Want to meet mentholated ants, see the forest that inspired Avatar, and search for living dinosaurs? In this episode ofTravel Tales by AFAR, we head for Cairns, Australia, home to the world’s largest tropical rainforest. Australian playwright Michelle Law is our guide: Last summer, she and her sister took a road trip through the region to explore Indigenous culture, zoom through the rainforest, and bond over the mysteries of parenthood.
Guide 1: After we get over the next tower, the landscape will really change and then you’ll be in the rainforest.
Guide 2: And you can just stand and flip that seat behind you.
Michelle Law, playwright: Oh my gosh, this is amazing! Oh, this is great.
Tammy Law, sister: I can definitely see why there’s a harness on this, on the microphone.
Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene, this is Travel Tales by AFAR. In every episode, we hear from a traveler about a trip that really meant something to them. And in this season, we’re actually sending people—writers, comedians, playwrights—out into the world to explore life’s big questions. Today, we’re traveling to North Queensland, Australia, with Michelle Law, an Australian writer and actor.
Michelle is the author of Asian Girls Are Going Places, available online, and her latest play, Miss Peony, will be touring around the east coast of Australia in 2023. Michelle is fresh off of her own tour, this one a quick jaunt to Cairns with her big sister Tammy. The sisters hadn’t taken a trip together since Tammy had her first child two years ago.
So we’re gonna hear fun sibling talk, learn about living dinosaurs and ants that can clear your sinuses, and in between those adventures, we’ll also hear their reflections on Australian history and on one of life’s greatest journeys: becoming a parent.
Michelle: Little kangaroo booties.
Tammy: Yeah, that looks pretty cute.
Michelle: More opals? Oh, there’s a marriage celebrant.
Tammy: Chocolate shop.
Michelle: Aw, that’s cute. Like a little bazaar that, um, has a nice mural on the side. Mango wine. Oooh. Woah. Ice cream. Ice cream, yeah. Candy. Do you want an ice cream?
Tammy: Oh yeah. I wouldn’t mind an ice cream.
Michelle: That’s my older sister Tammy and I. We’re strolling through Kuranda Village in Gimuy Walubarra country, also known as Cairns. The main strip of the village has a sleepy, hippy vibe, with locals selling kaftans, homemade soaps, Akubra hats, and—as we mentioned—ice cream. Lots and lots of ice cream. It’s the right weather for it. Far North Queensland has a tropical climate so although we’re technically in the middle of winter in Australia, today it’s blue skies and a balmy 24 degrees Celsius.
Both of us instinctively go for rainbow flavor, which is really just caramel with a ton of swirly food coloring. It’s the taste of our childhoods, what we’d be treated to after swimming lessons and doctor’s appointments. As we chomp into our cones, we watch tourists browsing coin purses crafted from dehydrated cane toads and kangaroo scrotums. Standard Australia. Nearby, a group of Indigenous kids count change in their palms for discounted spring rolls from a Japanese café. Their elders keep a keen eye on them from a park across the road.
Kuranda feels like a distilled version of Cairns: staunchly Aboriginal land, with a long history of Asian migration and now a booming tourism industry. Japanese migrants come for the sun and surf, finding Cairns an appealing coastal city that’s close to their home country. Other tourists come to Cairns to explore Australia’s natural wonders, living their Finding Nemo dreams and spotting clownfish, green sea turtles and manta rays in the Great Barrier Reef.
Today, Tammy and I are both tourists. I was born and grew up in Queensland, but this is my first trip up north. And it couldn’t have come at a better time: I’ve had itchy feet since being locked down, and Tammy’s been needing a getaway. This is the first meaningful time we’ve spent together since she had her first child two years ago. His name’s Coen and he’s the first grandchild in the family, which makes him our favorite person in the world. He’s a hilarious, thoughtful, and well-behaved kid, but he wasn’t particularly thrilled about his Mum and I going away.
Tammy: Mommy’s going on a trip with ayi. What do you think about it?
Coen: Eh, mommy. Coco trip.
Tammy: Coco coming on a trip too?
Tammy: Aw, it’s just going to be Mum and ayi.
Coen: Coco on trip too? Daddy trip too?
Tammy: Coco and Daddy come too. Sorry Coco, it’s just Mummy and Ayi.
Tammy: What do you think? Are you going to be sad?
Tammy: Aww, are you going to miss Mummy?
Tammy: But you and Daddy gonna to have lots of fun together.
Michelle: Let’s back up a little. That morning, Coen very stoically said goodbye to Tammy. Several hours later, she and I were stepping out of Cairns airport, shielding our eyes from the glare and stripping off the down jackets we’d been wearing on the plane. It felt good to shed that weight, the heaviness of winter. I breathed in the sunshine. Sunshine has a scent, you know. It’s grassy and crisp, the smell of clean laundry plucked from the line after hours of roasting in the heat. As we belted down the highway in our hire car, we settled into the kind of idiosyncratic nonsense speak that can only be shared by siblings.
