In northeast Australia, time has seemingly stopped in the Jurassic. Here, giant, hungry reptiles dominate the landscape, roaming the beaches, stalking the trees, and patrolling the waterways. Plants that once shared space with dinosaurs are still flourishing in a new age.
Known as the Wet Tropics of Queensland, this place is a World Heritage Site and contains the oldest rainforests on Earth. Over 100 million years ago, these rainforests covered an ancient supercontinent called Gondwana. While the rest of the planet evolved and transformed, the rainforests were preserved, providing habitat for equally ancient organisms.
Back in 2013, I ventured to the Wet Tropics to find and document the denizens of this Lost World, including a rare and elusive creature that is nothing short of a dinosaur. This is how I found dinosaurs in an ancient Australian rainforest.
Cairns: From Reef to Rainforest
April 2013. After completing a long road trip from Sydney, I arrived in the city of Cairns in Far North Queensland. I’d come here to dive the Great Barrier Reef and explore the tropical rainforests. I hadn’t planned too much, but my arrival was timely.
In Australia’s tropical north, it was fall, and that meant the wet season was ending. The wet season is not a bad time to visit Far North Queensland, but it can be treacherous. This time of year brings cyclones and biblical floods that can swell rivers, supersize waterfalls, and wash away sealed roads. Not ideal for an amateur adventurer. Especially one without a 4×4.
Speaking of vehicles, once I completed my road trip and turned in my campervan rental, I had no means of transportation, so I ended up buying a bike. That was kind of a bummer because I couldn’t venture outside Cairns.
Cairns is pretty much like any other small western city. People have jobs and responsibilities, and the terrifying Australian wildlife is mostly absent. That’s great for most people, but it’s not so great for a wildlife photographer.
So, when I wasn’t scuba diving (which is extremely expensive there), I spent most of my time photographing common critters along the esplanade and in the city parks. I also spent a lot of time scouring the waterways for crocodiles and snakes without any luck. I only found mudskippers and geckos. They were pretty cool, but I wanted to see more. I had to get out of Cairns.
Where’s the Deadly Wildlife?
Fast forward to June. I’d been living in tropical Australia for a few months, and I still hadn’t seen a single croc or snake. All those shows depicting deadly creatures practically falling from the sky in Australia weren’t the most forthcoming. Normal people consider that a good thing, but for a young, reckless Tidewater Teddy, that was a major disappointment.
Besides crocs and snakes, there was another creature that I’d hoped to glimpse on these expeditions. The southern cassowary.
Cassowaries are basically dinosaurs. They are big, flightless, and walk on two legs. They have a crest called a casque that is similar to the ones some species of dinosaur had. They can also be dangerous and have a reputation as infamous as Velociraptor. I mean, just look at their claws!
According to American ornithologist Ernest Thomas Gilliard, “The inner or second of the three toes is fitted with a long, straight, murderous nail which can sever an arm or eviscerate an abdomen with ease. There are many records of natives being killed by this bird”. That sounds suspiciously similar to a Velociraptor.
So, as both a dinosaur enthusiast a thrill-seeking youngster, finding and photographing a wild cassowary was my Holy Grail. I’d seen them pictured on brochures on my way up the coast, but they have a reputation for being quite rare and elusive. If I couldn’t find a snake in Australia, how the heck was I going to track down one of the world’s rarest birds?
I didn’t care. I wanted to find freakin dinosaurs. I added this new objective to my mission, rented another car, and started exploring the Wet Tropics.
Welcome to Jurassic Park
On my first expedition, I set my sights on one of the most famous rainforests in the region. The Daintree Rainforest. The Daintree is estimated to be around 110 million years old. For reference, the Jurassic period ended around 145 million years ago, and dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago.
Based on my extensive research (by that, I mean Google), I figured the Daintree would be the best place to see cassowaries. That was right in the middle of their range, and I’d seen numerous cassowary photos posted on the internet that had been taken in that region.
At that time, I was living in a sharehouse in the Paramatta Park area of Cairns, so I packed a few things and drove up the scenic coast. On my way up, I passed through a town called Port Douglas and another town called Mossman. Then, I reached the Daintree River.
