Rescuing an Ancient Rainforest

Being on a bicycle, I was made to wait until last to disembark the river ferry. The road ahead lay like a tunnel through the lush greenery, disappearing around some distant bend in the trees. I set off down it excited to finally be entering this ancient wonder and national icon.

Not far along the dense rainforest opened up to reveal two huge paddocks, one with cows grazing, incongruous within the surrounding jungle. I continued on, slowly wending my way up and over a mountain ridge and down onto the coastal flatland beyond, where the rainforest was interrupted again by large blocks of farmland, holiday resorts, and access roads to properties further back from the road.

I was sore and tired when I pulled in at a gate and let myself in. A long driveway took me past a greenhouse and three simple wooden cabins around a grassy clearing. To the east a mountain rose above the surrounding trees, the long pale scar of a recent landslide marring its face. I unloaded my bike and settled in to the cabin named ‘Bandicoot’.

‘Ahoy!’ A couple of hours later a holler outside drew me out to be greeted by Golly, the manager of this Rainforest Trust site. Heavily tanned with a pirate-themed bandanna on his head and a dreadlock reaching past his waist, he looked quite the character. During our time together over the next few days I was to discover a gentle man who listens to classical music, knows the rainforest intimately, and fossicks for treasure with his metal detector in his spare time (he plans to one day bury it all in a chest somewhere for somebody else to find). Sitting in his cabin with a cup of tea that evening, he told me some of the history of the place.

The Daintree is the oldest continually surviving tropical rainforest in the world at 180 million years old (by comparison, the Amazon is only 55 million years old), and with the Great Barrier Reef just offshore it’s the only place in the world where two World Heritage Areas meet. Over half of all species are found in tropical rainforests, and the Daintree is one of the most biologically diverse in the world, home to 65% of Australia’s bat and butterfly species, 35% of its frog, reptile and marsupial species, 40% of its bird species, and around 12,000 different insect species — all contained within an area that takes up less than 0.1% of the landmass of Australia. Its plant diversity is also unrivaled in Australia, with over 3000 plant species, 80% of the world’s fern species, and one of the rarest and most primitive of the world’s flowering plants.

This special place has seen a colourful cast of characters, from its original aboriginal inhabitants, to the early pioneers, loggers, commune hippies, Tarzan wannabes, and more recently: big developers. In the mid 1980s the Queensland government approved two thirds of the lowland rainforest to be subdivided for residential development, with 1,100 lots put up for sale. The areas around this freehold land were soon declared a national park and then in 1988 were listed as a World Heritage Area, but the threat of development still remained with the subdivided freehold land.

Many lots were not built on due to lack of mains water and electricity and ferry-only access across the Daintree River, but the large farm blocks I’d seen on my ride in were evidence of the land clearing that did occur. Because the land in question was in private ownership, the only option to resolve the issue has been the purchase and protection of the land for conservation.

The buyback commenced in 1992 with Bush Heritage Australia purchasing one property. In 1993 the Federal and State governments funded the $23 million Daintree Rescue Program, which succeeded in buying back a number of significant blocks over four years for inclusion in the national park. A non-profit organisation called the Daintree Rainforest Foundation began fundraising in 2000 for the land buyback program, and another organisation, the Australian Rainforest Foundation, soon received $5 million from the government towards this effort.

Golly tried to explain the story of rescuing these sections of rainforest and the roles of the different organisations involved. There was one person who he particularly highlighted: Kelvin Davies.

I’d met Kelvin when passing through Mullumbimby in New South Wales where he was based, and he struck me as a kind yet determined man who had had a tumultuous journey. After first getting involved in rainforest conservation in 1990 with the Melbourne Rainforest Action Group, Kelvin founded the organisation Rainforest Rescue and developed the ‘Buy Back and Protect Forever Project’ in the early 2000s, focused on properties in the Daintree. In 2008, Rainforest Rescue merged with the Daintree Rainforest Foundation, acquiring all their assets.

