The hotel "missive": that supposedly vital communication between general manager and "our valued guest". Slipped under one's door, placed carefully on the desk or delivered, neatly folded, with your morning coffee and scrambled eggs, they warn of everyday, mundane practicalities such as fire alarm tests, buffet closures and window cleaners who might happen upon your unclad form. While also missing no opportunity to sully and abuse the English language. ("Please be reminded of the provision of Complimentary Beverages, both hot and cold, plus an assortment of tasty International Snack Solutions, gracefully served between the hours of 6pm and 8pm, in the Relaxed and Cosmopolitan ambience of our International Business Club Lounge.")
This one, though, sitting atop the room service menu, required immediate attention. "Important Notice to all Visitors!" cried the photocopied A4 sheet. "Marine stingers!" I read on, the soft, North Queensland dawn creeping gently through the blinds. "Due to the danger of marine stinger activity, visitors are asked to exercise extreme caution when visiting the beach."
Marine stingers, eh? Probably just another of those minor annoyances, like civil unrest, pickpockets and kidney theft, that beset the modern voyager. I've swum with sea lice, I've been stung by jellies. Hell, I once saw a shark. In a wave. When I was paddling on the beach. So don't tell me about "extreme caution". Health and safety, eh? Makes infants of us all. I chortle to myself, climb into my swimmers and prepare for an early morning dip. But just to be sure, in the name of research and all that, I do what any right thinking, and assuredly rugged adventurer would do when faced by perils potentially torrid and unknown. And get on to Google.
So one moment, I'm gazing out over the limpid blue waters of Palm Cove, an upmarket resort town on Australia's Far North Queensland Coast, imagining the blood-warm Coral Sea washing over my travel-worn form. The next, I see a seething, perilous marine morass, and death by a million toxic welts. Because the local jellies are miles removed from your everyday, run-of-the-mill cnidarian invertebrate. "The tentacles of chironex fleckeri, or box jellyfish, can reach three metres …" OK. "They have about 15 tentacles on each corner, and each tentacle has many thousand stinging cells (nematocysts)". Nice. "The stinging cells are activated by contact with certain chemicals on the surface of fish, shellfish or humans." Clever. "They're also the most venomous marine animal known to mankind." Shit. But wait, it gets worse. Much, much worse.
Yellow signs warn off swimmers from getting too friendly with the exotic Queensland wildlife
Take a bow, Irukandji. They sound like some flowing haired, blood-smeared king- slayer from Game of Thrones. Who rides his women like unbroken mares, and roars at the moon. But these beasts are tiny, smaller than a child's little fingernail. When stung, the list of symptoms makes seriously grim reading. "Excruciating muscle cramps, severe pain in the back and kidneys, a burning sensation of the skin and face, headaches, nausea, restlessness, sweating, vomiting, an increase in heart rate and blood pressure." They can also kill you. But they don't stop at the merely physical. These bastards get into your brain, too. Prepare to suffer from "psychological phenomena such as the feeling of impending doom", too. HP Lovecraft would be proud.
Admittedly, there are enclosures, up and down Palm Cove, netted off areas designed for safe swimming. But the Irukandji are so minute that they float through even the finest mesh. So during stinger season (ie, the summer) wetsuits are recommended at all times. Damn you, Irukandji. Still, the beach seems safe enough, lapped by pretty waves and garlanded by ever-undulating palms.
I walk downstairs, onto the sand, into the pure, unsullied glory of the tropical morn. Parrots cackle and bicker in the trees, while curlews strut along the tide line, in search of an early morning crab. There's a feeling of profound calm, of nature unsullied, that glorious moment where the earth still slumbers, but the dawn light is as clear as gin.
This is the beach, miles long, that Captain Cook must have seen, a great broad yellow grin, beaming from the edge of the Daintree rainforest. They say he stopped here for water, before going on north, to Cape Tribulation. The Aborigines had been here for a long time before Cook, or any white man. Of course they had, 60,000 years, at least. They knew how to live with nature, rather than pitted against her. But for those who put their faith in muskets and money, this part of the coast was as dangerous as it was inhospitable. Under the thick, tangled scrub, though, there was money to be made. In 1872, William Hann, an Australian-born bushman, came looking for gold and pastoral lands. After three weeks, hacking through the bush, his limbs and face torn to ribbons by lawyer vines, he gave up on this "black and impenetrable patch".