There wasn’t a bridge across the river. Only a cable ferry. That was the only way to get to the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation.
Beyond the river, I could see the rainforest, darkened by clouds. Here, I felt like I was at the gates to Jurassic Park. There were even bright yellow and red signs warning visitors about giant deadly reptiles.
I paid the toll, drove onto the ferry, and crossed the crocodile-infested river. I remember finding a Greek radio station out here, and I thought it was funny, since I’m half Greek, and it was pretty random.
Once I got to the other side, I drove to my motel, which was called Daintree Rainforest Retreat. Outside reception, a statue of a cassowary loomed, and I knew I had reached the right place. I talked to the motel owner and asked her about cassowaries.
“Cassowaries!” she said excitedly, as if she’d just seen one. “Yes, a male came here with his chicks every day. Some other photographers were looking for them here. They looked all over the forest and didn’t find anything. When they came back and told me what they were looking for, I just pointed to the cassowaries right by my motel!”
“Wow!” I exclaimed. “I can’t wait to see him! When does he usually come?”
“Oh,” said the motel owner, frowning, “he’s dead. Got hit by a car.”
‘Great,’ I thought, but I figured there would be more lurking in the forest.
I asked the motel owner a few more questions, and she handed me a map. She marked off a number of locations where cassowaries had been sighted, and I was off on my quest.
Out in the rainforest, I hiked up and down the roads, inspecting the dense foliage on each side. There were plenty of cassowary signs, but no cassowaries.
Disappointed, I hopped back into my car and went further up the Daintree to Cape Tribulation. I’d seen a YouTube video of a cassowary on the beach up there and was determined to find it. I prowled the beach and scoured the fringes of the rainforest, but still no luck.
Big Camera Lenses vs Even Bigger Crocs
No worries. (I say that all the time now, thanks to the Aussies.) Cassowaries weren’t the only wildlife I was after, and they also weren’t the only Daintree denizens that looked like dinosaurs. There was another iconic Australian animal that I still hadn’t seen, and it has the most powerful bite force on Earth. The saltwater crocodile.
At Cooper’s Creek, I boarded a tour boat and readied my camera. Saltwater crocs are very aggressive and territorial, so obviously, you don’t want to get too close.
To give myself some extra distance, I snapped on my Sigma 150-600mm lens. That’s been my go-to wildlife lens since I bought it in 2012.
At that time, Edward Snowden had recently released documents exposing the United States government’s mass surveillance program, so naturally, the tour boat captain had to poke a little fun at the only American on the boat. He looked at my giant telephoto lens and said, “You’re not spying on us with that are you?” I laughed but also felt very seen.
When you travel the world, you represent your entire country, whether you like it or not. I can take a joke, but I’m glad I wasn’t out there during the Trump presidency. I would’ve had to cosplay as a Canadian! Haha.
But, anyways, we saw a lot of crocs basking on the muddy riverbanks, and they were huge. That’s not an exaggeration. Saltwater crocodiles are the largest living reptiles. They can grow to over 20 feet (6 meters), which is the same size as the biggest great white sharks.
Looking at these massive reptiles in the lush rainforests made me think about what it would be like to see dinosaurs in these same forests millions of years ago. Crocodiles are not dinosaurs, but they are distantly related to them. They are descendants of a group of reptiles called archosaurs, which also includes birds and dinosaurs.
I snapped several shots of these amazing Aussie archosaurs and cheerfully checked crocodiles off my list. Then, I went back to the motel and passed out.
The Largest Snake in Australia
The next morning, I was checking out from the hotel, and the hotel owner told me she saw a python above the generator.
“You could get some good photos of him,” she said. “The generator’s right out back!”
I thanked her and wasted no time running out the generator. I looked up inside the shed, and there it was. A scrub python, aka the amethystine python.
Growing over 20 feet (6 meters) in length, the scrub is the largest snake species in Australia, and one of the six largest snakes in the world. This one was very small, but it was no less impressive. Gazing at the snake’s shiny, amethyst-colored scales, I could see why it’s called the amethystine python.