Organisations are made up of people, and people don’t always get along. Kelvin later left Rainforest Rescue, bruised and battered, and took some time out to recover. But then in 2015 he helped establish Rainforest Trust Australia, a subsidiary of an international US-based organisation, and later became its CEO. He arranged for them to amalgamate with the Australian Rainforest Foundation and acquire their cabins and nursery site where I was now sitting.

Unfortunately, the Australian Rainforest Foundation had a tarnished reputation (a former managing director later ended up convicted with a 12 month prison sentence for misusing government funds), which they failed to inform Kelvin and Rainforest Trust about. Nonetheless, Kelvin was made redundant. Again, he picked himself up and founded the organisation ‘Rainforest 4’, throwing himself back into the work of raising money, buying back land and organising for it to be restored and protected.

‘He’s a good man’, Golly said, describing Kelvin as the ‘Johnny Appleseed’ of the Daintree rescue effort.

I returned to my cabin late that evening with a new appreciation of the rainforest, and still trying to get my head around the names of all the different organisations and the tousles between them.

The following afternoon, Golly took me on an excursion, starting with the tree nursery: the tunnel-like greenhouse near the entrance to the property.

Golly had been through his own roller coaster ride working in the rainforest over the years. He grew up on a dairy farm and was used to working from dawn to dusk and always being busy. He spent time as a dock worker and later as a park ranger, where he learnt about forest revegetation. In 2006 he started working for the Australian Rainforest Foundation and built the tree nursery here the following year.

In his search for the right fit, he left the Australian Rainforest Foundation to work for Rainforest Rescue, but ended up resigning from them several years later. When Rainforest Trust Australia came along he was sought out by Kelvin who asked if he’d come and work there for them. And so he was back planting trees and looking after the nursery that he had built a decade earlier.

We entered the door at one end of the nursery into the first section, filled with trays of seedlings he’d recently propagated. Mist sprayers were keeping everything moist and the white translucent roof protected against the harsh sun.

I followed Golly through a partition into the next section where the benches were covered in plants, all much taller and leafier. The plants are transferred here after a month or two, where the green shade cloth roof lets in both light and breeze. When it’s time for planting, he puts them into boxes, mixing different species together ready to be taken out to the planting sites.

From the nursery we left the property and walked along the road, soon reaching a gate with a sign saying ‘Lot 46’. We let ourselves in and followed a track through a dense forest of young trees reaching well above our heads.

This 28-hectare block was initially cleared to grow pineapples, bananas, then oil palms, and later left neglected. In 2010 when it was purchased by Rainforest Rescue it was covered in brambles higher than the roof of the tractor.

The first step was to get rid of the weeds, which was a lot of work, slashing and using herbicide. They then drilled the holes in the soil — 400-500 holes in a 12 hour day, Golly told me when I asked how long this takes him. Then came the tree planting, ideally just before or into the wet season that runs from November to April. From there it was a matter of monitoring and weeding, going through with backpack herbicide sprayers until the new trees were tall enough to block the sunlight and stop weeds from growing.

He explained how they learnt to plant the trees closer together so that they blocked the sunlight sooner. A two metre separation between trees meant five years of weeding. When they transitioned to about 0.8 metres apart, they found they could stop weeding after only 18 months.

As we walked through the young rainforest, Golly pointed out different tree species enthusiastically, telling me little snippets about each of them. Blue Quandong, the fastest growing tree in the forest. Brown pine, really ancient. Ideospermum, known as ‘idiot fruit’, which poisoned cows and put the Daintree on the map.

Northern Tamarind, Mossman Mahogany, Currajong. A Norton’s Oak that he said sprung up in the same pot as a Benjamina Fig — ‘I only know of five of these in the Daintree.’ He pointed out a Pink Euodia and a Pink Ash towering above us.

‘I planted that!’ he exclaimed nostalgically as he pointed. I imagined I’d feel proud too if I could personally lay claim to having regenerated part of this iconic place.

