Cape Tribulation (by name and by nature) by Olga Pavlinova Olenich

Cape Tribulation (by name and by nature)

Olga Pavlinova Olenich

ACHTUNG! The signs along the track are unmistakable. Even we know what Achtung means. Years of watching bad television have seen to that, and the picture of an open-mouthed and very toothy crocodile has to be a clue. The conclusion must be drawn that the German tourists, of whom there are quite a few here in the Daintree Rainforest, have played fast and loose with the local crocs. We aren’t about to make the same mistake. There is nothing fast and loose about the way we are making our way gingerly along the dark track back to the Cape Tribulation camping ground, where our safe and comfortable cabins near the surprisingly good restaurant/café/meeting place await us. It’s what could be awaiting us around the next bend that is the current preoccupation. Achtung, all right! It is a strange and unsettling feeling to know that prehistoric monsters, that have been known to tear apart or swallow whole the odd human being, lurk close by, hidden in the changing lights and shadows of the staggeringly fecund rainforest.


It is raining. Yes, it’s a rain forest. And it is extraordinarily beautiful. Nothing prepares you for the depth of green or the infinite variety of plant life. Roots crawl out of shallow pools of deep green water and wind their way around the trunks of trees. They are joined by great conga lines of epiphytes moving up and into the dense canopy, adding their particular shades of greens and purples to the heady mix of colour and movement. We stand still and listen to the rain falling. For a moment, we are too mesmerized to think about the lurking danger.

There is a movement behind us somewhere to the right of the path, not far from the last Achtung sign. We laugh, but a bit nervously. “Man-eating croc ahoy!”

I say. Bravado is the first line of defence of the coward. I think I’d prefer the walk in more light. Just as suddenly as the darkness closed in and the density of the forest overwhelmed us, we are clear of it. It opens up onto the road, where a steady stream of vehicles move between the various eco-lodges, camping places, restaurants and stores. It has been a surprise to see how much of the world heritage rainforest is actually accessible to tourists. The contrast between one moment to the next is disconcerting. Now we must walk along the side of a made road that could be a road in any outer suburb of any major city. We must avoid the traffic the ubiquitous four-wheel drives, the family saloons, the tour buses. Barely five minutes ago, we were avoiding one of nature’s most feared predators on a track through an ancient forest hemmed with the luxurious fringes of giant ferns and interrupted by the shadows of Jurassic Age conifers. There’s something in this, but I haven’t got time to think about it. We are back in our cabins and getting ready for dinner. Food, I reflect in the minute remaining, is the chief preoccupation of all living creatures. We are at the mercy of our digestive systems.


The sudden craving for food after a long walk eclipses any impulse we might have had towards the philosophical. We are as voracious, but perhaps a little more discerning, than the crocodiles. We walk the few steps to where the chef with the Rastafarian dreadlocks is doing his thing. To our surprise and infinite delight, he does it well. Every night, he seems to produce a variety of good food and keep his Zen-like cool in the hot kitchen. We eat under canvas with the tropical rain pouring down. In the morning, we are back for breakfast and the sun is out. The birds are making a cheerful racket in the surrounding forest and the greens glisten with the moisture of the night. The chef’s locks are hidden under a bright blue triangle of fabric. He might be a Ulysses butterfly like those that appear on a lot of the postcards on sale in the village. Or he might just be a Ulysses, drawn to this wild Cape by the siren song of the Daintree.

“Where the rainforest meets the reef” is the way Cape Tribulation is described on the website. Two world heritage sites meet here. A short walk from the shelter of the restaurant through some dense vegetation the forest grows right to the edge of the water and the view opens up to a glorious expanse of beach and the ever-changing South Pacific Ocean. Somewhere out there is the Great Barrier Reef. Here, there are mangroves where, we are told, the crocodiles hang out. Somehow the daylight and the beach and the sea make us brave or foolish, I don’t know which, as I run to the edge of the brilliant blue water, my back to the mangroves.

Our encounter with a crocodile is not the drama of our imaginations. It occurs in the company of other tourists. We take a trip along the Daintree River in a boat captained by a cheerful and unstoppable man in a jaunty cap. He points out snakes that are camouflaged in the branches of overhanging trees, and steers the boat as close to the banks as he can when he sees a mother croc basking in the sunlight, while keeping a frightening eye open on her brood of baby crocs that are almost invisible, melting into the rocks on which they bask. Mama is enormous. She stretches from one tree, behind another, and emerges on the other side, a rippling mass of power. She is awe-inspiring. The captain knows her, as he knows every crocodile along this stretch of river. His familiarity and his jokes are tempered with respect. When you live with crocodiles, you know your place.


The intrepid Captain James Cook named the cape “Tribulation” because he ran into a spot of bother here in 1770. If I remember my history correctly, Cook met his end a little later, when he was devoured by cannibals somewhere in the Pacific. I can’t help thinking that, had he gone ashore instead of refloating the Endeavour and sailing away on that bright morning in June, he may well have been devoured by one of the local crocodiles. I don’t think Captain Cook was conversant with the German language.

About the Author

Olga Pavlinova Olenich is a widely published writer from Australia.