Nederlandse versie

A matter of luck

Australia | Anno 2004


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This will not work. You might as well send a marching band into the woods and expect rabbits to come and listen. What we need is peace and quiet. And this Rainforest Walk certainly cannot offer that, no matter what the brochures claim. It is lovely to walk here, indeed. The plank path meanders through the stately rainforest with its tall trees and dense tropical vegetation. Nothing breaks the silence, except exotic bird sounds and… chattering tourists. If cassowaries really live here, they have all gone now, that much is certain.


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Cape Tribulation


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First (blurred) glimpse of a cassowary

Admittedly, in the rainforest of Cape Tribulation, way up north in Queensland, we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a cassowary. But that was only for a brief moment, in a flash. A few blurry red and blue spots against a green background is all we can expect to see on our film. And then there’s also Billabong Sanctuary on our program. There we will certainly be able to observe cassowaries behind bars. But compared to an sighting in the wild, that represents nothing.

A few blurry red and blue spots against a green background is all we can expect to see on our film

Scientists tell us there are only two thousand cassowaries living in Australia. Add to that a few populations in Papua New Guinea and some smaller islands in the Southern Pacific, and you're done with your global inventory. Yet this very rare flightless bird plays a key role in the rainforest. For about seventy plant species depend on the cassowary for reproduction, since it’s the only animal that eats their seeds whole and deposits them elsewhere via their excrement. The survival of those plants literally depends on it. In addition, there are dozens of other plant species that would like to see a cassowary come by to boost their reproduction.

And that's not even the only thing that makes this distant cousin of the ostrich and emu so special. It’s his bizarre appearance that fascinates. The legs and the wedge-shaped body with the long black hairs are not that exceptional. It’s the fiery red neck lobes, the long bright blue scaly neck and especially the large keratinous casque that one is amazed by. Cassowaries run flawlessly at forty kilometres per hour through rainforest where humans can’t even make their way. With the casque on their long, curved neck, they cleave almost any obstacle.

Their legs end on three big toes. The middle toe in particular is a whopper – as thick as a child's wrist. A cassowary can hit very hard with that. When it feels threatened, it effortlessly rips open a person's belly. In practice, however, the cassowary is so shy that it’s long gone before a human even begins to suspect that a cassowary is nearby. Dangerous encounters do not happen.

It’s the fiery red neck lobes, the long bright blue scaly neck and especially the large keratinous casque that one is amazed by

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Billabong Sanctuary – Cassowary


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In short, a cassowary begs to be seen. A little disappointed we leave Mission Beach behind us. The town tries to market itself as the heartland of the Australian cassowary – they've even named their main street Cassowary Drive. But now we know better.

A little further south is Ella Bay National Park, an unsightly natural park without any infrastructure. Tourists therefore ignore it en masse. However, one sentence in the Lonely Planet keeps haunting us: “The park is also home to a small population of cassowaries.

Cassowaries without tourists – that's all we need. Especially since this is the southernmost point where they occur. Further south we won’t be able to see them. We drive to Innisfail and end up in Flying Fish Point, a tiny village along the coast. From there we head for the park – no more than a wide swath of rainforest along the coast. There are indeed no tourists, nor is there any tourist infrastructure. This is pure nature. The gravel track winds through the rainforest, in some places it is slippery with mud. Even though we only have front wheel traction, that doesn't cause any problems. We just shouldn’t forget to wash the mud off the wheels tonight, otherwise people at Hertz's could raise their eyebrows.

We’re barely five minutes in the park when a cassowary butt catches our eye. How lucky we are

Suddenly, behind a bush we see an unmistakable black spherical silhouette. Unbelievable. We're barely five minutes in the park when a cassowary butt catches our eye. How lucky we are. Now let’s try and get a good sight of the rest of the animal. In complete silence we leave the car . At least that's what we think we’re doing. Of course, our arrival did not go unnoticed. All we see are the bushes that close nicely behind its black body as it runs away. Further attempts to make out any part of the cassowary other than its black butt in the semi-dark rainforest are futile. The tangle of shrubs and ferns is impenetrable to us.