Bull Oak, Brown Gardenia, Daintree Golden Pender, fourteen different varieties of fig. Cassowary Plum, poisonous except to cassowaries. Candlenut, used by early pioneers as a substitute for candles because of their high oil content. He and his mates once ate a whole heap of them and it gave them the runs. He picked up and peeled a ‘Nonnie Fruit’ off the ground and said ‘smell this’ — it stank!

With the help of hundreds of supporters, volunteers and staff, they planted 42,000 trees on this block, taking about three years. ‘We put in lots of different species that will grow fast and establish a canopy’, he explained. ‘I just need to establish a basic forest. Birds and animals then come in, drop seeds, and it takes care of itself.’ He spotted a cassowary poo on the ground and bent over to examine it. It was full of Blue Quandong seeds.

Returning to the main road, Golly pointed out various species of fruit that had fallen on the roadside, telling me that this was where he collected a lot of his seeds to propagate in the nursery.

He showed me two more blocks further along that he helped restore back when he was with the Australian Rainforest Foundation. Some sections he said were just large fields of a tall, tough grass when they started. Now it’s all thick forest.

Dusk was falling and it was time to head back. When we reached the nursery Golly set to watering some of the older plants while I retired to my cabin. Lying under the mosquito net, I fell asleep that night to the sounds of the rainforest and the geckos chirping loudly in the rafters.

The next morning I left my bags in the cabin and cycled over to Cow Bay, following the directions I’d been given to a block tucked away amongst the rainforest trees. There I met Connie and Dave, a friendly and chatty couple who welcomed me into their house on stilts and sat on their balcony with me to chat. Two young fruit bats they had rescued were making noises in a cage by the stairs, and a young bandicoot was snuggling in a box just inside the door.

Connie and Dave learnt rainforest restoration while living and working on a major farm revegetation project across the river. But things turned sour after some disagreements with the farm owner and they fled to Cow Bay in the Daintree to lick their wounds. After a year spent healing they began figuring out what they would do next. They wanted to get into revegetation work again, but they were broke.

It was while attending a volunteer tree planting day with Kelvin and Rainforest 4 that the seed of an idea was planted in their minds. They were driving back through the rainforest with Kelvin when he threw out the offhand comment, ‘Look at all that empty verge. You could plant that!’ It got them thinking.

They began approaching the local council about revegetating council land for them, including road verges. In their pitch they highlighted that the council was having to maintain and weed it, which was expensive. By restoring it to rainforest, the canopy would block sunlight so it would no longer need weeding. It would also look better for tourists, provide more habitat for wildlife and sequester carbon.

The council were keen, and a mix of crowdfunding and council contributions allowed Connie and Dave to get started, calling their new organisation ‘Daintree Life’. They began planting, and were soon contracted to restore all sorts of man-made gaps in the forest.

We got into their car and went for a drive, Connie and Dave pointing out sections of roadside verge that are now covered in seedlings, thanks to them. They soon pulled over by a section of rainforest and at first I wasn’t sure why we’d stopped. A wall of lush green foliage greeted me through the car window: tree ferns, fan palms, beach pandanus and lawyer vines mingled amongst the trunks of the taller trees. I climbed out and found a place to slip inside, walking under the canopy on a layer of leaf litter and navigating my way around vines and ferns. I was in a piece of established rainforest, one of the subdivided blocks that hadn’t been cleared.

As well as purchasing and restoring cleared blocks, Connie and Dave explained, organisations like Rainforest Rescue and Rainforest 4 are trying to get hold of special blocks like these: pieces of intact rainforest of high ecological value that need protecting. This one had just recently been purchased with the help of Rainforest 4 and will be given to the national park. Nearby was another block purchased by Rainforest Rescue and given Nature Refuge status, as part of their plan to create wildlife corridors.

We drove on and eventually pulled over at the entrance to a service road. 50km of these roads were constructed to service the 1980s subdivision, but with the buyback of many of the land blocks, many of these service roads had become redundant yet the council was still having to maintain them.

