Dispatch from the Clouds

Sujata and the kids went snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef today. I don’t like boats, especially open water/ocean rides. I also do not like fish. Live or dead.  I do love to swim, but I’m a very practical swimmer: I get in the water, swim my laps and get out. I can’t countenance just lallygagging around in the ocean with a mask and flippers.

So, I drove 20 km northwest of Port Douglas and went for a walk in the Mossman Gorge, a   tropical rainforest on the southern tip of the larger Daintree Rainforest. I was accompanied by no one. And, it was lovely.

First, though, let me say a few things about rainforests. Since the eighteenth century, or the beginning of the industrial era, about 75% of the world’s rainforests have been cleared. Now, rainforests cover just .5% of the earth’s surface. The rainforests were cleared primarily to make room for agriculture and human residences. As I drove up to Mossman today, for instance, I saw fields and fields of sugar cane. Not that long ago, those fields were part of the Daintree tropical rainforest, but over the years, the land was cleared to make room for the sugar cane fields, among other things. This is one of the reasons that the Australian government recently declared the Daintree Rainforest a World Heritage site. Better late than never. Rainforests are important to the environment. With their tall canopies and their dense forest floors, rainforests are massive carbon ‘sinks’; that is, the trees and plants of the rainforest ‘breathe’ in carbon, thereby reducing carbon levels in the atmosphere. But, when you cut down the rainforest, you 1) release the carbon that’s caught up in the trees and 2) reduce, or preclude, the trees’ ability to suck up the earth’s carbon. And, what you get then, is higher levels of carbon in the atmosphere and global warming.

Here a a few photos to give you a sense of the density the rainforest:

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So, that sugar tasted good in my coffee this morning, but it’s a real net negative for the environment.

It’s not lost on me, either, that my carbon footprint from all of the traveling we are doing this year is going to be massive, and the only thing I can say is that to offset my carbon imprint for this year I 1) installed solar panels on our roof at home three years ago so we are pretty carbon neural in our living space, 2) significantly limited my air travel over the past five years (I never, for instance, go to academic conferences anymore, and I’m happier for it!) and 3) rode my bike to work just about every day for the last two years. We can all do better, though.

What’s now called the Mossman Gorge has been peopled by the eastern Kuk Yalanji tribe for thousands of years. Their descendants still live on the land—I passed through their village on my way up to the trail–and I couldn’t tell for sure, but it seemed to me that their descents have a hand in the management and labor of the Mossman Gorge Visitor’s Center. I suspect there is an interesting backstory here regarding the relationship between the Kuk Yalanji and the Australian tourist industry. Here’s a view from the parking lot of the Centre—it gives you a nice far away perspective of the rainforest.

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The Mossman/Daintree is a lowland, tropical, wet rainforest. It’s located close to a coastal plain yet you gain some altitude from the coastal area to the rainforest itself. I’m not sure how far up I travelled from sea level—not far, maybe 100 meters. The forest is indeed wet and that comes from rain falling overhead as well as a fast-flowing river, called the Mossman River, that flows through the center of the park. In the Rockies of Colorado, the mountain streams and rivers are filled up mostly from the melted snow pack. The mountain rivers run high and fast in the spring and early summer and then virtually stop out in late summer and early fall. Here, I suspect the rivers are running faster now because it’s basically the rainy season (I could be wrong about that).

Because the forest floor is so wet, the trees grow some of their roots above the ground where they can get more nutrients and stay less soggy. This creates beautiful root buttresses like these:

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Here, in the Queensland rainforests, the source of the rivers and streams comes from rain that gathers in catches and then flows down the mountains, toward the ocean.  The water in the rivers also comes from something called Cloud Stripping, a process where trees at the top of the rainforest come in contact with the passing clouds and as the clouds move through the trees, they deposit water on the leaves which then drips down onto the forest floor, gathers, and then heads to the ocean. I learned that up to 40% of the water in the rainforest rivers and streams comes from Cloud Stripping.

Here’s a photo of the mighty Mossman River:

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There was rain falling above the canopy as I walked along the trails but the thick canopy of trees kept me protected—I didn’t get wet at all.  When I arrived to the Visitor Centre parking lot at about 9 am, there was hardly anyone around. I got on the trail and I didn’t see anyone for quite some time. By the time I left, some two hours later, there were hordes of visitors piling off of tour busses.  I was glad to get there, and get out of there, when I did. And I was also reminded of the philosopher, Tim Morton’s ideas that nature, as we know it, is basically gone/dead/extinct when we turn it into a museum. Or take photos of it and hang them on our living room walls.

I have to say that I was a bit unnerved walking on my own. I’m not used to hiking in such ‘close quarters’ and with such a limited perspective. Most of the time I could see only about five to ten meters ahead of me and given that the canopy was about 30 meters high, I could barely see the sky through the trees. In other words, it’s dark and close on these trails.

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This is so different from the Colorado trails with their big sky vistas.

Moreover, I was worried about the Cassowaries. On the plane from Auckland to Sydney, I read about Cassowaries of Queensland—ancient, imposing ground birds that grow up to 3 meters in height.


Cassowaries aren’t aggressive by nature, and they and humans have created interesting relationships here in Queensland. With the gradual clearing of the rainforests, Cassowaries, who make their homes there, have come into closer and more frequent contact with humans. Farmers and rural folk are very protective of them—they are iconic and beloved–and some folks are even known to put out food and water for them. I’m told that when a Queensland driver flashes his headlights it’s because there’s a Cassowary, not a cop, ahead. Some folks have reported hearing kicks on their doors and windows in the middle of the night only to find the local Cassowary outside. What they want, no one knows.  They have been known to attack people, but those occurrences are rare. Their method of attack, interestingly, is to kick with their feet rather than to peck with their beaks or beat with their wings. For the first 800 meters of my hike, I was just waiting for a Cassowary to appear before me and kick me in the head or . . . just stare and then proceed on his way, but, alas, I didn’t even a hint of one.

If this trip is teaching me one thing up to this point, it’s how very little I know about the world. I learn something new every day and I’m left with a deep feeling of humility. Maybe that’s what traveling is for.




One thought on “Dispatch from the Clouds

  1. I learn something new every time I read anything you’ve written, brother. Today I’ve learned (from all your posts!) that the cassowary is one badass bird! All your experiences are have been so amazing and fresh that, it might just as well be the Jabberwocky.

    Miss you all! Can’t believe it’s only been a couple of weeks because it seems so long ago that I was at your house bidding you a safe trip.

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