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Billabong Sanctuary – Cassowary


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Even an outflanking movement along a path through the rainforest comes to nothing. “We won't see this one again,” Marleen concludes. She's pretty level-headed about those things.

But I'm pretty stubborn about those things. Further on, a second, narrower path leads into the forest. Who knows, going that way I might catch a glimpse of the big bird. Quietly I walk into the forest. But no matter how intensely I look and listen, there is no movement anywhere. The cassowary has disappeared from the planet, that much is clear. Birds high in the trees have the acoustic spectrum all to themselves. I stop looking and consider returning to the car.

There it is, barely three metres from me

Then suddenly I hear a swishing sound to my left, as if a gigantic bow has been relaxed. Somewhat surprised I turn around. There it is, barely three metres from me. Apparently it was rummaging through the bushes and didn't hear me approaching. That swishing sound I heard was the lightning fast straightening of its long neck. For a split second we both look each other in the eye, petrified with fear. I am transfixed, the cassowary is bigger than me. In a flash, it assesses the situation and reaches the conclusion that this petrified creature on two trembling legs poses no threat. So there’s no reason to lash out with its deadly toe.

Promptly it turns around and starts running, perfectly according to the book—neck bent over, casque cleaving the impenetrable undergrowth. Only the dull thump of its paws echoes through the silent forest, as if you’re listening to the sound track of Jurassic Park.

Only the dull thump of its paws echoes through the silent forest, as if you’re listening to the sound track of Jurassic Park

About fifty metres further it resurfaces. In the middle of an open space, it stops to take a look at its assailant. In the semi-darkness, the bright colours of its long neck are barely perceptible. Apparently the cassowary is happy to see that the intruder didn’t move a bit and stands like a pillar of salt, trying to make sense of what happened to him. With dignity it slowly disappears forever among the ferns and the bushes.

With a mixture of joy and fear I return to the gravel track. I don't have a photo, but my pants are still dry and my body is unharmed.

Nothing to see, I guess?”, Marleen asks with an ironic smile.


* * * * *


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The ranger is late. That's no big deal, but it does surprise us a bit, as the rangers in Eungella usually are quite punctual. And even though Eungella is geographically located in the tropics, it does feel a bit chilly to wait outside early in the morning, with 4°C on the thermometer and rime on the grass.

Do we know what a taipan is, he wants to know before anything else

Just after nine he shows up. Miles is his name, he drives a Toyota Landcruiser Coach. Do we know what a taipan is, he wants to know before anything else. A taipan? Seriously? We haven't met one yet, luckily, but we know it by name. That reptile is high on the charts of Australia's most venomous snakes. According to some sources, it is even the third most venomous snake in the world. The bite can be fatal within thirty minutes. An antiserum is available, but you’ve got to have it close at hand.

Miles grins and takes a bag of thick white plastic from his jeep. The kind of bag that mere mortals use to transport cement. The bag is tied with rough twine. He unties the rope, revealing a second, identical bag. The second knot is also released. Miles gives us a look at the content. Down there, on the bottom, a hypothermic taipan is dozing. It’s one and a half metre long, about as thick as a toddler's fist, and has a reddish brown skin. If this cold-blooded devil could warm itself in the sun, we wouldn't stand a chance.

If this cold-blooded devil could warm itself in the sun, we wouldn't stand a chance

Two consecutive dry summers have left this taipan completely distraught, Miles explains. So it did what it normally doesn’t, namely venturing around people in search of something to eat – Miles' chickens, to name a thing. But the chicken wire didn’t give in. Early this morning, just before he left, Miles found the taipan, nearly strangled by the fine mesh, utterly exhausted by the freezing cold. He gently pressed his foot on the head of the reptile – he definitely didn't want to hurt it, he assures us – and freed it from the mesh. Not being convinced the taipan would be grateful for his intervention afterwards, Miles safely tucked it in two cement bags.


