Nature, culture and history
An ancient landscape
The landscape of Daintree National Park began to form about 400 million years ago when Australia was still part of the great super-continent, Gondwana. Ancient rivers carried sediments to the coast, which was then situated more than 100 km west of its present position.
Eventually, the movement of the earth's crust lifted these marine deposits, raising a vast area of metamorphic and granite rock far above the sea levels of today. Subsequent erosion of the softer metamorphic rock has exposed the harder underlying granite and resulted in the mountainous, coastal ranges we see today.
For over 200 million years successive climate changes have resulted in the contraction and expansion of rainforest throughout much of Australia. During the drier ice-ages, many plants and animals did not adapt to the new conditions and were driven to extinction. Within Daintree National Park and the surrounding area, cloudy, wet mountaintops and deep, moist valleys provided refuges from these climatic fluctuations for many forms of life. Those that survived have evolved into the plants and animals in the park today, many of which have changed very little from their ice-age ancestors.
The range of habitats in the Mossman Gorge section of Daintree National Park supports a diverse assortment of wildlife. Butterflies are among the most commonly seen animals. Look for the brilliant, metallic-blue Ulysses butterfly Papilio ulysses joesa and the striking black and green male Cairns birdwing butterflies Ornithoptera euphorion along the walking tracks and near the river. The female Cairns birdwing is Australia's largest butterfly, with a wingspan of up to 150 mm.
Australian brush-turkeys Alectura lathami, which are large black birds with bald, red heads, yellow neck wattles and upright, fan-like tails, are seen year-round at Mossman Gorge. The ground-dwelling orange-footed scrubfowl Megapodius reinwardt is also commonly seen scratching for food on the forest floor. At dusk, insectivorous birds such as Australian swiftlets Aerodramus terraereginae and grey fantails Rhipidura albiscapa can be observed flying over the calmer pools along the river.
The magnificent, buff-breasted paradise-kingfisher Tanysiptera sylvia returns from New Guinea during the warmer months to breed in North Queensland. It is easily recognised by its beautiful blue back and wings, orange underside and very long white tail. Another bird that returns from New Guinea to breed each year is the pied imperial-pigeon Ducula bicolor. These black and white pigeons arrive in large numbers around August to enjoy an abundance of fruits found in the lowland rainforest.
In the river, jungle perch Kuhlia rupestris can be easily identified by two conspicuous black spots on their tail. Saw-shelled turtles Wollumbinia latisternum and platypus Ornithorhynchus anatinus can sometimes be spotted in the quieter pools.
Reptiles are often encountered along the walking tracks. Observant visitors may find a Boyd's forest dragon Hypsilurus boydii clinging quietly to a tree in the lower parts of the forest. Amethystine pythons Morelia kinghorni, which may grow over 5 m in length, are occasionally seen along the rainforest circuit track. Even though they are non-venomous and generally harmless, they should not be approached.
The spotted-tailed quoll (northern subspecies) Dasyurus maculatus gracilis is an endangered species found within the park. This cat-sized marsupial is one of Australia's few purely carnivorous animals. Their range covers both upland and lowland rainforests and the tall eucalypt forests found on the western slopes of the Windsor and Carbine tablelands.
Of all Australia's rodents, the giant white-tailed rat Uromys caudimaculatus is one of the largest, with a body length of up to 380 mm. Often regarded as a mischievous pest, it will boldly raid homes and camp sites, chewing its way into tents, food containers and even electrical wiring. This nocturnal creature is an efficient tree climber.
Many mammals within the park are nocturnal and are difficult to observe. The musky rat-kangaroo Hypsiprymnodon moschatus, however, is often active during the day and may be glimpsed foraging on the forest floor. This small creature looks similar to a bandicoot, but is usually smaller with dark, chocolate-brown fur. It is the most primitive member of the kangaroo family and is believed to have remained relatively unchanged over the last 20 million years.
