Australia's Daintree rain forest is a visual feast of twisted vines and lacy tree ferns silhouetted against the sky. Any concerns about its being a place of lurking dangers were eased by the nonchalance with which the hosts of the Daintree-Cape Tribulation Heritage Lodge sent photographer Robert Harbison and me on a self-guided tour.
As we walked along the nearby path, movements caught our eyes: tiny ants coming and going from slits in the Bumpy Satinash trees (the fungus they cultivate provides nutrients for the trees); seeds bumping against leaves as they fell from palm trees to the forest floor; birds picking through layers of leaf litter; and the iridescent blue of Ulysses butterfly wings.
It's no wonder the brochure for the lodge encourages visitors to "Experience the living museum." We saw a Hope's cycad (a palmlike tree whose ancestors were the dominant plant during the dinosaur era). We guessed that, with a growth rate of 1 meter every 100 years, this tree had seen much of the past millennium.
The "Wet Tropics of Queensland," which includes the Daintree rain forest, received protection from logging in 1988, when the area was placed on the World Heritage List. More than 300,000 visitors find their way here each year, but so far, low-impact, sustainable tourism has reigned.
Reached by way of a small vehicle ferry, a few hours' drive from the Cairns airport in Queensland, the Heritage Lodge keeps the distractions minimal. There are no TVs, radios, or phones in the cabins, and it's out of range for cellphones.
You could sit on the porch all day, listening and watching for birds. But beyond the tame introduction, there are adventures to be had.
In the morning, we teamed up with a couple we met at breakfast for a hike to Alexandra Falls. The lodge owners emphasized that it's not for the lighthearted - the route is through the creek, for several hours each way. That didn't sound too bad, but I was a bit concerned about the leeches. Early into our journey, our new friend David Paul attracted the first leech, on his ankle. It was much smaller than a worm, and with a bit of salt (which we had been advised to bring along), it curled up and dropped away. No blood was shed. What a relief.
There are a few things to avoid in this environment, though, as we learned from David Paul and his wife, Linda, who were visiting from New Mexico. They had taken a brief tour at the nearby Environment Centre, and doled out the tidbits they remembered: For instance, don't touch the Stinging Tree, a plant with a heart-shaped, serrated leaf covered with tiny silica hairs that can cause severe skin irritation. The pale green snake I spotted along the edge of the creek was a treat, they said, because although snakes abound in the rain forest, they are so well camouflaged that guides tend to see only two or three a month.
As we waded, we crossed paths with spider webs, gleefully pointed out small fish, and passed the top of the filtered pipe that supplies water to the lodge. "This is like nothing I've ever done before," Linda exclaimed. The sun peeked through the trees, a magenta lizard hung out in the crook between two rocks. The giant tree roots curved along the banks and took me back to a favorite book, "The Hobbit."
After three hours of progressively more difficult navigation along slippery rocks, we finally reached our destination. We had to sit down and crane our necks all the way back to see the top of the narrow Alexandra Falls, 150 meters above.
"This is gorgeous. I'm so glad I didn't give up," Linda said, admitting it had crossed her mind along the way.
When we jumped into the water, it was difficult to tell if our screams came from the chill or from our sense of victory. I was cold enough to know I had ventured deep into the woods, but not so cold that I couldn't swim to the base of the falls and let the water spray my face as I whispered praise for all things beautiful.
For all its beauty in the daylight, the rain forest truly comes alive at night.
"The greatest body of predators in this forest are heat-seeking reptiles," said our night-tour guide from Cooper Creek Wilderness Walks, Paul O'Dowd. "That means that anything warm-blooded ... glows in the dark like a burger-bar sign." It's easier to defend themselves if they stay active, so most species are nocturnal.
Mr. O'Dowd, who has lived in the tropics for more than a decade, took care to explain how our group of about 10 Americans, Germans, and Australians could illuminate different animals with our flashlights without disturbing them.
Our first stop as we walked through a clearing was to witness green ants bustling about on a large piece of fruit. "Look very carefully at the air just below the ants," O'Dowd said as he puffed his breath in their direction. The ants released a glistening spray, used to deter predators. "That's pure ascorbic acid, everybody ..., vitamin C." At his invitation, one brave tourist stuck out her tongue to taste the next spray.
O'Dowd's descriptions were briefly interrupted whenever we spotted bandicoots scooting across the ground. (The small marsupials resemble hunched rats with long noses.] But soon we arrived in the denser part of the forest, and our attention again turned to insects.
He showed us a "stick insect," whose eggs have a unique setting for development: Because the eggs resemble seeds preferred by a certain kind of ant, the ants carry them into their colony, where the temperature is perfect for a "high-security incubation chamber." Then, O'Dowd explained, "what emerges from that egg eventually is indistinguishable from an adult ant.... The baby stick insect even releases the same identification pheromones as the adult ant."
Later, it climbs up the tree, sheds its skin, and finally starts to look like a stick insect. "Pretty amazing life cycle, isn't it?" he said, with the same enthusiasm he must have exhibited as a child when he spent his free time "turning over rocks."
I was in front on our next stretch of walking, and something whizzed by my head. Puzzled, I asked if there were big moths in the forest. O'Dowd replied casually that the UFO had been a horseshoe bat. Knowing I wasn't in any danger didn't stop me from yelping and jumping to the middle of the line when I had another close encounter with flapping wings.
We had seen a tree frog, but not many other animals, when all of a sudden, O'Dowd was hushing us and backing away from a tree where a bird was perched, asleep. He didn't know that as he spoke, half of us were watching another bird, directly above his head. And then, exactly what he was trying to avoid with the first bird happened to the second: It woke up, and began flying blindly. He pointed his light up into the trees to help the bird see, and a moment later was relieved to see it land safely. "That is what I call prime bird real estate.... They select perches that come equipped with alarm systems ... a little tiny stick that pokes out into the middle of nowhere. If anything tried to move along that perch, it would shake it and wake the bird."
One of the world's oldest forests, the Daintree has been around for about 120 million years. And it is so rich in species that longtime residents like O'Dowd continue to make new discoveries. On this particular night, a tourist pointed out a luminescent creature, and O'Dowd reacted with awe.
"This is the biggest glowworm that I've ever seen, ever," he said, holding it gently. He asked us all to turn off our lights.
My hand was invisible half an inch from my face. But as our eyes adjusted, we could see the soft glow of the baby firefly (that's what a glowworm is, he explained). And all around us, we could see fungi dotting the ground like tiny, pale-green embers.
It was the looking-down version of the brilliant star view I had had the night before, standing in a field as far away from light pollution as I have ever been.
For more information, see www.home .aone.net.au/heritagelodge, or call the lodge at 011-61 7 40 989138.