The Truth About Eco-Travel

By Laurie McAndish King 

Jim was hesitant right from the start.

“Cape Tribulation? Wilderness Area? No way!”

Our travel agent had provided a bright, glossy brochure of the Bunyip Lodge, and I cajoled my husband into going along to this eco-resort in northern Australia. “Eco-tourism” sounded so romantic: waking to the trill of morning birdsong, viewing exotic animals without binoculars, and falling asleep to the melodic sounds of the night forest. Who could resist two weeks in a pristine rainforest? I reminded my metro man that there was a resort in eco-resort, and assured him that any inconveniences would be minor. Besides, the brochure featured a photo of a sparkling swimming pool. If Jim decided against traipsing through the rainforest with me, he could always relax by the pool.

I wanted to be one with the rainforest.

We traveled twelve thousand miles by air and bus, transferred to a treacherous wooden ferry to cross the Daintree River’s gaping mouth, and finished our journey in an eight-passenger minibus that rattled and shivered and shimmied along a deeply rutted road. So far, so good. But, arriving at the Bunyip Lodge in late evening, we began to discover the truth about eco-tourism. The minibus would not fit on the “resort’s” overgrown road, so the driver was forced to deposit us—rather unceremoniously, I thought—at the side of a road that cut a thin ribbon through dense jungle. There were no lights at the unmarked drop-off point and, as the minibus quivered off to its next destination, we found ourselves standing alone—in complete darkness—with our luggage.

We hadn’t packed flashlights. Who would think we’d need one to get to the hotel lobby? Jim and I stood stupidly in place for a few minutes as our eyes adjusted, and eventually discovered a path leading through the jungle to a faint light. Leaving our luggage heaped in a pile, we stumbled down the bumpy, vine-tangled trail towards the resort. The porters can retrieve it later, I thought.

Although there was no lobby, we did manage to track down the proprietor, an amiable fellow called Tony, who was unable to check us in because the computer was down.

“A bug?” I sympathized, remembering the last time my own computer had crashed.

“Nawr—it’s the bloody mice. They’ve chewed right through the wires again,” Tony explained. Ever helpful, he lent us a couple of torches so we could retrieve our luggage and carry it to the cabin.

There were no porters.

Jim and I were both dripping with sweat before we had walked the 100 yards from drop-off point to office. But we remained optimistic, and decided that although the weather and accommodations were not exactly what we had anticipated, it would be fine as long as there was air conditioning.

Of course, there was none.

There were cracks in the walls wide enough for a small dog to pass through—surely these were not for wildlife viewing—and a narrow bed surrounded by alarming volumes of mosquito netting (never a good sign). There was also a plasticized placard in the room requesting that we leave the lights and ceiling fan on at all times to inhibit the encroachment of creeping jungle rot. Occupying a prominent position on the tiny bathroom counter was a super-sized red box of salt, along with instructions for using it to remove leeches: “Simply rub the salt over the attached leech….”

Jim and I sank onto the bed and turned to face each other. He beat me to the question: “Whose idea was this, anyway?” 

It was time for some serious attitude adjustment. We ambled over to the open-air bar, sucked down a couple of gin and tonics, and flipped through the limp pages of several field guides we found stacked on the barstools—a makeshift library. (Suddenly, I understood why the local currency had a high plastic content: plain paper does not hold up in such high humidity.) Bats swooped precipitously overhead. This was my kind of place after all: even the bar celebrated flora and fauna.

I planned to search for the rare buff-breasted paradise kingfisher. “It migrates all the way from New Guinea,” the guidebook said, “to breed only in this small area in North Queensland, and nests by burrowing into termite mounds.” I would also be on the lookout for the musky rat kangaroo, a “rat-sized” marsupial that looks like a miniature kangaroo, climbs trees, hops like a rabbit, and commonly nests in the dreaded wait-a-while plant (more on that to come). The third animal I hoped to spot was the cassowary, an ostrich-like bird that can kick a person to death in self-defense. It wasn’t entirely clear, from the text, whether death resulted from the power of the kick itself, or from the sharp nails on the bird’s inner toes, which “can easily rip human flesh.” Now this was exciting.