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So what comes next? Miles knows someone who works at the Rockhampton Botanic Gardens, a mere four hundred kilometres from Eungella. This guy agreed to take care of the taipan. So tomorrow Miles and the taipan together will take the train to Rockhampton. The guy will be waiting on the platform to gladly accept the reptile. Are taipans considered regular passengers on Australian trains? Miles shrugs. Who cares? Nobody knows what's in the bag. What a botanical garden should do with a taipan remains a mystery to us.

Are taipans considered regular passengers on Australian trains? Miles shrugs. Nobody knows what’s in the bag

But it's not an applied zoology course we're looking for today, it’s the Crediton Walk, a walk of about four hours through the rainforest. It's Miles' task to get us to the starting point. So the four of us set out – Miles at the wheel, the taipan next to him on the seat, the two of us petrified in the backseat.


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Pioneer Valley

What makes this fifty thousand hectare Eungella National Park so special, is its unique location. We are eight hundred metres above sea level, at the high end of eighty-five kilometres long Pioneer Valley that leads like a funnel straight to the sea. Humid sea air moving inland has no choice but to follow this immense gully. At the end, the air is gradually pushed up the slope of Clark Range, eventually condensing into clouds. This abundant nature owes its existence to these moist mists. In fact, this looks more like a cloud forest than a rainforest. Some mosses even manage to extract their moisture directly from these mists. So it’s no surprise that the Biri, the local aborigines, call this place Eungella, which means clouds in their language. Fortunately, today there are no clouds. As vital as the mists are for this biotope, we feel more comfortable without fog.

Some mosses even manage to extract their moisture directly from these mists

Miles stops at a bend in the dirt road. No, he won't join us on the hike, we have to find our way through the rainforest ourselves. That’s a bit of an unpleasant surprise for us, but Miles points out right away that it's not that difficult. We just have to follow the trail up to Broken River and then follow the river downstream. When a fork shows up on the way, remember to keep left, he adds.


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Eungella National Park – Cloud forest

There is no danger either. After all, Australia has no carnivores that want to kill large mammals such as humans. However, it’s always wise not to step on snakes, because that sometimes makes them aggressive. Just stay on the path and watch where you walk. Also, be careful with leeches and ticks, he adds. But that will be our least concern, as we don't leave any skin unnecessarily uncovered at this temperature.

It’s always wise not to step on snakes, because that sometimes makes them aggressive

One more thing we need to know – where is the path? With a small gesture of his chin, Miles points to the other side of the road. High above us rises an almost impenetrable wall of greenery, but in that wilderness we see nothing that resembles a path. More emphatically, Miles now points to a tiny black spot in the green wall. Sure enough, a narrow path leads down into the dark rainforest.

As Miles and the taipan return to the lodges together, we head into the rainforest. An unparalleled concert overtakes us. It must be teeming with birds here. But we don't get to see any. Except for a handful of bush turkeys, which shyly run away. They are quite large and clumsy, with a bright red head and black plumage. They can barely fly, but that's not a handicap here. Occasionally we see a bird flying from one tree to another or building its nest. For the rest it is guesswork as to what's going on in the dense foliage.

Very striking is the swelling whistling that we regularly hear. It always ends in a kind of whiplash, which is promptly followed by two whistles. That's an eastern whipbird, we'll find out later. With that whiplash, the male tries to attract the attention of a female. It seems he succeeds pretty well, because the two whistles we hear are her answer.


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Crediton Walk


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The trees are no less than twenty metres high, with shrubs and ferns in between. Numerous epiphytes have settled on the branches. Unlike parasites, they do not extract food from their host. The common staghorn fern in particular stands out, with its beautiful, antler-shaped leaves.


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A sudden violent rustle between the leaves startles us for a moment. Something has disappeared in no time, that much is certain. But it's not clear what it might be. Then we discover the culprit. On a branch about two and a half metres above our heads, a monitor lizard sits motionless, waiting for our reaction, well camouflaged among the foliage. Apparently it was sunbathing on the path in one of those rare spots where sunbeams shine through the foliage. Our presence must have brutally disturbed it.

