If you want to see the scale and beauty of the Daintree Rainforest, you have to get off the ground. So says Jungle Surfing Canopy Tours managing director Sheena Walshaw who, despite a somewhat ironic fear of heights, has spent many years exploring the treetops of this living museum, where two World Heritage-listed areas collide.
“If you’re on the ground, you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg,” Sheena says. “If you want to see the Great Barrier Reef, you have to get under the water. It’s the same with the rainforest ... you have to get off the ground.”
And that means strapping into your harness at Cape Tribulation in tropical north Queensland, where the impossibly green Wet Tropics World Heritage Area meets the impossibly blue waters of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
The brainchild of late Cairns pharmacist Stephen Walsh, Jungle Surfing uses a top rope belay system to fly you through the canopy between six platforms on a guided tour. He had more than a little inspiration from the 1992 film Medicine Man – look it up.
When I heard about Jungle Surfing, it was the first and only thing I wanted to do on my trip to Cairns. More a rainforest girl than a reef girl, and a rather timid one at that, I was strangely unapprehensive as I waited beside the ‘human hamster wheel’ – more on that later. My seven-year-old daughter, ever the daredevil, was beside herself with excitement. (Jungle Surfing takes children as young as three.)
We had made our way to Cape Tribulation on a tour that obligingly picked us up from Trinity Beach, where we were staying. It was a 12-hour affair that included the famous scenic coastal drive between Cairns and Port Douglas, Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas, Jungle Surfing and a Daintree River Cruise, as well as morning tea and lunch.
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But it was the Daintree that drew me. Our extroverted and slightly eccentric guides had kitted us out with harnesses and helmets. A committed bunch hailing from far and wide, the encouraging and extremely fit crew had backgrounds that ranged from tour guiding to rigging-roping work, outdoor recreation and marine biology.
“The primary consideration is they have to love living in Cape Trib – if they’re not passionate about this environment, it’s not going to work,” Sheena says.
Environmental considerations loom large in the Daintree, where mains power does not exist. Enter the human hamster wheel, a relatively new addition that showcases alternative energy. Jungle Surfers walk inside the wheel to winch fellow surfers up to the first platform. Before its arrival, guides used two giant fishing winches to bring surfers to the treetops.
Once up on the platform, the leaves form Impressionistic patterns as layer upon layer of green dances with dapples of sunlight. You feel cushioned by forest, part of the very lungs of the planet, alive and free.
And hiding among this greenery are some of the Daintree’s star attractions – a family of tree kangaroos, including Grippy, Bennie and their joey Zippy. Although we didn’t see them on our trip, these rare Bennett’s Tree Kangaroos often put in an appearance.
“They’re quite used to us,” Sheena says. “When we were building the new Platform 1, there was a tree kangaroo literally in the tree next door, almost with his hands on his hips, staring at our guys.”
Only 13 people jungle surf at any one time, and the immensity of the forest makes you feel the number is smaller. The company hosts close to 25,000 visitors a year and is about to hit a landmark 200,000 visitors. Among their number have been the likes of TV favourite Rove McManus and model Jennifer Hawkins, as well as Bollywood star Parineeti Chopra.
While the zip lines are not all about speed, you are gently encouraged to let go of your inhibitions. As you progress through each stage, it might be suggested to let go of your guide rope and glide hands free, or to race your partner, building up to the suggestion that you do a flip and ride upside down.
My horror at the thought of watching my child do this – who, of course, was all for it – was tempered only by my horror at the thought of doing it myself. But as my turn came closer, and an elderly surfer gave it a go, followed by his wife, and then my daughter, I found myself making the flip, revelling in the experience, and wondering why I had been so afraid.
Sheena says she often sees people arrive on the minibus with a look of abject terror on their faces but encourages people to take a leap of faith. “Travel at its best should be a little bit transformative – they should come away having done something they never imagined they would.”