residential community in the heart of the Daintree rainforest, about fifty kilometres north of Port Douglas, took the brunt of the storm. Two houses were flattened, twelve others were damaged, and a falling tree crushed a car. Flooding was a major concern, extending as far south as Ingham. About two thousand people were evacuated from their homes near Cairns and Innisfail due to rain-swollen streams.
The structural damage to the Daintree rainforest was considerable, though previously logged sections suffered significantly more. It is impossible to know the full magnitude of the toll on Daintree fauna. However, five or six red-legged pademelons were seen consistently on Cooper Creek Wilderness night-walks before the cyclone and up to eighteen months later only one or two pademelons are seen once per week. Pythons and other arboreal snakes are also seen less frequently.
Cooper Creek Wilderness was isolated for the three days that it took to clear the driveway of fallen trees. The eight kilometres of walking track were surprisingly undamaged and reflected the resilience of the more robust Old Growth forests. The quantity of organic material dumped throughout the area in the form of leaves, branches and trees was tremendous. Combined with an abundance of rainfall and increased penetration of sunlight through the scantily clad upper canopy, an almost immediate profusion of flowering and growth occurred. These opportunities nourished a rapid recovery.
The devastating impacts of tropical cyclones to the Daintree’s ecological integrity trivialise administrative approaches to protection of rare and threatened species. At Cooper creek Wilderness, a thousand-year-old giant strangler fig was brought to a thundering heap under the enormous force of Cyclone Rona. A densely packed understorey of shrubs and ferns with conservation status, supposedly protected from impact by legislation, was flattened over an area of approximately half a hectare of debris.
Despite the trauma and the immediate damage, cyclones need to be kept in the perspective of their natural occurrence. With as few as two cyclones per century, the Daintree rainforest would have endured two million seven hundred thousand cyclones over its one hundred and thirty-five million year existence.
The rainforest waterways of the Daintree are spectacularly beautiful. In the upper reaches of the catchment, intricate networks of tributary feeder creeks join to establish larger supplies that are characterised by a succession of awe-inspiring waterfalls.
Access to these superb waterfalls is almost impossible. There are no walking tracks or signage whatsoever and Daintree National Park Policy actively discourages self-guided entry. Professionally guided entry into the wilderness portion of the area has been rigorously opposed.
Over the past six years, Cooper Creek Wilderness has sought the necessary permits to provide professionally guided entry. In that same period it has undertaken extensive reconnaissance and familiarisation and documented some of the most gruelling and awe-inspiring landscape in Australia.
Publicly owned National parks and reserves supposedly have transparent boundaries, open to those who wish to enter. The most trackless wilderness areas within other Queensland National Parks are available to those willing and able to traverse the landscape on foot. However, not one Daintree National Park permit allows for guided entry into the wilderness portion of the area.
On an annual basis, unguided members of the public, exercising their right of access into the peoples’ national parks, are lost or injured to the extent that searches are carried out at considerable cost to the taxpayer. Volunteers have little knowledge of the biological values being trampled underfoot, but because of conservation significance, Commercial Activity Permits have been refused to professional local guides who would otherwise prevent loss and unnecessary damage to rare and threatened flora.
The irony speaks for itself. The peak authority in respect to these matters is the Wet Tropics Ministerial Council, represented by Environment and Tourism Ministers from the Commonwealth and Queensland Governments. It has given its enthusiastic support for Cooper Creek Wilderness to develop a pilot program incorporating the concept of accreditation to provide professionally guided access into the wilderness portion of Daintree National Park. The administrative complexities have been considerable and reflect bureaucratic inflexibility.
Cooper Creek Wilderness maintains a thorough record of all expeditions, assisted by a GPS with upload/download capabilities. For safety purposes a hand-held satellite phone accompanies the guide, who is a degree qualified outdoor educator, on all exercises. These technical advantages free the professional guide from a degree of negligence and allow regulated access to one of the most impenetrable and yet inspirational environments in Australia.
Cooper Creek Wilderness is of the opinion that stringently regulated professional access is preferable to prohibited access. The former promotes best-practice environmentalism whilst the latter encourages illegal and possibly negligent entry. But there should be no underestimation of the conservation significance and the technical difficulties of traversing this primordial landscape.
The administrative obstruction to regulated professional entry into the wilderness portion of the Daintree National Park is based on the good conscience of senior policy advisers and the application of ‘the precautionary principle’. This states that, where there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.
In the current circumstances, where there is clear evidence of environmental damage through search and rescue operations for lost or injured hikers, the application of the precautionary principle might be revisited. But given the limitations of budgetary allocation, public administrators are forced to prioritise management efforts. At the interface of popular day-visitation and the scenically beautiful waterways of the Daintree lowlands there are management considerations of an entirely different magnitude. These reflect the aesthetically irresistible swimming holes and the cumulative impacts of the sheer weight of numbers.