Something has disappeared in no time, that much is certain. But it's not clear what it might be

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Including its tail, this monitor lizard could be about eighty centimetres long. It's not really dangerous – it's probably more scared than we are. Only when threatened it might bite in a defensive reflex. That can be quite annoying, because in its mouth it carries an unsavoury cocktail of bacteria. By releasing it into the bloodstream of its victims, it intends to weaken or kill them. Even an adult human can get quite sick from it. But it rarely happens.


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Broken River

The path is indeed self-explanatory. Miles was right about that. What's more, it's almost impossible to deviate from the path because the vegetation is so dense. It runs largely parallel to the river – or what's left of it. As the dry season progresses, less and less water flows through the riverbed. It takes us four hours to get back to where Miles showed us the taipan this morning.


* * * * *


Again we're lucky. Several times we have gazed in vain from the stone bridge into the calm waters of Broken River, in search of the showpieces of this natural park. Now our perseverance has paid off. Air bells very occasionally bubble up, concentric rings appear on the water surface. Then for a short moment the head of an animal with a duck's beak comes out of the water. Say hello to the platypus, an apparent failure of creation. But in Eungella it feels perfectly at home.

When Australians in the late 1700s sent a prepared specimen of a platypus to England for scientific research, they in London believed mischievous Aussies were playing them a prank by stitching together some body parts of different animals, just to embarrass the English scientists.

Say hello to the platypus, an apparent failure of creation. But in Eungella it feels perfectly at home

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That’s not surprising, as the animal is almost impossible to identify. Like mammals, it has fur and suckles its young, but it does not give birth to live young and has no teeth or nipples. Like birds, it lays eggs and its mouth is quite like a duck's, but it has no feathers and it cannot fly. Like reptiles, it lays its eggs in a burrow under the ground and has to come to the water surface to gasp for air, but it has no scales. So what is it – a mammal, a bird, a reptile? Nowadays a platypus is considered to be an egg-laying mammal. More specifically, the platypus belongs to the order of the cloacal animals or monotremes, which literally means one hole. Indeed, mating and laying eggs, urinating and defecating, it all happens through the same opening.

For almost three quarters of an hour we are fascinated by the frisky divers. Against the river wall a few holes can be seen. These are the burrows in which the platypuses build their nests. Sometimes those corridors stretch out thirty metres. About twenty days after mating, the female lays two or three eggs. After ten days of incubating against the mother's stomach, the young hatch from the eggs. They are then nursed for about three months and a half. Since the mother has no nipples, the milk from sebaceous glands flows over her hair. After that, the young has to figure it out for itself. If all goes well, it can live up to twelve years.

Mating and laying eggs, urinating and defecating, it all happens through the same opening

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Insects, shrimp and worms are the platypus's favourite food. The electrical signals generated by the prey's movements are detected by the platypus… with its beak. The male has venom on its hind legs. Touching, even for a while, therefore is not a good idea.


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Blue-faced honeyeater

In the evening an impressive Milky Way draws a wide ribbon across the deep dark starry sky, with the Southern Cross as the most eye-catching phenomenon. The fireplaces in the lodges are no superfluous luxury as the nights are freezing cold.

To resist fresh fruit is nearly impossible for an opossum

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At the Platypus Lodge they serve excellent Australian cuisine. They have put some fresh fruit on a table outside. To resist such delicacy is nearly impossible for an opossum. Pretty soon, two emerge from the dark. The one with the brown fur is the bravest. His mother, with grey fur, prefers to wait and see. She has a new baby in her pouch. In the end, both opossums are eating eagerly, occasionally looking up at all the bustle in the restaurant.


* * * * *


The catamaran MS Spirit of Hervey Bay was built specifically for whaling, Sena explains. The hulls are equipped with large glass windows, so that we can see well under water. Microphones even make the cries of the whales audible. And the yellow ochre the catamaran is painted in is their favourite colour, she adds proudly. Sena can only partially convince us with her pep talk. Whale watching is a matter of luck, that’s for sure. But as we are now in Hervey Bay, about eight hundred kilometres south of Eungella, we may be in one of the most suitable places to try our luck.

