From my vantage point high above the gorge, the North Johnstone River gleams in the distance like a shiny snakeskin wet from the rain.
A tropical downpour has made me briefly reconsider my plan to visit one of north Queensland’s newest attractions, the Mamu Rainforest Canopy Walk, but I’m pleased now that I braved the weather. As the rain eases to a light drizzle, I’m rewarded by a vista of misty, moody, blue mountains and the vivid green of the newly washed vegetation.
As I take the first path into the rainforest, three young Englishmen ahead of me take off their shirts and bare their pale torsos to the forest. They skylark and jog along the path, their holiday mood infectious.
We’re in Wooroonooran National Park, in the heart of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, 116km south of Cairns. I’ve driven north from Mission Beach, turned inland at the sugar town of Innisfail and am now in the country of the Ma:Mu people.
Wooroonooran National Park covers the slopes of the Great Escarpment, on the eastern side of the Great Dividing Range, separating the Atherton Tablelands from the coastal plain on the east.
Australia’s newest canopy walk is in the homeland of the Waribara, “the people of the gorges”. The Waribara is one of five Aboriginal clan groups in Ma:Mu country, and the gorge in question is the Johnstone River gorge. The canopy walkway is about half way up the Great Escarpment, about 30km from the coast and at an altitude of 330 metres, on top of the southern edge of the gorge.
The 2.5km walkway starts at ground level, meandering about 500 metres through what was once a forestry track. At first, I wonder what is so special that I should have been urged to stop here. It’s pleasant, now the rain has eased, but nothing out of the ordinary.
But when my feet hit the elevated steel walkway and I’m in the canopy at 15 metres above the ground, I soon feel the magic of the forest. Designed to have minimal impact, the path of the walkway follows natural clearings created when Cyclone Larry tore through north Queensland in March 2006.
Tilting my head, I squint up at the tallest trees, emerging above the canopy to as high again as I am from the ground – about 30 metres. Interpretive signs along the way help me identify what I’m looking at - Johnstone River hardwoods that survived selective logging early last century, as well as satin ashes, silky oaks, tamarinds, figs, mahoganies, walnuts, laurels and beeches.
Some trees have bright fruits on them and the ground below is strewn with the fallen. Creepers and climbers are working their way towards the sunlight. There are also strangler figs, huge clumps of ferns and wild orchids.
The signs also hold out hope of butterflies – but the brilliant blue Ulysses butterfly that has eluded me and my camera throughout my north Queensland sojourn remains so. Perhaps I’ll see the distinctive green, gold and black Cairns birdwing butterfly? Or perhaps the rain has driven them all to shelter.
By the time the springy cantilevered section of the walkway is bouncing gently under my feet, I’m hooked. I dawdle the 40 metres along it, before taking another section of the walkway and returning to the forest floor, lined with cycads and other ground-dwelling plants.
But the highlight is yet to come. Even before I reach the top of the tower, at 37 metres, the views are breathtaking. The North Johnstone River lies far below, hazy in the mist, winding through the valley on its way to join the South Johnstone at Innisfail. Douglas Creek joins the river at a rock face said to represent a shield.
Back on the ground I keep an eye out for cassowaries. The interpretive signs assure me they live here, and that a male and his chicks were often spotted by workers during the 14 month construction period before the walkway opened in August 2008. Alas, again the wildlife eludes me.
As I wander along the last section of the track, the rain sets in again, and a family group starts out…rustling along in the biodegradable plastic ponchos on sale at the ticket office. Rain or shine, critters or not, this rainforest experience is worth the detour.
Several states now offer similar tree-top canopy walks.Here's a guide to some of the best:
ILLAWARRA FLY TREETOP WALK, NSW: In the temperate rainforest of the Southern Highlands, this 500 metre long walk takes you along the Illawarra escarpment at a height of 25 metres, with views from Bass Point in the south to Bundeena in the north. A spiral staircase leads to a 45 metre high lookout. From the cantilevered walkway, you can view the canopy of Blackwoods, Gully Gums, Sassafras and Tree Ferns, among others.
TAHUNE FOREST AIRWALK, TAS: The Tahune Airwalk is about 90 minutes drive from Hobart in the Huon Valley. The walkway rises up to 48 metres above the ground and extends for about 500 metres over the Tahune State Forest and Picton River. It allows a close up view of rare species, some found only in Tasmania, such as King Billy and Celery Top pines, myrtle, beech, blackwood and sassafras. Other attractions include the Huon Pine Walk, the 400 metre cable hang glider ride Eagle Glide, and an interpretive centre run by Forestry Tasmania.
VALLEY OF THE GIANTS TREE TOP WALK, WA: This walkway, which rises up to 38 metres in the Walpole-Nornalup National Park in south-western Western Australia, winds though a forest of giant tingle trees known as the Ancient Empire. The park covers nearly 20,000 ha of towering karri and tingle forests as well as coastal heath. At ground level, there is also a boardwalk, suitable for people in wheelchairs. The walk is east of Walpole, only 10 minutes from the towns of Nornalup, Bow Bridge and Peaceful Bay.
OTWAY FLY, VIC: The Otway Fly is the world's longest and highest tree top walk, at 600 metres long and 47 metres at its highest point. Most of the walk is at 25 metres, ascending gently through a magnificent stand of cool temperate rainforest featuring Myrtle Beech, Blackwood and Mountain Ash. A spiral stairway through the understorey leads to 45 metre high lookout, and a springboard cantilever carries you above Young's Creek.
O’REILLY’S TREE TOP WALK, QLD: Australia’s first Tree Top Walk, opened in 1987, is unlike its newer counterparts in that it is made of wood rather than steel. The walk, 300 metres from O’Reilly’s Guesthouse in Lamington National Park in the Gold Coast hinterland, is 180 metres long and is made up of nine suspension bridges. Most of the walk is 15 metres above the ground and there are two observation decks in a Strangler Fig above the walkway, the highest at 30 metres.
DAINTREE DISCOVERY CENTRE, QLD: The multi-award winning Daintree Discovery Centre was the first of its kind in Australia. A privately owned, Wet Tropics Management Authority accredited rainforest interpretive centre, the centre is two hours’ drive north of Cairns in the heart of the World Heritage-listed Daintree National Park. The centre’s aerial walkway links the entrance to the 23m high Canopy Tower and the display centre. The Canopy Tower celebrated its 10th anniversary in March 2008 when the centre announced its sponsorship of James Cook University’s Carbon Flux Micrometeorological Research Station. Its purpose is to measure carbon flux in the rainforest. This 10 year sponsorship forms part of the centre’s ongoing Carbon Offset/Bio-sequestration project launched in June 2007.
TAMBORINE RAINFOREST SKYWALK, QLD: Set in 11 hectares of privately owned rainforest on south-east Queensland’s Tamborine Mountain, this 1.5km picturesque walk includes more than 300 metres of steel -structured bridges through the higher rainforest canopy. Combined with the 40 metres long “Skywalk cantilever” soaring 30 metres over the creek below, it the longest canopy walk in the region, and adjoins Joalah National Park and Cedar Creek. The walk starts at the Eco Info Gallery, which has a comprehensive local flora and fauna interpretation and a fresh water aquarium. The walk descends gradually to the densely vegetated rainforest floor beside the creek and follows points of interest including rockpools, waterfalls, a butterfly lookout and local history enclosure.