The cassowary, I learned, is Australia’s largest land animal, weighing as much as 130 pounds. Not surprisingly, it is quite incapable of flight. Vestigal wings each carry three to five wire-like feathers, which are used to help brush aside undergrowth as the cassowary travels through the rainforest. As it moves, the giant bird lowers its head “for protection” and “lifts its toes right up under its chin.” I couldn’t fathom what a gigantic, man-killing bird might need protection from—except, perhaps, humans, as it is an endangered species, with fewer than 1,500 individuals remaining. The male cassowary incubates eggs and cares for the young, which I hope bodes well for the survival of the species.

But larger-than-human size, a comical gait, and killer toenails are just the beginning of the cassowary’s odd characteristics. It also sports body feathers that look like foot-and-a-half-long strands of luxurious taupe-colored fur, a bright blue neck, a long red wattle, and a head crowned with a large casque or “helmet” of horn-covered cartilage, the size of which is believed to be significant in determining the cassowary’s social status. And let’s not forget the bird’s “uniquely short digestive system,” which allows it to eat the fruits of poisonous plants and eliminate the toxins before absorbing them. In fact, seeds often remain intact, and can grow after passing through the cassowary, which plays an essential part in the dispersion of seeds from up to 100 species of trees and shrubs. Other rainforest inhabitants—notably the musky rat kangaroo—commonly include partially-digested fruit from the cassowary’s droppings in their diets. This bird—shy, fast-moving, and integral to the ecosystem—had captured my imagination. Here was a creature worth viewing, and I was eager to begin the search.

Not wanting to be outdone, Jim studied up on the local flora. “It says there’s something called the gimpy-gimpy plant that causes horses to commit suicide.”

“Does not,” I countered. Surely he was kidding.

Duh-zz. Page 137. The most terrifying plant in the area,” Jim read, “is the gimpy-gimpy. When brushed against, its leaves release an extremely painful irritant. There is no known antidote, and the pain can last for months.”

“All right, but what about the horses?” I interrupted, catching him in what was surely a complete fabrication.

“Horses have been known to die from charging into trees after exposure to this plant,” he continued. “The leaves appear soft and fuzzy from a distance, and have been used, by some stunningly unfortunate explorers, as rainforest toilet paper.”

Ouch.

Second on the dangerous-to-horses-and-other-large-mammals list is the “wait-a-while” tree, also called “lawyer cane” because, once hooked by the thorns on this pitiless plant, one is as irretrievably entangled as if involved in the legal process. The vegetation starts out looking like a small palm tree, then grows long, wiry “tendrils” which are decidedly not tender—they’re lined with rows of viciously sharp barbed hooks. If you happen to brush past one of these possessive forest dwellers, it grabs your clothing and holds on tightly until you back up and remove the thorns. The tree has even been known to “pull people off horses and motorcycles” as they ride by. Eventually, the long, barbed vine-like part grows to an inch or more in diameter, the thorns drop off, and the result is the smoothly-benign rattan from which patio chairs were made in the 1970s.

Over another round of gin and tonics, Jim and I anticipated the next day’s activities, which now revolved around avoiding terrifying plant life. “We might be lucky enough to spot a dusky-colored, rat-like kangaroo scampering about in the rainforest shadows,” I enthused. “It’s the world’s most primitive marsupial!”

“Yes, and we could also see a small brown bird covered with termites, or a large brown bird that could kick us to death,” Jim replied, with somewhat less exuberance. “These were the exotic native species you had dreamed of encountering?”

Next morning, the air remained thick. The shirts we had worn the day before and hung in front of the window to air out remained wet—not merely damp, but soaked through—with perspiration.

Everything inside our suitcases was wet, too, so Jim used a hairdryer on our shorts and shirts. Then we headed for the lodge, where I scouted around for the inviting swimming pool that had been featured in the brochure. Desperate to float in it, I imagined diving in, a brisk splash, then full-body relief.

The pool did not exist.

Oh, there was a tiny wading hole, similar in overall look, if not dimension, to the palatial pool featured in the brochure. The photographer had apparently taken the shot from ground level, and used an extremely wide-angle lens, in order to flatter the tiny pond and lure unsuspecting tourists.

Tony was sympathetic and let us in on a secret, suggesting that we spend the morning “cooling your inner core,” as the locals did, by soaking in Cooper’s Creek just down the hill. He assured us that the leeches there were only small, the kind that bite you gently and then fall off.  “Just a little nibble, really. No worries.”

The photo-perfect swimming hole was clear and beautiful, surrounded by lush tropical vegetation, shaded by magnificent rainforest trees.  And the water was cold, as Tony had promised.