Tammy: Would you like some tunes?
Tammy: Turn her up, turn her on.
[Loud blast of music]
Michelle: Oh sh*t. Holy sh*t! Apologies.
Tammy: Sissies on the road!
Michelle: Sissies in Cairns.
Tammy: Sissy’s never been here.
Michelle: I know! I got off and I was like, this is so pleasant.
Michelle: Within only 15 minutes, we’ve reached the edge of the oldest tropical rainforest in the world. Tammy’s visited the Daintree before, but this is my first introduction to this ecosystem that is over 135 million years old and stretches approximately 746 miles. It’s astounding seeing the clear demarcation between the lush greenery and the road, like a needle coming off the record; a sudden stop amid the flow of music.
We push on towards the entrance of the Skyrail cableway, where we meet staff members Marni and Ranger Ben. We’re being taken onto a special, open-air carriage that looks less like a carriage and more like the suspended scaffolding that window cleaners use on high rises. In fact, I’m reminded of something…
Michelle: Oh my God. I love it. It’s like when they drop the goat into the T-Rex enclosure in Jurassic Park.
Marni: Same, but different. Same but different. Yes.
Michelle: I’m desperate to see a real-life dinosaur on our trip. And by dinosaur, I mean a wild cassowary. Cassowaries are large-bodied, flightless birds native to Australia. They’re estimated to have evolved over 60 million years ago during the Cretaceous period and are equally terrifying and majestic. They can reach a height of over six feet, peering down at you with their strikingly cobalt blue faces, blood red necks, and large, bony crests that sit atop their heads like a helmet. With their imposing stature and ancient gravitas, they kind of remind me of a school principal and similarly, can be deadly if provoked.
Tammy and I get harnessed up, take our seats, and then all four of us are soaring into the sky at speed, dangling around 160 feet above the rainforest. It’s exhilarating being up this high and exposed to the elements, a bit like a ski lift or hot air balloon. Down below, hidden beneath dense tree canopies, we spot turtles and crocodiles resting on logs, in waterways that have swelled after the recent rain. We gasp at the steep cliff faces that we’re told some hikers scale. All around us, unseen rifle birds call, their eerie croons echoing in the open air. Suddenly, I remember that Tammy has a slight fear of heights. Whoops.
We stop and carry on, on foot, following the wooden pathways that have been built into the forest. At several points I see rustling among the flora and think I’ve stumbled across a cassowary but it’s always another tourist or a brush turkey. Darn. Marni and Ben say they’ll keep an eye out. As we walk, we reach the crumbling remnants of an old settlement. It feels incongruous to find concrete foundations and rusty bolts in the midst of such wild terrain. What was this place? Did someone live here?
Ranger Ben: It was more, I want to say, like white settlers, I guess—
Michelle: Oh, OK.
Ranger Ben: Because they built the old hydro station and the old dam.
Michelle: Oh, so what sort of houses did they build? Just cabins?
Ranger Ben: Uh, there’s a little photo here. It’s not a great photo. But you know, they had a post office and a tennis court that was actually here.
Marni: They obviously needed more people here at the time to build it. And then once it was built, they didn’t need as many people here to maintain it.
Michelle: Later, we pose for photos on a platform above Barron Falls, an immense waterfall 400 feet high. It feels darkly ironic once we learn that European men and women used to climb down the falls in suits and heavy ball gowns to get photos of themselves by the water. It would have been hot in that formal wear, and some of them would have fallen.
On our return trip, Tammy and I take a closed carriage alone, hurtling past a tree so tall its crown protrudes above the forest canopy like a head of broccoli. This is the exact tree that inspired the Home tree in Avatar, a film with pertinent themes.
Michelle: I’m specifically thinking about the ball gown fact because that was interesting.
Michelle: In the sense that, like, you’re pointing it out as like, “Oh, what a silly thing to have done.”
Michelle: But at the same time, they were like, early white settlers who came and didn’t understand the land. Like us, for example, growing up in this, in the Australian school system, you don’t get taught any Aboriginal history—
Michelle: —basically besides, um, Captain Cook arrived and there were Aboriginal people here. And then you go through your adult life, and you sort of get to a point where you’re like, oh, “I actually don’t know much about this country.”
Michelle: Tammy and I are second generation migrants. Our parents moved to Australia from Hong Kong in the 1970s when there was talk of the region’s handover from British to Chinese rule. So we’re relatively new arrivals compared to the fifth generation Chinese Australians whose families have been in Cairns since the Gold Rush in the mid 1870s.
Today, the Chinese community and influence in Cairns is still going strong, so it feels fitting to be eating dinner at Golden Boat Chinese Restaurant, a Cairns institution serving up classic Cantonese-Australian fare. It’s an old-school restaurant: carpeted, with vinyl chairs, pink wallpaper and of course, a paper tablecloth over the cotton tablecloth. In fact, it’s a little triggering; the décor is strikingly similar to our family restaurant growing up. After we order, we stare out at the main road where we see something unusual. (Unfortunately, not a cassowary.)