A year later, George Elphinstone Dalrymple turned up, an upper-class Scottish explorer and writer. He had spent some years in the coffee plantations of Ceylon. And the landscape here reminded him of the subcontinent. He, too, was in search of land to tame and settle, on his government-backed North East Coast Expedition. He was entranced by the "tropical luxuriance of growth and greenery", intoxicated by a "dazzling commingling of colours and intricate minutiae of outline that would puzzle even a Millais to paint or a 'Laureate' to describe."
But the natives, a constant thorn in any religiously and morally righteous invader's side, were less than happy. "The natives were very troublesome during our stay," moaned a member of the voyage, "and appeared to have a great hatred of flags, for every one was taken down as soon as erected." How rude. "The blacks are daring and very hostile," wrote Dalrymple to the Colonial Secretary on 30 October 1873. He was a man of words rather than violence. But he had a job to do. As Dalrymple tried to clear the area, imparting empirical order on all this untamed wilderness, the Aborigines decided that enough was enough. They stormed Palm Cove and drove the whites back to their boats. But with profit at stake, the whites returned. And with them, more guns and disease.
As I dwell, (rather smugly) on man's inhumanity to man, I notice a sign. "Warning!" it bellows, watching over this very deserted beach. "Crocodiles inhabit this area. Attacks may cause injury or death." For God's sake. I thought that these vast salt-water crocodiles (or "salties", in the continuously reductive local parlance) lived in outback billabongs. I know this because I've seen Crocodile Dundee. But here, in civilisation? I could chuck a pebble and be sure of hitting one of five different artisan coffee shops. There's a Neapolitan pizzeria mere metres behind me. And a spa. With "hot rock" treatment. This is no place for a prehistoric 5m beast with a taste for human flesh. For one of the most beautiful places on Earth (the lush tangle of the Daintree rainforest behind, the coral archipelago of the Great Barrier Reef out on the horizon), Palm Cove sure is a dangerous place to take a dip.
In fact, all of Far North Queensland seems plagued by peril: marine, reptilian (crocs and a great handful of deadly snakes), mammalian (some of the local flying foxes carry the potentially deadly Hendra virus), avian (don't muck with the cassowary, a big, flightless fruit eater with a powerful kick and a long, straight, murderous nail which can sever an arm or eviscerate an abdomen with ease). And insectoid (electric ants. Seriously. Not Kraftwerk-inspired techno insects, rather recent South American invaders that pack an electric shock). I think back to that brilliant Billy Connolly rant, on the manifold dangers of Northern Queensland. "Box jellyfish?" he cries. "My God, these fuckers are gift wrapped. What sort of country is this?"
Actually, a relatively safe one. Despite all of these untimorous beasties that float, swim, crawl, strut, sting, bite and fly, you have more chance of dying falling off a ladder than being munched by a saltie. As for the Irukandji, there have been three recorded deaths in the last 100 years. Compare that to the 300-plus fatal car accidents, per annum, in Queensland alone, and the figure seems very tiny indeed. Sure, you're careful and sensible and don't attempt crocodile bronco after a skinful of VBs. But the beauty far outweighs any peril. Paradise with a nasty bite, sure. But still paradise, whatever might lurk beneath.
That said, I'm here for the mud crabs, drab-shelled but sweet-fleshed. They're a speciality of the region, a much-lauded crustacean. I've already eaten one the night before, at Nu Nu, a local restaurant of startling brilliance. Plate sized, and stir fried with tart tamarind and punchy chilli, the meat is blissfully sweet, and delicate as a ballerina's pinky. It's a three-napkin feast, and I crack and suck and hew and dig every last wonderful morsel from the shell. But these crabs love the cool of the coast's many inlets and creeks, the deep mud of the mangrove swamps, and any respite from the fierce summer sun. Just like your average saltie. Which means I'll be sharing their hunting grounds. In water up to my waist. Armed only with the flimsiest of spears.
And it's that spear that I'm attempting to throw down Kuyu Kuyu Beach the next day, trying to preserve at least a shred of dignity. I fail. Miserably. Linc Walker, broad shouldered and softly spoken, is my guide. He's the sort of man who exudes confidence like I sweat fear. His family have been in this area for a while. Thousands of years. They live a mere coconut's hurl from the beach, in clean, modern houses. "We really have everything we need up here," he says as he flings the bamboo for miles, with unerring accuracy. "Put your thumb at the back and use your body's momentum to hurl." My spear clatters down a few feet away. "We get dugongs and turtles, as there's lots of sea grass here for them to feed on. We catch turtles in the traditional way, and share them with everyone. Family are travelling through the whole time. Uncle Thomas lives across the road. He was a pearl diver. And my mum, her family are from the Torres Straits, way north. But family is everything. We've always been here. Nana stopped here a long while back, more than 80 years ago, travelling down from the Straits. The tide drains the place every day. And it all starts again. We eat everything we catch. No waste."
