This was a backroad adventure that topped all, one afternoon in Queensland Australia.
Photographers, wildlife observers and adventurers, we seek out the backroads, carving time out of our schedules to slow down, look around, and embrace whatever comes our way.
We had been in the area of North Queensland for two weeks and had managed to keep our rental car on the “wrong” side of the road with success. Three days in the field with an expert bird guide had acquainted us with billabongs and kangaroos and all kinds of Aussie oddities.
After our time with the guide ended, Athena and I hit the backroads all on our own. We were in the Wet Tropics of Queensland, a unique and rugged tropical rainforest, about 30 miles inland from coastal Cairns.
Tropical rainforests are generally rainy and dark and dank, and this was no exception.
It was humid and we had the car windows open, driving slowly and listening to the birds that dominated the surrounding forest. Narrow lanes branched off the road in this dense thicket leading to occasional modest houses barely visible through the vines and trees.
Spotted Catbirds called incessantly–a green-backed bird who sounds like a city alley cat that’s just had its tail stepped on.
Here’s what they sound like: Spotted catbird sound.
Doves monotonously cooed, while cockatoos and parrots squawked and ate flowers, perched on vines.
All around us the forest canopy dripped with moisture and shrieked with cackles and cries.
By now we were familiar with the brush turkeys who roamed the trails, and whipbirds with piercing calls that sound like cracking whips.
Eucalyptus and giant strangler fig trees were by now familiar, too.
We were adept at spotting many strange creatures, but what we found that day on the Kuranda Forest backroad was beyond our wildest dreams.
Fortunately we were inside the car when it happened…
when the human-sized bird, the Southern Cassowary, silently emerged from the forest.
A heavy flightless bird with a long colorful neck and ostrich-like body was walking down the road toward us.
This was an adult male and it didn’t take long to see he had three chicks in tow.
Casuarius casuarius are extremely rare to find in Australia. Endangered.
We had already had a thrilling but terrifying experience with a cassowary deep in a different rainforest, days earlier. They are one of our planet’s fiercest birds. They have lethal claws on their feet and can quickly, if threatened, kick a human to death.
But this time we were in a safer position, in the car.
We knew not to stir; not to get out of the car or make any sudden movements, as it would scare off the cassowaries.
He knew we were there, but quickly assessed we were no threat.
He walked down the muddy road slowly, leading his three progeny, stopping occasionally to search for food.
Although they were chicks, they were not small. One day, if they are lucky to survive, they will grow up to be as tall as a human. But for now they were new to this planet, and still about knee-high.
We quietly whispered our triumphal exclamations and barely moved, eager to keep the cassowaries in our presence for as long as possible. The whole encounter lasted about ten blissful minutes.
We were lucky no other car, dog, or human came along to scare them away.
It was just a quiet time alone with a family of four cassowaries.
Eventually they slowly sauntered back into the forest, vanished into the mass of trees and vines.
Wherever and whenever I can, I take the backroads. You never know what you might find.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.