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Daintree Rainforest – Australia, 2011

It took Jane Maguire six months to get from Ireland to Australia in a rickety wooden boat that stank of bile. The 20-year-old from Longford was one of 120 Irish convict girls, mostly Catholic, who landed in Sydney in 1829. They all carried sentences of minimum seven years penal servitude for dark crimes such as theft of handkerchiefs and apples. Jane, who had no previous convictions, was charged with straight up vagrancy. Such are the strange foundations upon which many a great nation is built.

It took me just under a day to get to Australia from Dublin on a cushy Emirates airplane that smelled of hot towels and lime juice. And that included a four-hour stop in Dubai Airport for breakfast. If I were to do the trip again, I’d stay at least 24 hours in Dubai en route, just to break up the flight and soak up a little Arabian spirit.

But as we touched down in Brisbane, I thought about Jane Maguire and the 40,000 other Irish men and women who arrived here as convicts four or five generations ago. You probably think the convict days are so long ago that they’re utterly irrelevant now. Maybe you’re right. But I met an old man who swore blind that his grandfather was one of the last convicts shipped out, arriving in Sydney in 1849.

My first real port of call upon arrival was the Daintree National Park way up beyond Cairns in Far North Queensland (or FNQ for short). At 1200 km2, it’s about the size of County Monaghan and it’s home to the oldest rainforest in the world. Don’t ask me how you adjudge that but the place is apparently 110 million years old and that’s certainly a few Tuesdays ago.

We cruise up the Daintree River with a bloke called Mick on a splendid blue-skied morning, through rich, glossy green, croc-infested, mangrove swamps where fangless tree snakes and forest dragons eyeball us from the shadows, an osprey flapping overhead with a luckless fish in its beak. Ordinarily, a blow-by-blow account of mangrove root systems would not be my bag, but Mick keeps it lively, patiently explaining the river’s extraordinary ability to renew itself so that while the right bank is constantly eroding away, the left bank is growing at exactly the same pace. It’s all thick Jurassic jungle, as ancient as the Garden of Eden, the reflections so deep in the water that it’s like an ethereal otherworld on a silver platter. But sometimes you’d see a sugar cane field bursting down to the riverbanks and remember the power of man.

By night we stayed in the Daintree Eco-Lodge, a fine collection of 15 jungle huts, or bayans, built along the river. When darkness falls, kick back on the balcony or sprawl beneath your canopied four-poster, inhaling the rainforest and the choral overture of clicking crickets and rumbling frogs, the rushing sound of water a boon to the soul. You probably need at least three days to attune yourself to the pace of the rainforest.

Australia's Daintree rainforest returned to Aboriginal ownership | CNN Travel

The Daintree Eco-Lodge is owned by the Maloneys, an unusual family who combine Irish hospitality with the ancient genius of the local aborigines, the Kuku Yalanji people, of whom there are approximately 3,000 living in these parts. Terry Maloney’s great-great-grandfather hailed from County Clare but fell foul of the Ennis courts and was banished down under for seven years. He stayed for life. Terry’s wife Cathy likewise traced her ancestry back 150 years and found she was of Irish Protestant stock, with distant cousins living today along the coast of Mayo. Two of their three daughters have married men from the Yalanji and it’s this combined history that’s enabled the Maloneys to so completely absorb the aboriginal culture around them. That means that while you may find yourself cackling loudly at Terry and Cathy’s tales of going on a pub crawl through Tarbert with two Garda, you’re also learning how the fireflies racing through the dark night are the spirits of those who have gone before.

One morning I strolled out to a small waterfall near the Eco-Lodge with Juan Walker, one of Terry’s son-in-laws. Juan’s great-grampa was an Indian who was transported to Queensland to work on the sugar cane fields of nearby Mossman nearly 100 years ago. His great-grandmother was an aborigine from the Yalanji, and their daughter Wilma was born in 1929. As anyone who has seen ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’ will recall, children of mixed racial birth were not welcome in mid-20th century Australia. When the cops came to take Wilma away, her grandmother hid her in a balji basket. So she escaped and grew up and married.

