Thoughts from Places — The Atherton Tableland

24 November, 2014

The Atherton Tablelands is possibly a misleading title, but it was the name of the expedition, so I’m running with it.

You don’t know me,
when you see me
I’m a stranger on your land.
But while I’m drinking,
I’ll still be thinking.
Cos all I see is water;
When all she sees is dry, dry land.

UNESCO has four criteria for declaring a natural site as “world heritage quality” (plus six for cultural sites) and Queensland’s Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, a place that receives over six metres of rain each year, is one of only a handful to meet all of them.

In terms of numbers, the Wet Tropics is just outstanding. According to the page I just linked you to, it covers less than 0.2% of Australia, but contains 30% of the marsupial species, 60% of bat species, 25% of rodents, 40% of birds, 30% of frogs, 20% of reptiles, 60% of butterflies, 65% of ferns, 21% of cycads, 37% of conifers, 30% of orchids and 18% of Australia’s vascular plant species.

Time moves strangely in the rainforest, with trees standing 20m tall that are 1,000 years old, next to ‘ferns’ from a species that first bloomed 400MYA - plants that are either fully male or fully female and don’t go in for the new-fangled intricate vascular structures that you expect to find on the underside of leaves. We also came across a patch where Cyclone Yasi had torn up all the trees and you could see clear sky, a scar won’t be healed in our lifetimes. One estimate is that it will take 150 years for the canopy to fill back in.

We were there to visit three fantastic waterfalls, each of which was very different from the others.

The first is the subject of an legend told by the local aboriginal people. In amongst the falls there is a sinkhole, that long ago a young man went swimming in only to drown. His beloved was understandably crushed by this and to this day, when unsuspecting men (and it is always men) go swimming in this bit of the river, the young woman will appear to them and check if they are her beloved - they aren’t of course, and their corpses are found downstream four days later. I’ve always enjoyed hearing these types of legends, ones that explain the local dangers and thoroughly dissuade anyone from being anywhere near them.

Our next waterfall formed three pools, and between the middle and lower pools it has formed a natural waterslide, formed by years upon years of water rushing over the rock, and to a lesser extent, the stuff that was growing on the rock.It was also the place Syd the tour guide learnt to swim at. Which brings me to just how weird swimming pools are. Thousands of generations of our ancestors were able to get by with rivers and lakes and beaches when they wanted a swim, hanging out with all the fish and frogs and anything else that wanted to cool down or have a drink.

The day’s final waterfall is in my favourite category of waterfall: those which you can swim under the waterfall itself! It was also different in that it was made of basalt instead of granite, which meant that instead of having clear water like we had been enjoying at the first two falls, the water here was much murkier visibility was down to less than the length of my arm.

Syd also took us was a 65m deep lake that was formed hundreds of thousands of years ago when the region was still volcanically active. This lake is fed solely by rainfall, and was even clearer than the naturally filtered granite falls we visited earlier - I dived as deep as I could, but the others could still see me from the pontoon, although I’m doubtful that I went straight down.

We travelled that night up to Barabadeen campsite, on the edge of a irrigation dam. The site is 50 years old, but was rededicated while we were there, due to commercial reasons, in a ceremony which featured a Welcome to Country from a softly spoken aboriginal woman who told us about growing up in the land that had been drowned 60 years ago, along with many sacred sites of her people.

The next morning, as I headed back to Cairns through the early morning sun, I saw the farmland through which we had travelled, under the cover of darkness - land that nature had no intention of allowing corn, coffee, tea or sugarcane to grow on, but that dam which drowned the old woman’s land was feeding hundred-metre-long roving sprinklers which were spraying a fine mist over the plants we had put there.

So, I suppose that the thought that was with me the most this weekend, even looking down right now as I write this over what looks like a salt flat, is how many different faces water has: the natural world it can sustain, the stories it can write, the fun we can have, the order it can impose, and the world it can destroy.