Travel

David Attenborough's Favorite National Park Is 'the Most Extraordinary Place on Earth'

Here's what to do in the oldest rainforest in the world.

John Crux Photography/Moment/Getty Images
John Crux Photography/Moment/Getty Images
John Crux Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Oh, you thought the Amazon was the largest rainforest in the world?

Well, it is. But the Daintree in Queensland is the biggest rainforest in Australia, the oldest rainforest in the world, and more importantly, David Attenborough’s favourite. The all-knowing 96-year-old naturalist-bless him-once deemed this wild slice of northeast Oz “the most extraordinary place on Earth.”

Though it’s perpetually overshadowed by its more-famous conjoined twin, the Great Barrier Reef, Daintree National Park is equally astonishing with its sprawling tangle of towering palms, ancient ferns, moss-covered boulders, and trickling creeks stretching all the way to the Coral Sea.

Imagine following a boardwalk through dense, 180-million-year-old jungle and stumbling on a secluded swimming hole, crystal-clear and croc-free. Better yet, the pool sits under a thundering waterfall semi-hidden by luxuriant canopy. Predating the Amazon by an unfathomable 160 million years, the Daintree once accommodated dinosaurs-and if you’re lucky enough to cross paths with any of its modern-day inhabitants, you’ll discover that not much has changed over the millennia.

Crocs can be seen filling their lungs on the surface of the Daintree River and enormous, prehistoric-looking cassowaries perch in the thick foliage, munching on fungi and fruit. There’s more to see than otherworldly animals and isolated waterfalls, too, if you can believe it. Here’s how to have one epic, Attenborough-worthy experience in the utterly “extraordinary” Daintree Rainforest.

Neal Pritchard Photography/Moment/Getty Images
Neal Pritchard Photography/Moment/Getty Images
Neal Pritchard Photography/Moment/Getty Images

The best time to visit Daintree National Park

The Daintree doesn’t adhere to the Gregorian four-season convention; it knows only two. The dry season, April to November, is its high season. Peak tourism occurs during July and August, when the Aussies take their winter school holidays. The wet season starts in December and persists through April. The sweet spot is perhaps October through early December or late April through June, between the most crowded time and the wettest period. Fewer tourists means quieter trails, more wildlife sightings, and off-season rates for tours and accommodation.

Jam Travels/Shutterstock
Jam Travels/Shutterstock
Jam Travels/Shutterstock

Take in jaw-dropping scenery along Great Barrier Reef Drive

Fun fact: The stretch of far-north Queensland where the rainforest borders the sea is the only place where two UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the Daintree and Great Barrier Reef) meet. Cutting a staggeringly scenic route between the two is Great Barrier Reef Drive, aka Captain Cook Highway. Think the Pacific Coast Highway in California, but flanked by one of the Seven Natural Wonders and the world’s oldest tropical rainforest.

Start in Cairns, where rental cars abound, and drive north into the rainforest for the best possible first impression. The trip takes about an hour and 15 minutes one way, but rest assured you’ll want to spend a whole day making endless stops to explore hiking trails and sink your toes in the white sand.

Road-trippers would be remiss not to hang a left towards Kuranda, 30 minutes from Cairns, to peruse the famous Heritage Markets, where dozens of eclectic stalls selling everything from didgeridoos to Australian opal rings radiate bohemian flair deep inside the dense wilderness. To admire them just by strolling through the labyrinth of bunting-adorned pedestrian alleyways is an experience worth the short detour.

Stig Stockholm Pedersen/Moment/Getty Images
Stig Stockholm Pedersen/Moment/Getty Images
Stig Stockholm Pedersen/Moment/Getty Images

Gawk along jungle boardwalks

Hiking in the Daintree is pretty “cruisy,” to quote Aussie lingo. That’s because the paths are predominantly short, easy, and flat, with the exception of a few uphill slogs: Mount Sorrow and Devils Thumb. For the most part, trekkers are tucked under rainforest canopy where it’s cool and shaded. Long, meandering (and accessible) boardwalks even make it possible to explore swamps and mangrove creeks without getting your boots wet.

Some of the best walks are concentrated near Cape Tribulation, famous for its remote beaches. The Dubuji Boardwalk includes two loops-one about 20 minutes to walk, the other 40-either of which you can follow to Myall Beach. Try to arrive at low tide for amazing rockpooling.

Darren Tierney/Shutterstock
Darren Tierney/Shutterstock
Darren Tierney/Shutterstock

Just south of that, near Cow Bay and the Daintree Discovery Centre, the Jindalba Boardwalk circuit beckons a slightly longer, roughly hour-long mosey amid king ferns, fig trees, and other Wet Tropics wonders, all described on information signs along the route.

