Touring Queensland: My Family And Aussie Animals

On a tour of tropical Queensland, Isabel Lloyd's young sons learn to love stinging spiders, soaring eagles and rather large crocodiles

'Ohmigod- whatis- that?" I looked at where my husband was pointing, with a visibly trembling finger. There, apparently floating between the trunks of two trees, was a spider. A spider almost as large as my face.

"Umm, Big Tom?" I quavered. Big Tom barely looked up from the camp stove. "Nephila maculata," he said, over a khaki-clad shoulder. "Golden orb weaver. Strong web: local people use it as a net to catch fish. Bites, but not too hard. Little Tom?"

"It's cool, mum. Look, its legs have got red bits." And my 10-year-old son gave his wimpy mother a reassuring pat.

I couldn't complain. Half the reason for going camping half the way around the world was getting close to nature - even the bit that bites you. Since he was old enough to stagger, wordless and wildly gesticulating towards the nearest zoo, our younger son has been channelling the spirit of the late conservationist Gerald Durrell. If it wiggles, wriggles, or simply lies there breathing, Tom is compelled to rehouse it, usually in his bedroom.

So tropical northern Queensland, home to some of Earth's unlikeliest creatures, was Tom's Shangri-La. If we went there, sharing personal space with its most aesthetically challenged arthropods would be inevitable - but we wanted to encourage both our children to understand, value and protect the Anti- podean environment.

This is where Big Tom, aka Tom Warnes, came in. He runs Wilderness Challenge, a small tour operator that concentrates on introducing people to and educating them about the wildest parts of Australia's remote north-eastern corner. Other companies will drive you into the Daintree rainforest, or charge about in 4WDs up and down Cape York, but unlike many of these, Wilderness Challenge has the highest level of creditation from Eco Tourism Australia (ETA). This means it has met a truly enormous amount of environmental criteria: the application form runs to 174 pages. Wilderness Challenge's stock in trade is getting people in touch with the environment, and teaching them to respect it.

Our ecological education began as soon as we crossed the Great Dividing Range. Like many of his employees, Big Tom is a qualified Savannah Guide, which meant he was more than able to handle our barrage of questions on everything from the geology of Gondwana (me) to whether or not Captain Cook ate kangaroos (Tom). His knowledge was encyclopaedic, and he manoeuvred our two children into "ohmigod" moments as skillfully as he manoeuvred the trailer around potholes.

The first came as we drove into the eucalyptus forest of Lakefield National Park. Big Tom chucked a bird-spotter's guide into our older son's lap. "Look at page 103, Jack," he said. "Then look up at the sky."

"Ohmigod!"

Circling 50ft above was a bird of prey the size of a large dog, its cream and brown wing feathers sieving the sky. "A wedge-tailed eagle," said Big Tom. "Shall we see how many more birds we can spot this trip?" Jack's eyes glowed.

We found the croc after a breakfast of toast and cereal. He - or she - was having an early morning sunbathe on the opposite bank. Big Tom led us one by one, tiptoeing and silent, to a spot about 300 yards away, and handed us the binoculars. "Look Mum, it's a dinosaur," breathed our Tom.

"Big fella," agreed Big Tom. "Fifteen foot if he's an inch.

"Oh," said my son.

Big Tom raised an eyebrow at me. "He sounds disappointed," he whispered.

"Yes," I whispered back. "Fifteen foot? That's just a bit too big to fit in his bedroom."

Wilderness Challenge, PO Box 254, Cairns, Queensland 4870 (00 61 7 4035 4488; wilderness-challenge. com.au). A three-day private safari costs from A$1,250 (£500) per person. Isabel Lloyd's family offset the carbon cost of their flight to Australia by making a payment to The Carbon Neutral Company (020-7833 6000, carbonneutral.com)

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