Swagman #16 – Mission Beach and the Tully Gorge Bushman – Queensland, Australia
As you enter Mission Beach, be it from the north or south, you will no doubt
see a large yellow sign every kilometer that says “Take Care” with the image
of a large bird that looks a bit like a turkey. It is actually the
cassowary, third largest bird in existence after the ostrich and emu. The
bizarre looking creature is said to be a direct descendent of the dinosaurs,
with a tiny, multi-colored head, large body, and feet that look like that of
a velociraptor. It has three toes, and the middle holds a long sharp claw
that doesn’t look like it would tickle. It is an interesting creature to
see, although with only an estimated 1200 still in existence (thus earning
it a place on the endangered species list) you may have to travel to a zoo
to see it. We had first seen one in Steve Irwin’s zoo, but were hoping to
spot one in Mission Beach, where there is reported to be a high
As we are in the throes of stinger season and are not looking to risk dying
a horribly painful death in the water, we must look for alternative ways to
entertain ourselves. This is secretly a bit of a blessing of course, because
the lure of beautiful beaches up and down the coast can divert anyone’s
attention from anything else an area has to offer. So we decided to walk the
numerous rainforest trails in search of this giant bird.
The visitor’s center in Mission Beach is located right on the main strip,
and has listings for the numerous walks where one can play National
Geographic and try to snap a close up picture of the cassowary. However,
after walking two separate trails in the sweltering heat, camera ready in
hand, constantly swatting at the flies and mozzies in a way that must at a
distance resemble a bizarre dance or ritual, we saw nothing. Well, actually
we saw a lot of cassowary droppings, which we visually analyzed like
trackers, exchanging phrases like “This one looks fresh, we must be close.”
Discouraged, we drank in the local pubs and vowed to find one the next day.
The next day we suddenly remembered how hot is during the day and decided to
drive down to the Tully Gorge instead for a nice swim in the beautiful
water. The water, calm in some places, turns to rapids in others and is
where many of the Cairns whitewater rafting tours travel to. We pulled into
the car park in the early afternoon and were greeted with an extra blast of
heat and a sound similar to popcorn kernels exploding. The trees and bush
were in flames because some nitwit threw a lit cigarette aside. Bush fires
are a constant threat in Australia, and the land doesn’t need any help in
recycling it’s woods. Nikki told me that the fires have become such a
problem in recent years that, in an effort to curb stupidity, many radio
stations now offer their own solution. If anyone driving on the freeway
spots someone throw a lit cigarette out the window, call the station and
report the make and license plate number. The DJs will then air the info,
and everyone that sees that car can verbally thank them for being so
A 30-something Aussie, wearing nothing but his swim costume, was standing at
the edge of the forest as we approached. He explained the situation to us,
but didn’t look very concerned.
“So we can’t swim?” Nikki asked.
“Of course you can,” he said. “Just a little fire. Happens all the time.”
We got to talk to him a bit more as we swam in the gorge, where he informed
us of Yowie sightings. The Yowie is much like Bigfoot, but in the strange,
desolate areas of Australia seems like it is extremely possible that this
“Some of me friends have seen him!” he said, and then went on to tell us
numerous stories of sightings and encounters. The talk, as it usually does
in the wild, turned to things that can kill you.
“Just last week there was a python right there,” he said, and pointed to a
frighteningly close location. “Just popped his head out to say hello.”
Nikki expressed her concern, to which he shrugged.
“Ah, they ain’t too dangerous. They might wrap up your arm a bit, but they
won’t kill you.”
“We heard a child on Fraser Island was killed by one recently.” He seemed to
ponder this a bit.
“Well yeah, if you’re a kid I guess. But they get a bad name, snakes don’t
bother you too much.”
“What about the brown snake?” This beauty is on the prestigious top ten list
of snakes that will drop a human rather quickly. We had spotted one in
Nightcap National Park near Nimbin, curled up on the walking trail. Joe had
stomped right past it without even seeing it, and I would have as well if
Nikki hadn’t suddenly frozen up.
“Yeah, that’ll make you a little sick,” our new friend said. “But the
python’s aren’t too bad. Had one try to bite me hand off once. I was trying
to move him for a lady friend, he’d wandered into her yard. Grabbed him by
the head a bit to far down and his head spun around and just swallowed me
hand to the wrist. Didn’t hurt much, they don’t have much for teeth, but I
thought ‘F*$#ing hell, it’s got me hand!’ So I pulled him off and got rid of
him. Washed me hand off so it wouldn’t get infected.”
We asked him about the cassowaries and he launched into a long speech
colorfully denouncing the National Parks and Wildlife.
“They’re bloody starving,” he yelled. “They say don’t feed em, because
they’re afraid they’ll come around humans looking for food. But that’s what
they’re doing anyway! I go out an’ throw some fruit around to feed the poor
things. They’re dying of starvation and those idiots aren’t doing anything.
They’re always hassling me with fines. But it’s run by these blokes who feel
powerful with a badge who don’t care about the cassowaries. And these old
ladies telling you not to feed ‘em, they ain’t seen a cassowary in 20 years.”
He told us that we weren’t guaranteed to see any, despite every hostel
advertising close encounters.
“Nah, you might see some around sunset if you’re lucky. But go ahead, bring
in some bananas and just throw them around. They’ll find them.”
He further explained his close encounters with crocs, including the time he
slept on the roof of his car to avoid being eaten. “Those bastards will drag
your car in the water if they want.” He then explained the current
Aboriginal situation in his own way that was pretty honest and un-biased.
Although the government gives them money, they don’t regulate how it is
distributed. The problem with some of the Aborigines, as is the case with
most governments, is greed. Give a certain person in charge $40,000 and
they’re suddenly seen around town in a new SUV.
In a short time, just swimming around in this stream, he managed to
enlighten us on snakes, crocs, Yowie, insects, cassowaries, National Parks
and Wildlife, and the local Aborigines. I learned more from him in an hour
than from anything I had read.
“I’d love to see some of them bears you’ve got in America though,” he told me.
“I think you guys are doing just fine with deadly creatures,” I said. “At
least a bear is a giant creature. You know it’s dangerous. In this country
you can be killed by something that’s the size of your fingernail.”
“Ah, wouldn’t be interesting without things that could kill you. Puts
everything in perspective.” This was a fitting thing to say, since he was
quite good at putting things in perspective. As if to punctuate this he bid
farewell with “Have a nice life,” with all of us knowing that in the grand
scheme of things we wouldn’t see each other again.
Nikki and I went back out into the rainforest that evening and still didn’t
spot a cassowary, but we left Mission Beach satisfied anyway. We drove south
to Townsville and jumped on a ferry to Mission Beach, where we had a free
night’s accommodation at Maggie’s hostel on the beach. The next day, seeking
somewhere more laid back, we checked into a cabin at Geoff’s Place a short
walk away. We entered the cabin, tossed our packs on the bed, and shut the
door. We hadn’t been there for a minute when Nikki suddenly said, “Oh my God,
On the back of the door was a poster advertising the rafting trips and
rainforest walks of north Queensland. And on the upper right hand corner of
it, captured in a state of explanation with a small crowd listening
intently, was our bushman.
It’s a small world, and it’s getting smaller every day.