Another box checked. After three months in Australia, I’d finally seen a snake.
After spending a couple more hours in the Daintree, I said goodbye and rode the ferry back over to Mossman, where I decided to explore Mossman Gorge. Here, the clear, cool waters of the Mossman River intersect miles of pristine rainforest filled. I trekked through the lush foliage and searched for wildlife–like this Boyd’s forest dragon–while enjoying the soothing sounds of the streams and rapids.
Once again, I kept my eyes peeled for cassowaries, but once again, I found none. I returned to Cairns, defeated, and began researching other locations known to harbor cassowaries.
Kuranda, Cassowaries, and Couches
Kuranda was next on my list. Kuranda is another nature hub that’s a little over an hour north of Cairns. Like everywhere else in the Wet Tropics, rainforest dominates the landscape. Prime habitat for cassowaries.
Online, I found a place there called Cassowary House. With a name like that, surely, cassowaries would be flocking to its doorsteps and sipping afternoon tea. So I drove up to Kuranda and paid Cassowary House a visit.
The owners were pleasant but somewhat unenthused that I had arrived to see cassowaries but had no intention of staying overnight as a paying customer. They told me that a National Geographic film crew had recently been filming a documentary there, and the cassowaries had been appearing around 4:00 consistently for the past few weeks. I still had an hour to kill, so they advised me to investigate a trail just down the road. They said that, when the cassowaries came, I could catch them on the way to Cassowary House. Excited, I thanked them and hurried to trail.
On the trail, I searched, and I searched. The cassowaries could appear at any moment! I waited breathlessly in the lush rainforest, feeling like a true, professional nature photographer. I checked the time. 3:40. The cassowaries couldn’t be far away now! Yet, the most noteworthy photograph I captured on that rainforest trail was this rare species of couch, demonstrating its ability to camouflage in the jungle. Bummer.
But I wasn’t about to give up yet! It was almost 4:00, and the cassowaries were surely nearing Cassowary House. I scrambled back. Throngs of photographers were gathered near the rainforest. This was a very good sign. Yet, as I approached, the photographers began to disperse.
“Hey, there!” shouted one of the owners. “You just missed them! The cassowaries were here just a moment ago. They were early today!”
Dang. Just my luck. I asked her if she knew of any other places to find cassowaries. She recommended a place called Etty Bay, an hour south of Cairns. She told me that’s where she sends all the film crews, when they don’t have much luck at Cassowary House. I thanked her and drove back to Cairns.
For the next month, I was stuck in Cairns again. I had returned my rental after exploring Kuranda, so I was back to biking around the city and occasionally diving on the reefs. But, by August, I had purchased a cheap old station wagon.
With my new set of wheels, I returned to the Daintree with a group of cheerful Italians, who made the trip a lot more fun. This time, the sky cleared a bit, and the sun paid us a visit. This made photography much easier, and I was able to get shots like these.
On this trip, I saw even more wildlife than I did on my first expedition. I even went on a night walk and observed nocturnal creatures in the rainforest. But, as far as cassowary sightings go, I still had no luck.
So I went back to Kuranda and I revisited the trail near Cassowary House. I still didn’t see any cassowaries, but I found the wild couch again. It had been torched along with a rusty car. Yikes.
Perilous Plants and Venomous Snakes
I kept returning to Kuranda to explore old and new trails. On the narrow jungle paths, I’d often get ensnared in thorny Calamus australis. These perilous plants are also known as wait-a-while vines because, once they grab your clothes, you’ll have to wait a while to free yourself. Here, you can see how this vine ripped my shorts.
I also encountered other hazards like this venomous red-bellied black snake. This was the first venomous snake I’d seen in Australia, and I couldn’t believe it had taken me six months to see one. This species is not particularly aggressive, and an Aussie easily scared it off while I was filming.
