Big country...small impact. An eco-tour in Queensland's wildlife-rich rainforest
Drunk parrots, glowing gnat larvae and leathery fruit bats are the highlights of Cathy Pryor's trip into the Gold Coast hinterland
Sunday 28 February 2010
In Australia they have an expression, "pissed as a parrot", and if you visit Cedar Creek winery on Tamborine Mountain in Queensland, you will find out why.
Thousands of parrots live there, and many, mostly rainbow lorikeets and king parrots, like to feed on grapes. Some of the fruit ferments on the vine and it goes straight to their heads. "They quite often start fighting each other," says Bridget on the winery's front desk. "That can go on for a while. They squawk and carry on. Crazy behaviour. Then they fall off the vines and go to sleep on the ground." A typical evening out up northern Australia, then? Bridget doesn't comment.
The winery doesn't mind, though, and lets the parrots feed. Generous, but then they're like that. They like nature. They've also tried to help out the local glow-worms. Not to be confused with fireflies, which are beetles, glow-worms are the larvae of gnats, and are found only in Australia and New Zealand. Tourists love them, and have been visiting Mount Tamborine's national park to see them in such vast numbers that the insects got stressed and their colonies shrank. So in 2004 Cedar Creek built a glow-worm cave to divert the tourists. It started with just 100 glow-worms and now has 4,000, making it the largest colony anywhere in the world.
I'm at Cedar Creek courtesy of Araucaria Ecotours, an award-winning Brisbane firm run by Ronda Green, a zoologist, supported by her amiable son Damian, who drives the van. It runs day trips out of Brisbane, plus longer journeys, including a six-day venture into the heart of the outback. The aim is always to keep ecological impact at a minimum. If you've flown to Australia, that's a lot of carbon footprint, so this represents a nice way to keep it down while you're there. The Rainforests, Glow-worms and Wine tour is one of its day trips. We took in the rainforest first with a visit to the Skywalk, a fragile-looking elevated steel walkway that threads through a kilometre of forest canopy on Tamborine Mountain.
On the hour-long walk, Ronda, who is friendly and chatty, proves herself an expert on all things nature-related. "There's no wind in the rainforest, so the trees rely on birds to disperse seeds," she says. And then points out a huge strangler fig, so-called because it grows in a predatory way around and out of the carcass of another tree. The fig sweeps up in such primeval curves it looks as if it were sculpted. So does an artistic wiggly pattern carved in the bark of a tree, which turns out to be the work of a large slug – the red triangle slug, to be precise. Our path is thronged with geckos, dragonflies, butterflies and lacewings. And then is some native ginger. "You can use the roots just like normal ginger," says Ronda. (I begin to feel Ronda could survive quite successfully in the wild.)
But the headliners of the trip are the glow-worms. Inside their cave it's dark, damp, quiet and eerie. You look up as if at the night sky, studded with thousands of fiery stars, only the stars are insects. They live along the cave walls, close enough to see that each glow-worm reclines behind a curtain of elegant threads, as if it were in a minuscule boudoir. The threads have a purpose: they're sticky and catch prey, insects attracted by the glow-worm's shining rear. The glow has inspired the winery to wax lyrical with a poem: "I wish I was a glow-worm. A glow-worm's never glum 'cos how can you be grumpy when the sun shines out your bum." Well, indeed.
Emerging blinking from the cave, our next stop is the winery restaurant, next to a small lake, where we enjoy food, wine and yet more wildlife: slow-moving eastern water dragons sunbathing on the lawn to our left, and flamboyant rainbow lorikeets at the bird-feeders to our right. The lorikeets, which are loud and raucous, are very common in Australia, but no less dazzling for that, their upper bellies a block of flaming orange, their heads and lower bellies sapphire blue, their wings brilliant green, their beaks post-box red. If birds are your thing, this is a good part of Australia to visit: roughly half of all its species have been spotted in south-east Queensland.
And birds are not the only flying creatures about. We visit a fruit bat colony, hanging in their hundreds like flaccid balloons in trees by the side of the road, croaking grumpily, with their leathery wings wrapped round themselves. We also make a quick visit to Cedar Creek Falls, a small, rough waterfall, where Ronda chats about the rich red volcanic soils and I rest for a while by the rock pools, listening to the water. As I settle back into the van en route back to Brisbane, I reflect on its lucky residents who have so much within reach of their city. Tamborine Mountain seems a fine place. No wonder the parrots are celebrating.
How to get there
Austravel (0800 988 4676; austravel.com) offers seven nights' fly-drive in Southern Queensland from £1,549 per person, including four-star accommodation, car hire and return flights from London, Heathrow to Brisbane. Araucaria Ecotours (0061 7 55441283 araucariaecotours.com.au). Rainforests, Glowworms and Wine day-trip from Brisbane costs $143 (£80) including lunch, refreshments, wine-tasting, all entries and sales tax. Cedar Creek Estate (0061 7 5545 1666; cedarcreekestate.com.au). Skywalk (0061 7 5545 2222; rainforestsky walk.com.au).
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