We sail along the west coast of sun-drenched Fraser Island towards the Pacific Ocean. It’s the largest sand island in the world. A gigantic sandbar, in fact, that rises 240 metres above the sea surface. It is a hundred and twenty kilometres long and on average fifteen kilometres wide, making it almost one and a halve times the size of the city of Los Angeles.

Whale watching is a matter of luck, that’s for sure

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Fraser Island

But our lucky charm is gone. The first hour we only get to see a handful of dolphins. Then two humpback whales are spotted in Platypus Bay. The catamaran is steered in that direction and then stopped, as chasing whales or obstructing their passage is punishable by law. The captain must maintain a clear zone of 30° on either side of their swim direction at all times, both in front of and behind the whales. Otherwise, the tour operator might lose his license.


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Suddenly the humpback whales surface with a lot of noise just in front of the bow

Now we have to wait and see. Nobody knows if and where the giants will show up, Sena says. But what follows is spectacular. Suddenly the humpback whales surface with a lot of noise just in front of the bow. They are playful animals, according to Sena, about fifteen to twenty years old, estimated to be fifteen metres long and twenty-five tons in weight. During summer they hang out in the south, in the cold, nutrient-rich waters of Antarctica. In particular, krill, but also small fish such as herring, salmon and lesser sand eels are on their menu. During winter they seek out these warmer, nutrient-poor waters. They then mainly live on the gigantic fat reserves they have stored in their blubber. Here, on the coast of Australia, they mate and give birth, here the calves gain strength before heading south with their mother next summer.


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Humpback whale – Tubercles


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Humpback whale – Tubercles and barnacles

The playful mammals put on their show continuously for almost five quarters of an hour. They swim next to, around and under the boat, next to each other or separately from each other. In the crystal clear waters, we can discern every detail of their colossal bodies – the tiny eyes, the dozens of tubercles on their snouts that help them locate movement in the water, the white barnacles clinging to the whale's skin, the large blowhole, the metres long pectoral fins, the small dorsal fin on the fleshy bulge to which they owe their name.


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The low sun creates beautiful rainbows in their spray fountains

Tirelessly the whales keep spinning in circles around us. As they swim on the west side of the boat, the low sun creates beautiful rainbows in their spray fountains. When they dive, their huge tail fin slides into the water with the grace of a ballet dancer. The black markings on the white underside of that caudal fin make it possible to distinguish individual whales from each other.

Sometimes they remain invisible for minutes, only to suddenly appear with a lot of noise in an unpredictable spot. It seems like they are making a game out of it to surprise us. In any case, the stability of the catamaran is put to the test, as time and again about a hundred passengers run from one side of the boat to the other, not wanting to miss a second of the spectacle.


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Sometimes the whales swim on their sides next to the boat, hitting the surface of the water with their long pectoral fin as if they are applauding. This is called a pec-slap. Sometimes they even seem to wave at the boat with that long, white fin. They don't seem to get enough of it. They are just as excited about our presence as we are about theirs. Sena even goes one step further – the animals are really attracted to the boat, she says, they are curious about what goes on there, the yellow colour fascinates them.

They even surprise us with a few spyhops. For seconds their immense body rises metres high above the water, as if they are standing upright. Scientists are not entirely sure of the reason for this behaviour. Is it to explore the area? Is it courtship behaviour? To us it doesn't matter, we marvel at the colossal white underbelly that we can observe deep into the crystal clear water. Thousands of barnacles cling to their outsized host for a free ride, feasting on microorganisms in the seawater. Carrying around a few hundred kilos of blind passengers doesn't seem to bother the good-natured giants.

They even surprise us with a few spyhops. For seconds their immense body rises metres high above the water

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And then, as suddenly as they appeared, the roguish guys call it quits.


Jaak Palmans

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