Parker Bowles practises throwing his spear on Kuyu Kuyu beach with local guide Linc Walker
The Kuku Yalanji Bama are indigenous Australians, and have probably been here for more than 4,000 years. They were the folk who took exception to Dalrymple. And the stream of other, more hostile whites, who aimed to destroy them. And nearly succeeded. By 1890, the Kuku Yalanji Bama were decimated. Yet here they are still, with Linc and his extended family, not only doing what they have done so well for thousands of years. But taking tourists like me out into the mudflats and tidal lagoon and mangrove swamps, offering a tiny taste of traditional hunting skills. This is their beach, their larder, their life. Linc's dressed in a T-shirt and bright shorts, his laid-back demeanour masking a sharp mind and one hell of a throwing arm.
He's now looking out to sea, at the tide that is fast receding, turning calm waters into one vast mudflat. It's hot today, troppo bloody hot, the sun relentless and alone in a vast blue sky. No wind either, or noise, save the occasional squawk of a startled egret. "You can catch anything up here," Linc says, feeling the point of his spear. "Once the rain starts, the prawns flood in, followed by the small fish, and the bigger buggers after that. They eat. We eat. We want for nothing."
We set off down the beach, toward the sinister shade of the mangrove swamps. They look like tropical thickets and are all but impenetrable. Save for the crocs. And Linc. He knows every submerged path and waterway, as well as we know the way to the pub. We pass metal signs warning of stingers and salties. "Um, we're safe, right? Not that I, ahem, care." Linc shrugs. "We should be fine. The tide pulls out the stingers. As for the crocs …" he pauses, his eye caught by a splash way out in the distance. "Well, mating season is about to begin. And they can get a little grumpy. But now, they'll be in the shade." We're nearer the mangroves now. With their shade. And perils that lurk in the black depths of my fear. He sees a flash of panic whip across my face, and puts a huge hand on my shoulder. "We'll be fine. People get scared with all these signs, and all those stories. But we'll be fine." He has that gentle, all knowing air, and the sort of voice, and poise and confidence that puts my fears to rest. For a few moments, anyway.
He points at an old tree. "Beach almond. Once the nuts have laid on the beach for a year, they taste sweet and almond-like." It's crawling with big, mean and green "medicine ants". He proffers a wriggling beast, bum first. I bite and a sharp, lemon tang explodes in my mouth. "Very good for 'flu," he says. "We take whole nests and crush 'em. Nature always provides."
We enter the mangroves and the atmosphere changes. No open spaces here, just mud that smells of rotting plants and primordial ooze, thick and deep and warm beneath my bare feet. The water comes above my knees, to the bottom of my thighs. The sun, occasionally visible through the tangled thicket, feels an awfully long way away. The atmosphere is cool but close and I feel things brushing against my leg. It's a place that plays havoc with an overactive imagination.
The roots are gnarled and sinuous, and occasionally spike my foot. Sometimes, the silence is broken by the screech of some distant bird, or the splash of a nearby fish. Is it a fish? Or the partly submerged tail of an ornery croc. Who knows? Linc moves like a panther through the gloom, poking, listening, watching. Every plant or tree has a role to play. The bark of the mangrove is used for rope, its wood, fishing sticks, even its leaves, as a source of salt. "The mangroves drink the salt water, and all that salt is filtered into one leaf. Then all the leaves fall into the water, rot, are eaten, and the cycle starts again. It never stops." He points to groups of small fish, hovering in the shadows. "Chilling in the shade. Shade is key to life here." Despite a rapidly receding tide, we move into deeper water. Up to the top of my thighs. Perfect croc territory. The roots grow thicker, fused together, concupiscent. "One thing," Linc says as the water laps at our waists. "If I start running, bloody keep up!"
