Learning the Aboriginal Secrets of Australia’s Daintree Forest

Dreamtime and other insights into one of the world's oldest tropical rainforests.  
Mossman River Kuku Yalanji tribe Australia
The Mossman River flows through a narrow gorge, over smooth granite boulders. Water collects in small spaces creating shallow swimming holes. Photo: Holger Leue/Lonely Planet images/ Getty Images

I am walking around a bonfire of burning wood and herbs. Smoke permeates the surroundings and I have to squint to see our Aboriginal guide Mooka’s blurred face. He murmurs a prayer as he performs a smoking ceremony “to drive away evil spirits,” an important tradition of the Kuku Yalanji tribe to which he belongs. This is our initiation into Daintree National Park in Queensland, Australia. It is only after our group of five vows to respect the terrain and its inhabitants that we gain entry to one of the oldest tropical rainforests on the planet.

We arrived at Mossman Gorge Centre earlier this morning after a 45-minute scenic drive from the seaside Palm Cove in Cairns, Northern Queensland. A mishmash of blue and wet green hues flashed past as I pressed my nose against the window to see the only place in the world where two UNESCO World Heritage sites merge: the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef.

Daintree River Daintree National Park Queensland Australia

A variety of birds, frogs, and crocodiles can be spotted while cruising the mangrove-lined Daintree River. Photo: David Wall/Dinodia

Initiation done, our guide takes us on a walk to discover the flora and fauna of this region, and also to learn about the indigenous people that have lived here for centuries. As we hop over snaking vines and ancient exposed roots, Mooka starts to unravel its secrets. In Daintree’s lush jungles, fauna like the endangered Thornton Peak melomys, Bennett’s tree-kangaroo, and the stunning Ulysses butterfly thrive. We spot a shy cassowary bird popping its electric blue head out of a bush while trying to hide its enormous body.

Mooka is a traditional medicine man. He was brought up in the forest by his grandparents who gave him the knowledge of healing. “This forest is a pharmacy,” he says. “It has the power to heal and destroy.”

He shows us plants that can soothe insect bites, a stalk that cures muscular pain and smells surprisingly like Tiger balm, and beans that can be used to start a fire. We see vines that store potable drinking water and the sticky sap of a plant that can be used as an adhesive. He warns us of beautiful-looking seeds and berries that weep white, poisonous sap and thorns that can paralyse at touch. “My tribe has lived here for thousands of years,” he explains, watching our bewildered faces. “This is my home.” In addition to practicing local medicine, Mooka is also a tracker and is occasionally called upon to find people who lose their way in the forest.

As we hike deeper into the wild, we are introduced to the Aboriginal concept of Dreamtime. It is a spiritual philosophy that encompasses the past and present, one in which our world, Mother Nature, and the spirits and ancestors of the indigenous coexist. It’s a complex but fascinating idea that explains the deep connection Mooka shares with his environment and ancestors.

We also learn about Kuku Yalanji customs. “The wedding day marks the last time the groom communicates with the bride’s father,” he tells us. All further communication is relayed through a family member. Newlyweds, Mooka says shaking his head, are encouraged to marry within the tribe but, as with most traditional societies, things are changing.

Unique to Australia, the flightless cassowary bird lives a solitary existence for most of its life. It is integral to the survival of many of the plants of this rainforest; Roots of the giant buttress tree spread outwards creating support for the trunk in shallow soil. Photo: CCOPhotostockBS/Dinodia (bird), Paul Dymond/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images (trees)

Unique to Australia, the flightless cassowary bird (left) lives a solitary existence for most of its life. It is integral to the survival of many of the plants of this rainforest; Roots of the giant buttress tree (right) spread outwards creating support for the trunk in shallow soil. Photo: CCOPhotostockBS/Dinodia (bird), Paul Dymond/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images (trees)

An hour and many stories later, we arrive at the gushing Mossman River. Mooka picks up a couple of stones and starts to rub them on a larger rock until they bleed tones of ochre and orange. He rubs this bush paint over his arms, then plucks a few wild ferns and rubs them together to make them lather. This soapy solution is used to wash off the pigment. The forest seems to provision for every need.

Later we enjoy fragrant bush tea and gorge on traditional soda bread called damper. Nearby, a giant golden orb spider, as large as a golf ball, weaves its shiny web, to the music of the didgeridoo playing in the background.

Appeared in the August 2015 issue as “The Enchanted Forest”.

The Guide

Mossman Gorge Centre (77 km/1.5 hr north of Cairns) is one of the many entry points to the Daintree National Park, which is spread over 1,200 square kilometres. The Dreamtime Legend walk starts daily at 1 p.m. (AUD75/₹3,500; mossmangorge.com.au).

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    Diviya Mehra is the former Art Director at National Geographic Traveller India. Besides being an absolute foodie, she loves exploring secret nooks of places for local arts and crafts.

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