The tropical rainforests of Daintree National Park are part of the largest, continuous area of rainforest in Australia. They support a large diversity of plants, many of which grow nowhere else and some of which are threatened. They also feature a significant number of plant families whose ancestors were amongst the very first flowering plants on earth—providing important insights into the evolution of flowering plants.
The structure and variety of plants in the rainforest is influenced by competition for light. Trees grow skywards, their intermingling crowns shading the forest floor. In the dim conditions found on the forest floor only shade-tolerant plants such as ferns and palms are able to grow.
Epiphytic plants such as orchids and birds nest ferns Asplenium australasicum avoid the competition for light by starting life on the higher tree branches, their spores and seeds dispersed by wind and animals. Other plants simply hitchhike to the sunlight. Lawyer vine or wait-a-while Calamus muelleri uses hooks to climb tree trunks, while other climbing plants reach the tree tops using hundreds of small roots or tendrils.
The strangler fig Ficus triradiata starts life high on a tree branch where its seed is deposited by birds or flying foxes. It then sends its roots downwards, gradually joining them together around the trunk of the host tree. Eventually, the constricted and starved host tree dies, leaving a magnificent fig standing in its place.
Eastern Kuku Yalanji country
The Eastern Kuku Yalanji Aboriginal people are the Traditional Owners of this area. For the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people many natural features of the landscape have spiritual significance including Wundu (Thornton Peak), Manjal Dimbi (Mount Demi), Wurrumbu (The Bluff) and Kulki (Cape Tribulation).
The Eastern Kuku Yalanji lived well on the rich array of plants and animals on their traditional estate. The coastal lowlands were particularly productive and could sustain a relatively large population.
Understanding the weather cycles and the combination of vegetation types allows the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people to find a variety of food throughout the year—when jilngan (mat grass) is in flower, it is time to collect jarruka (orange-footed scrubfowl) eggs and when jun jun (blue ginger) is fruiting, it is time to catch diwan (Australian brush-turkey).
Cape Tribulation was given its European name by Lieutenant James Cook after his ship, Endeavour, was holed on a reef in the area in 1770. Cook wrote “I named…the north point Cape Tribulation because here began all our troubles”.
Gold miners, explorers, timber cutters and farmers have all made their mark on the area. In 1873 George Elphinstone Dalrymple led the first exploration deep into the Daintree River valley, naming the river after Richard Daintree, a prominent geologist and friend. Dalrymple wrote “The river valley is here surrounded by a panorama of great beauty…a perfect picture of rich tropical country”.
During the voyage, Dalrymple noted extensive areas of land suitable for agriculture but more importantly, he found huge stands of red cedar. Soon after, hordes of timber-getters arrived with the prospect of getting rich from 'red gold'. At the time, these much-prized trees had almost disappeared from most southern forests and it was only 10 years before the Daintree suffered the same fate. Many settlers left disheartened but others stayed, determined to make a living by raising cattle or growing crops such as rice, vegetables, coffee, maize and sugar. While crops grew well on the river flats, flooding, pests, disease and the difficulty of getting to market made life very hard.
In the 1880s, farming expanded along the coastal belt, and extensive areas of lowland rainforest were cleared. Settlements were established throughout the area and the resident population began to grow.
In 1967, the Mossman Gorge section of Daintree National Park was declared. In 1988, Daintree National Park was recognised internationally as a significant, natural area with its inclusion in the WTWHA listing.
The WTWHA extends for about 450 km between Cooktown and Townsville. Much of the WTWHA is tropical rainforest, but also includes open eucalypt forest, wetlands and mangrove forests. The WTWHA meets all four natural criteria for World Heritage listing. These criteria recognise the area's exceptional natural beauty and the importance of its biological diversity and evolutionary history, including habitats for numerous threatened species. The WTWHA also has cultural significance for Aboriginal people who have traditional links with the area and its surrounds.
Find out more about the Wet Tropics Management Authority.
- Temporary closure Mossman River lookout: Mossman Gorge day-use area, Daintree National Park 24 May to 13 August 2021