Waterfalls and Wallabies
So, a few days later, I drove down to Etty Bay and asked a local restaurant owner if she knew about any cassowaries. She said they would come almost every day and nearly walk inside her restaurant, but she could never predict when they’d arrive. I thanked her and headed to the beach, where I hunkered down with my gear on a picnic table. There, I waited. Hours passed. Nothing. I had expected that. I shrugged and left.
From Etty Bay, I drove to the Atherton Tablelands. This area is just west of the Wet Tropics, and it’s more savannah than rainforest. There aren’t any cassowaries out here, but there’s plenty of other wildlife and natural wonders. I stopped at Millaa Millaa Falls, which was beautiful but packed with backpackers. Then, I stopped at a section of forest, where signs warned about deadly stinging trees. Everything is freakin deadly in Australia! Needless to say, I got out of there pretty quick.
On my last stop before returning to Cairns, I went to Granite Gorge Nature Park to see some Mareeba rock wallabies. Mareeba rock wallabies are a rare species that are generally only seen in Granite Gorge, where you can feed and interact with them. In hindsight, I would have passed on feeding them, since feeding wild animals is a big no-no. Whenever animals associate people with food, bad things happen to either the animals or the people.
Over the next couple months, I intensified my quest. By now, I had bought an old station wagon, so I could cover far more ground than ever. With my newfound mobility, I revisited the Daintree and Kuranda, since the second or third time can be a charm in wildlife photography.
In Kuranda, I returned to the trail near Cassowary House. I still didn’t see any cassowaries, but I found the wild couch again. It had been torched along with a rusty car. Yikes.
Later, I explored some new trails and ended up encountering my first venomous snake. I couldn’t believe it had taken me six months to see a venomous snake in Australia. This species is known as the red-bellied black snake. It is not particularly aggressive, and an Aussie easily scared it off as I was filming.
So, two weeks later, I decided to return to Etty Bay one more time before I left Cairns for the Outback. This time, I arrived in the morning and waited around until the afternoon.
In the afternoon, a bus full of Japanese tourists arrived. They emerged from the bus wielding cameras of all shapes and sizes. I wasn’t sure whether to be delighted or horrified. The tour guide sauntered down to the beach, carrying a camera of his own, and we started talking. He mentioned that the cassowaries here often came out in the afternoon, and they would stick around for a long time. Surely, this could be my lucky day.
Not long after he mentioned the cassowaries, a male and his chick emerged from the rainforest and came down a grassy hill. This was it. After five months, I had finally found my prize. I readied my cameras and started shooting.
Amazingly, even with a chick, this cassowary did not show any signs of aggression. He had become accustomed to people, and I could stand right next to him and collect photos and footage without worrying about being eviscerated. This behavior drastically contrasted everything I had heard about cassowaries. These Etty Bay cassowaries were not killer birds with a knack for terrorizing humans. These were gentle, awe-inspiring creatures.
But that wasn’t all. The show was just getting started. After thirty minutes or so, another cassowary appeared. This one was a female, and that wasn’t good. Everyone on the beach was worried that she might become aggressive, since females have been known to kill chicks on sight.
When the male saw the female, he and the chick immediately gave her a wide berth. They hung around for another five or ten minutes, but soon enough, they left and went back up the hill, disappearing into the rainforest. Meanwhile, the female stayed behind, feasting upon the remaining morsels of fruit lying on the ground.
On that glorious day, I was like a dog in a tennis ball shop. I couldn’t believe that, after so much terrible luck, I was privileged enough to see not one, not two, but three cassowaries in the same place at the same time. The moral of the story: don’t give up. This is especially applicable to wildlife photography, where your subjects are fickle and unpredictable. You can have several unsuccessful expeditions, and then, bam! You strike gold and shoot photos like these:
That evening, I watched the sun set, standing next to a remnant of the Mesozoic era. This is one of the rarest birds in the world, and after many months of searching, I had finally found it in the most unexpected location. I had not found it within the remote and unpopulated Daintree nor in the photographer’s paradise at Cassowary House. No. I’d found it among the throngs of people on the beach of Etty Bay. Sometimes, I wonder if that female cassowary was thinking as she stood on the beach and gazed out into the Coral Sea. I like to think she was.