Very, very cold. 

I’m a bit of a baby about plunging my body into frigid leech-filled streams, so it took me a good twenty minutes to submerge. My feet were easy, lower legs not so bad. Thighs difficult, waist nearly impossible. The water was unbearably cold, and I kept thinking about the leeches, and which of my body parts they would be most likely to attach themselves to. Did they prefer light or dark? Cold or warmth? Freedom to crawl around or the protection of a cozy nook or cranny? 

With my mind finally off the oppressive heat I relaxed, looked around, and began to think:  Who would live in a place like this, anyway? Were they all insane? Had they been kicked out of other towns, or even other countries? Visions of early shiploads of convicts filled my mind.  Perhaps the crazy ones had migrated to the hinterlands of Queensland? But no—everyone we had met seemed quite civilized.

An intense vibration interrupted my reverie, and I realized my teeth were chattering uncontrollably. After sitting in the numbingly-cold creek for more than an hour, we had unwittingly induced hypothermia. This was the locals’ strategy for surviving in a sweltering climate!

But we did finally feel better—especially after removing the small leech that clung tenderly to my right big toe.  So much better, in fact, that we decided to take a nature walk. Tony drove us to a nearby nature reserve and introduced us to Helen, a stout, Hobbit-like woman with the air of someone who had spent a few too many years alone in the jungle. Although the sun was shining and the blue sky showed no hint of rain, she dressed in a bright yellow slicker and knee-high gumboots for our rainforest walk.

We traipsed for hours through lush rainforest suffused with dim green luminescence. In some places the sun barely filtered through, and light seemed to emanate from mossy surfaces and dew-covered leaves. Primeval cycads—a primitive plant whose existence dates back 250 million years—stood in groves, water dripping from their palm-like fronds. Ulysses butterflies, brilliant blue, with four-inch wingspans, floated silently by. I was in heaven.

Jim did not share my appreciation of the living museum surrounding us, home to some of the world’s rarest plants and animals. “I think we’ve seen all 3,000 endemic species,” he muttered from behind me on the trail. “Now I only need to sit on a gimpy-gimpy plant to make my trip complete.”

Then we came upon what were clearly Helen’s favorites: ants swarming by the thousands along rough tree branches. Each ant was about a quarter of an inch long, and had a delicate, bright green abdomen that was grossly over-extended—filled with nectar the ant had collected—and looked as though it was about to burst. Helen gently pulled an extra-large-sized ant off a tree and extended it, posterior end first, to within inches of my face. “’Ere ya go, then. Go ahead, lick its butt.”

Lick the ant’s butt?

I don’t know whether I was more afraid of the ant, with its horrifyingly engorged abdomen, or of Helen and her curiously insistent attitude. She touched the ant’s translucent bulge to her own confidently outstretched tongue, and I bravely followed suit. After it was clear I had not been poisoned, Jim licked his own ant, and his eyes shot open. The taste was like mixing the intense fizz of an Alka Seltzer with tangy lime sherbet.

Helen explained that the ants were great to have around, because they kept other bugs away. I was glad to hear this, as I’m always the first to know when mosquitoes are nearby: they apparently sense the sweetness of my blood, or the depth of my hatred for their species, and swarm about me without fail.

Despite the ants, today was no exception. The mosquitoes swarmed, they landed, and they sucked my blood mercilessly. We convinced Helen to turn back just as it began to rain. Venomous tree frogs croaked a deafening chorus that echoed in every direction and disoriented me completely. Water gushed down in torrents, and my respect for Helen’s sartorial eccentricities increased. Our feet sank into calf-deep mud, which threatened my balance and oozed its way down to the very toes of my new Blundstone hiking boots. My bare arms and legs itched wildly.

That’s when I realized my wish had been granted.

Although we had not spotted the elusive cassowary, I had licked an ant’s butt, and I had provided nourishing blood for the local mosquitoes and leeches. I had melted in the heat and been numbed by the creek, been thrown off balance in eons-old mud and disoriented by echoing frogsong.

I had become one with the rainforest.

The next morning I counted more than 75 bites on the lower half of my left leg alone.  I spent the following week suffering grievously, and experimenting with every imaginable remedy for itching, none of which was particularly effective (although topical gin was a contender). But this is the trip we will remember forever. When I reminded him of it several years later, Jim replied enthusiastically, “Let’s do it again!”