Mud crabs with an impressive Blue Swimmer, plus a clam and a mud whelk
I don't even bother to laugh. We're too deep in now. I feel fat and clumsy and useless. My only aim is to keep up with Linc. Suddenly, there's something big in the water, a couple of metres ahead. I see a flash of white, then a fin. A dorsal fin. "Blacktip shark," cries Linc, and unleashes his spear. It misses by millimetres and the shark makes for the relative safety of the bay. There was me worrying about killer jellyfish and mega crocs. And I'd forgotten all about the sharks. Great. Linc's simply annoyed he missed. They're good to eat. "It's a little 'un, only a metre or so long." Which is about 99cm too long for me. The mud suddenly seems thicker, the water that much more cloudy. What fresh hell lurks beneath?
"Here, check this out." Linc's holding a large, conical shell. "Mud whelks, or kettle whelks. Chuck 'em on the fire and they whistle as they cook." I hear the honk of the grey hornbill nesting somewhere in the trees. We poke our spears down holes buried deep under the roots, their entrances scattered with crushed shell. "Mud crab breakfast," says Linc, wiggling his spear deeper and deeper. "Prime real estate," he says. "They fight for the best hole." He gives one more thrust and pulls out a furious, wriggling crab. "A hen. They make better eating." He drops her in his bucket, and suddenly, we're at the edge of the mangrove swamp, faced with a great open expanse of brown, with deep channels slashed through its face. In the distance, Port Douglas sits, white and pretty. "We love it in the mangroves. It's the best place to hang out, for all species. Everything has to behave according to the environment."
We tramp out, through knee-depth water, and I see nothing. Not even a hermit crab. Linc, on the other hand, misses nothing, his spear cutting through the ripples, piercing mud crab and blue swimmer alike. I sweat and slather on more sunscreen, every inch the limey tourist. "Look, a school of yellow-tailed mullet," he cries. I see nothing. Again. Just a narrow channel. And the merest of splashes. "There's something big out there, spooking the mullet." Big?
How big? Like small shark big. Or big bastard shark big? "It could be a big 'un. Maybe a cobia [black kingfish] or something. I lost a spear in the side of one of them last week. The bugger just swam off." He shakes his head and sets off again, into deeper water, eyes peeled and ears pricked.
Then a flurry of sand, centimetres from my foot and a great ray swoops off, his body billowing like wind filled sails, his pointed sting fearsomely erect. "Just stamp your feet as you walk," advises Linc. "They'll move." I'm not so sure. But my musing on the latest creature to fear is interrupted by a crab. I actually spot a living thing, a blue swimmer crab no bigger than my hand. This is my moment. I aim, wiping the stinging sweat from my eyes, pull back and unleash hell. The spear putters uselessly into the water, not even bothering to pierce the sand. It floats off, towards the Barrier Reef. While my target, emboldened by the lack of steel through shell, takes the offensive and charges me. Any casual observer would have seen a great, hulking loon, churning through the shallow water, chased by some unseen menace beneath the waves. Exit, pursued by crab.
Linc laughs, not unkindly. My blushes are covered, thankfully, by my sun-pink skin. I've had it with this spearing lark. Give me some dynamite, or a net, or anything save this slender weapon that requires guile and co-ordination and skill. We're half a mile from the shore now, and I look back. At the hills, wearing the lush rainforest like the thickest of hipster beards. And a lone mangrove tree, bleakly beautiful against the horizon, stranded far from shore in the deep mud. Yet it thrives here, like Linc and his family, like every last link of the food chain. We wander back, talking about the importance of never forgetting one's past, and the way things were always done. And embracing the future, too, about education and schools and their vital importance for an ancient people in a modern world.
Then it's over the burning hot beach, and up through the woods, and across the concrete road, to Linc's house. Well, his parents' house really. His is being done up. Below the veranda is a pool ("the family built it together", just as they share their spoils, so they share the labour too), filled with screaming kids. A Jack Russell looks on with weathered insouciance. The sound of wind chimes fills the air, along with the scent of stir-fried crab, spiked with chilli vinegar. We eat damper, basic bread, smeared with treacle. And discuss tourism, and the future of the area. There are turtle shells on the wall, next to the shopping list and family photos and flyers for local delivery places.
"We love it here," Linc says between bites. The tide is coming in now, as it has done for thousands of years. The mud is covered once more and the crabs, like a billion crabs before them, emerge from their burrows in search of something to eat. The sun is less fierce. The tide's daily duty done. It laps once more at the beach. And the next day, it all starts all over again. I bid farewell, and clamber back in the car, leaving the stingers and crocodiles and sharks and rays to do what stingers and crocodiles and sharks and rays do. Far Northern Queensland may be filled with natural peril. But deep down, it's a place of utter peace.