Walking in, the service road quickly split at a T-junction, one direction a cleared corridor through the rainforest, the other direction filled with closely spaced young trees. Connie and Dave explained that this was the first service road that the council approved them to revegetate, back in November last year, and already the trees had reached between knee and shoulder height. The replanted section was roped off and proudly displayed a sign bearing the Daintree Life logo.

Usually a rainforest takes a couple of hundred years to regenerate naturally, they said. First the fast-growing pioneer species move in, and then eventually with the return of birds and animals spreading seeds, other tree species emerge. When doing a revegetation project, Connie and Dave plant a diverse range of trees, including undergrowth, canopy and emergent species. Some that grow fast but fall over after only 10 years, such as Macaranga and Bleeding Heart, to provide shade to stop the growth of weeds; and some that grow slowly but live for 400 years, such as White Cedar and Cluster Fig. They reckon their work reduces the length of time for the rainforest to regenerate by about 100 years.

We head over to another service road nearby, this one with the recently planted young trees extending in both directions from the T-junction and all the way back to the main road. Dave walked amongst them and excitedly removed orange ribbons off ones that he’d previously marked as having not survived the dry season but which have since made a come-back, shooting forth new leaves. When the wet season comes, they said, everything will grow like mad.

In addition to doing road verges and service roads for the council, they now partner with Rainforest 4 on some revegetation work and they also do a number of private land revegetation projects, with the proviso that the landholders put a conservation covenant on the land to protect it into the future.

We drove over to their latest revegetation project a strip of land between a side road and a farm. Dave took out an auger from the back of the car and used it to drill a couple of dozen new holes in the planting area, each a ‘sumo-stance’ distance apart. Connie and I put on gloves and unloaded a tray of seedlings and a cask of water. When the holes were ready we set about planting the seedlings, mixing up the different species. The row closest to the roadside were to be ‘trunk-only’ trees, they told me, meaning trees with no low-down foliage that might conceal cassowaries and make it harder for cars to slow down in time. After planting them the right depth in the holes and compacting the soil around them, Dave followed along and gave them their first watering. It was hot work, but it felt good to finally step back with the thought that my hands have planted a piece of the Daintree.

Afterwards Connie and Dave kindly dropped me back at the Rainforest Trust site, and the next day Golly took me to see two more restoration sites further along near Cape Tribulation, one about 16 hectares, the other about 20 hectares, with around 95,000 trees planted between them. Deep within one of them was a pretty swimming hole surrounded by jungle, a hidden gem known only by the locals.

There was something appealing about Golly’s quiet life here, nurturing and planting trees, and I admired the reverence with which he held the rainforest. That evening, when I asked him if he ever gets lonely here, he replied: ‘Oh, no, no, no. I’m in the Daintree. I’m happy.’

He told me about an incident that happened a few years ago, when he woke during the night to an almighty roar it sounded like the world was splitting apart at the seams. The next morning the massive landslide had appeared on the nearby mountain face and house-sized boulders were strewn through the forest ‘It was probably the most exciting thing that’s happened here in the last hundred thousand years!’

It was finally time for me to leave, and I loaded up my bike and said farewell to Golly, inspired by everything he and the organisations he’s worked with have achieved; blocks such as Lot 46, which have become world class examples of how effective restoration can recreate a natural ecosystem.

I later gave Kelvin Davies a call to thank him as well, and he told me some great news: the Douglas Shire Council had just succeeded in buying back a 320 hectare property, including the two large cleared paddocks that I’d passed near the ferry crossing, which they planned to revegetate. Of the original 1100 subdivided lots in the Daintree, there are now only about 170 blocks left that could be developed. Thanks to a few determined individuals and the generosity of thousands, the rainforest lowlands are being rescued hectare by hectare.

Huge thanks to Kelvin, Golly, Connie and Dave for all their help and time spent showing me around.