How to Explore the World’s Oldest Rain Forest

The UNESCO World Heritage Site is tens of millions of years older than the Amazon. Here’s how to visit.

How to Explore the World’s Oldest Rain Forest

The Daintree rain forest meets the ocean—and another UNESCO-protected site

Courtesy of Tourism Australia

When you think about the oldest rain forest in the world, your brain may take you to the Congo or Brazil. But time takes on a new mind-bending perspective in the Daintree Rainforest in Australia, part of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics Rainforest. Dating back an estimated 180 million years—tens of millions of years older than the Amazon—these nearly 750 square miles cradle of botanical history have been through it all. If you want to experience a land before time, a stay in this stretch of North Queensland is as close as you’ll ever come. Here are seven unexpected ways to immerse yourself.

1. On a night walking tour

By day, you only have to gaze into the magical tangle of ancient ferns, cycads, and towering bull kauri and fan palms to understand how the Daintree influenced the screenwriters of Avatar. At night, however, the true magic of the rain forest reveals itself. Armed with a flashlight on a Jungle Adventures Night Walk, you’ll discover plants that have been around since dinosaurs roamed and spot critters found nowhere else on Earth, like the musky rat kangaroo, which has survived in this forest for 20 million years.

2. Horseback riding where two World Heritage–listed wonders meet

Only by cantering astride a horse along Cape Tribulation beach can you truly appreciate this thin white (sand) line where UNESCO bestowed World Heritage status to two wonders side by side: the Wet Tropics of Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef. At its inscription in 1988, the Wet Tropics Rainforest of Queensland was essentially an intact ecosystem, 80 percent untouched since the time of European settlement. As you gaze over Mount Sorrow and pass a 40,000-50,000 year-old strangler fig, however, you understand that the Kuku Yalanji, the traditional inhabitants of this land, have appreciated this nature nirvana longer than any textbook or register can capture.

3. Swimming in secret water holes

Don’t let all those crocodile warning signs deter you. While they are undoubtedly crocs in the Daintree, it’s all about cooling off in secret (and croc-free!) swimming holes. You’ll need to befriend a local to point you in the direction of the best spots, but you can also stop in for scones with jam and cream before or after a dip in the private and alluringly blue swimming hole at Heritage Lodge and Spa.

4. In a Human Hamster Wheel

When the brains behind Jungle Surfing Canopy Tours dreamed up the Human Hamster Wheel, it was a feat of engineering. Your leg power in the three-meter wheel hoists other zipliners up to the treetops for an eco-friendly ziplining adventure. You’ll lift up a group of people to the first platform before the same is done for you. Then you’ll be ready to fly like Tarzan or Jane.

5. Getting massaged at a sacred waterfall

It doesn’t need to be all khakis and binoculars in the Daintree, even if you will find 40 percent of Australia’s bird species and 60 percent of its butterfly species here. Taking inspiration from the Kuku Yalanji, who call this place Wawu-karrba’ (which means “healing of the spirit”), you’ll feel completely connected to the rain forest after a julma (massage) next to a sacred waterfall at Daintree EcoLodge & Spa. Some women opt to deepen the experience by immersing themselves in the pool at the base of the falls; because it’s a female sacred site, the men will have to stick to the massage table. Don’t worry, its location is hard to beat.

6. Eating chocolate pudding fruit

Self-sufficiency is in the veins of the 330 people who call Cape Tribulation home; many survive on solar power and generators. Within these tropical conditions, the owners of Cape Trib Fruit Farm have watched their 2,500 exotic fruit trees thrive through three generations of their family and now offer fruit-tasting tours where you can learn more about the weird and wonderful flora of the Wet Tropics. You can taste fruits like the black sapote, a persimmon-type fruit that has the consistency of pudding when ripe. Although it may actually be native to Mexico, this chocolatey delicacy is embraced with gusto by the ice-cream makers of Cape Tribulation—try it at Daintree Ice Cream Co. or Floravilla.

7. Sailing to the Great Barrier Reef and replanting for the future

When the Great Barrier Reef is your closest neighbor and you’ve come this far, it would be crazy to skip the opportunity to board a catamaran from the border of the Daintree and reach pristine coral cays just 10 nautical miles offshore. Snorkeling over Mackay or Undine Reefs showcases another side of Mother Nature’s North Queensland magnum opus. For every passenger aboard, Sailaway contributes $10 to rain forest reforestation practices at Eco Shamba Tree Farm in Port Douglas.

>>Next: 10 Amazing Ancient Forests Around the World

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