Anytime you’re hiking through the Daintree, keep your eyes peeled for cassowaries (blue-headed, emu-sized birds), musky rat kangaroos, platypuses, and even pythons baking in the canopy. Stroll the boardwalks at night for a chance to see feral pigs, flying foxes, and possums.

Nigel Killeen/Moment/Getty Images
Nigel Killeen/Moment/Getty Images
Nigel Killeen/Moment/Getty Images

Spot crocs on the Daintree River

One animal the Daintree is well known for is the crocodile-of both the saltwater and freshwater variety. There are thought to be about 70 adults in the Daintree River, and you’re liable to see at least one deadly snoot protruding from the water on a river cruise with the area’s best croc spotters. The ECO-certified Daintree River Cruise Centre is one of the most popular operators, offering 60- to 90-minute tours from Mossman.

October to mid-March is crocodile breeding season in the Daintree. While the chance of a sighting is less likely this time of year than in the cooler months, the probability of seeing them fighting, courting, mating, or their hatchlings is far higher. Come during low tide to increase your chance of a sighting. Some tour operators, like Bruce Belcher’s Daintree River Cruises, offer free return tickets if no crocs are seen on your tour.

John Crux Photography/Moment/Getty Images
John Crux Photography/Moment/Getty Images
John Crux Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Swim (safely) at Mossman Gorge

The stunning rainforest-lined beaches of north Queensland may seem inviting, but the plethora of signage and vinegar stations warns of what lingers in the azure waters: Stingers. Jellyfish inhabit Australia’s tropics from November to May and will not hesitate to inject a human swimmer with their potentially lethal venom. A lot of beaches in the area have net enclosures for this reason, but the whole ordeal can be avoided by swimming instead at Mossman Gorge, which is arguably even prettier.

Mossman Gorge includes a stinger- and crocodile-free sheltered swimming hole with calm, clean water and big boulders perfect for basking. From the Mossman Gorge Cultural Centre, you can take a shuttle to the start of a boardwalk. This is, by far, the most popular walk in Daintree National Park, its main draw being the gorge overlook. The swimming hole is about a third of a mile in.

The Cultural Centre doesn’t recommend swimming in the river, because water conditions can change quickly and there’s no supervision. Keep in mind that December to April is the rainy season, and flooding is more likely then. If the heat of the Wet Tropics on a summer day makes it impossible for you to resist a dip, then just remember your common sense. Please, no swimming in monsoons.

Janbal Gallery
Janbal Gallery
Janbal Gallery

Discover Aboriginal art and culture at Janbal Gallery

The Aboriginal Eastern Kuku Yalanji people, Australia’s earliest human occupants and carriers of what’s thought to be the world’s oldest living culture, have lived in the Wet Tropics for 50,000 years. And since the Daintree was handed back to its original inhabitants in 2021, they and the state government have jointly managed the national park, under the designation Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal Land (CYPAL).

Visitors can learn all about the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people’s culture and customs at Janbal Gallery, a fully Aboriginal-owned and -operated art gallery and cultural centre right off Great Barrier Reef Drive, three minutes from the Mossman Gorge car park. The hand-painted canvases and boomerangs (an Aboriginal symbol of endurance) you’ll find here tell ancient stories and make the most unique and meaningful souvenirs. You can even sit down and paint your own at one of Janbal Gallery’s workshops.

Daintree Ecolodge
Daintree Ecolodge
Daintree Ecolodge

Where to stay in and around Daintree National Park

Cairns is the biggest city in far-north Queensland and the gateway to both the Daintree and Great Barrier Reef. There are 150-plus hotels and more than 1,000 Airbnbs to choose from. If you don’t have the cash to splash out on luxury accommodation along the lively esplanade-like at Crystalbrook Riley or Waters Edge Apartments-you can find a fun and cozy budget option in Travellers Oasis, a colourful hostel with a swimming pool and hammock-dotted sundeck.

More immersive rainforest experiences can be found at Cairns Rainforest Retreat, a collection of treehouses 15 minutes from the city centre, or at the higher-end Daintree Ecolodge, perhaps the most popular place to stay in the rainforest (equipped with a spa and private waterfall). Located between Mossman and Cape Tribulation, the Ecolodge is perfectly convenient for multi-day adventures in the Daintree.

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Olivia Young is a freelance journalist, slow travel advocate, and vanlife expert. Her favourite travel days usually involve vegan food, wildlife sightings, and an occasional liability waiver.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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