Juan is one of Wilma’s many grandchildren. He’s a discreet guy but he’s connected to the world in a way that I can only marvel at. As we make our way through the forest, he tells me about the things we pass. A small termite hill which, turned upside down, becomes a bucket for transporting fire coals or eggs. If you’re worried the eggs might break, cushion them with these super squidgy leaves, nature’s answer to bubble wrap. And if you want to keep leeches away, just rub your legs with those leaves there. The sticky cobweb wrapped around that branch above makes for an ideal bandage. Thirsty? Snap that branch there and it’s full of pure water. Scared of the dark? Ignite the bulb on that plant yonder and it will burn slowly all night long.

Juan belongs to a people who can still read nature. They can look at the angle of the leaves and know a storm is coming. They can cure a stab wound with tree sap. These guys have an innate understanding of every rock, tree, animal and bird. They are big time in touch. We had that connection here too, once, long ago, but we have forgotten how. Our secrets are lost amid the ghostly ring-forts and passage graves by which we drive our fast cars.

At length we reach the waterfall where there is a small tree dragon standing guard. I kid you not. A miniature dinosaur clinging to a trunk, eyeballing us as we approach. He has a look to suggest that he has been there since the beginning of time. Juan turns to face the dragon and mutters respectfully for 30 seconds. The eyeballs blink, Juan nods and we advance. And then we stop again. There is a sacred pool beneath it, which is a place for women only, and there is a woman bathing there when we arrive.

I have to pinch myself to check I haven’t vanished into some fantastical time warp. But then Juan shows me a flat top rock with a light skim of water on its surface. He scoops a handful of multi-coloured stones from the ground beneath us, pops them in the water and starts mushing one of them around and around until he has a red paste. He daubs my cheeks with the paste and tells me this is perfect stuff for keeping kids happy in the rainforest. Organic paint. And, as it happens, these ochre clays will also cure you from chicken pox or mozzie bites.

Such journeys make one hungry but luckily one of the star acts at the Eco-Lodge is the Julaymba Restaurant where I kicked off dinner with a hunk of smoked crocodile served up with things like cucumber, honeydew, chilli and Vietnamese mint. I’d heard a few tales about the crocs up here. Like how, if they’re hungry, they’ll just open wide and eat whatever’s next to them, even if it’s their mum or their cute little newborn baby. It may be my fate to be eaten by a crocodile one day, but there’s no chance in Hades that I’ll taste anything like as good as that croc tasted to me.

I don’t think I will ever be eaten by a kangaroo. But that’s what arrived next on my plate, a medium rare roo in a blood-red, wild hibiscus verjuice sauce. I winced at first. After all, I’d hand-fed one of the little craters in a zoo earlier in the week. What’s more, I figured it wouldn’t be up to much as a dish or we’d all be eating kangaroo, right? Wrong. Served right, kangaroo is utterly delicious, very beefy, ideal with a local Shiraz. Round the night off with a coconut crème brulee and Bob est ton uncle.

Daintree also have a winning ticket with their Spa where they massage you with much the same ingredients they use in the grub. For one hour, I was rubbed head to toe in wattleseed, ylang ylang sea salts and miscellaneous body oils, then hosed down with a five-prong hot shower, before I advanced back into the rainforest, reborn, reincarnated, fresh as spring, maybe a little sleepy.

As I say, you need to spend a week in the rainforest to get anything like a proper feeling for the place. It is certainly an extraordinary world. At first glance, it’s simply a forest with infinite trees and dense evergreen leaves through which the sunlight occasionally leaks. But probe deeper, or befriend someone with a rather more ancient wisdom, and you will learn not just about rainforests but about the way in which we humans operated way back when we were genuinely connected to the nature that surrounds us.