Michelle: Oh my God! Is—was that a woman just on roller skates?
Tammy: It’s a man.
Michelle: It’s a free-spirited man going down the main street of Cairns on roller skates.
Tammy: And he’s going down like backwards as well.
Michelle: And going backward. It’s like he’s in a roller drome. It’s an actual main road.
Tammy: Where there are cars and vehicles. That’s pretty dangerous.
Michelle: This is Cairns, man. This is Cairns. That is hectic.
Michelle: While we’re watching skater dude, we realize that we’re being watched too. At the table beside us, a white man downing beers is finishing up dinner with two mates. His friends are chatting, but he’s fixated on Tammy and I and even casts a second, loaded glance at us as he leaves to pay the bill. Tammy and I are one of four nonwhite people in the packed restaurant. We counted. We always do. It’s unnerving to be in a place as multicultural as Cairns, and to be in a Chinese restaurant, and still be made to feel alien. We were born and grew up here and can’t even speak Cantonese properly—something we apologize to the waiter about profusely—but we are still othered.
Michelle [translated]: Our Cantonese is terrible.
Waitress: We can understand. But why? I thought you were from Hong Kong this whole time.
Michelle: Our parents are Hong Kongers.
Waitress: But you were born here?
Michelle: We were born on the Sunshine Coast.
Michelle: I think people see Australia as this country that is, and it is, factually speaking, one of the most multicultural nations in the world. But I don’t think they understand the underbelly, and innate kind of hierarchy. Yeah, that’s unspoken.
Michelle: Before sunrise, we leave Cairns to drive one hour north to Port Douglas. We chew on breakfast rolls and drive below the speed limit, keeping an eye on the roads for any kangaroos that might be making a dash across the bitumen. In Port Douglas we’re met by Aaron, a local eastern Kuku Yalanji man from Walkabout Cultural Adventures.
On the tour bus, we make friends with everyone: a German woman, and an American family. It’s a chilly morning by Cairns standards, but the day warms as we hurtle past field after field of sugar cane. Right now, the cane is being harvested by enormous trucks. Beside them, cattle egrets—white, spindly-looking birds—wait patiently to feast on any insects that get spat from the soil amidst the churning.
Aaron tells us about his kids and how one of his daughters loves this country as much as he does, how she’s a real bush girl and isn’t planning to move away to the big city (which, here, is Cairns) like many other locals.
I think about how profoundly grounding and comforting it must feel to have such a deep sense of belonging to a place. This is Aaron’s country. He’s watched it change and develop since he was a kid. But he still looks to the land for native food and medicine.
Aaron: So what you guys gonna see today and learn so much about it. You’re gonna be so amazed and think, “Well you know, this is made from this. This is made from that.”
Michelle: So exciting.
Aaron: And you know, when you’re born and bred here, you, you kind of got taught all this sort of trees and plants what, what we used [them] for.
Michelle: Throughout the tour, Aaron periodically stops the van to pluck something that looks, to my untrained eye, like any other shrub or tree branch in the forest. There are lilly pillies, tart and refreshing berries that are used to treat hangovers; silver wattle leaves that Aaron mashes with water to create unbelievably foamy soap; sapling branches that ease toothaches when they’re chewed on; and berries growing beside the beach that are used as eyedrops. In the depths of a particularly overgrown vine, Aaron emerges with armfuls of rotund, wild passionfruit. We eat those, along with papayas doused with wild lime juice for lunch. It’s astonishing how the land provides for us. One of the Americans is recovering from a cold, so Aaron pulls over beside some trees with green, heaving masses the size of footballs hanging from the branches.
Aaron: See those there, guys?
Aaron: Those big nests? They’re green ants’ nests. So what I’m gonna do, we all gotta jump out.
Aaron: I’m gonna do this, but not you guys cuz these little suckers, they bite.
Aaron: So I’m gonna put my hand in there—
Aaron: ±get all ‘em on my hand. Crush ‘em up and I’m gonna get you to smell. It’s what we call a Bushman Vick’s.
American: And it helps with what?
Aaron: Unlock your nose. Open up your lungs. So you can breathe perfect.
Michelle: Aaron pokes his hand into a nest and hundreds of large, brown ants with light green abdomens swarm his forearms. Some of them land on my legs and they start biting, their stings uncomfortable but not lingering. With a grimace—he’s getting bitten a lot—Aaron begins rubbing the live ants into a ball and then presents his cupped hands to us. “Have a smell,” he says. We take a whiff and it’s like an intense, menthol nasal spray. When we taste an ant for ourselves, their green abdomens explode on our tongues like lemon pulp. They’re delicious.
Afterwards, we stop at two bodies of water. Mossman Gorge is a valley in the Daintree National Park that has a number of swimming holes. At one of the larger ones, we dip our toes and the water is deceptively freezing—colder than you’d expect with all of this sun. Neither Tammy nor I are game enough to swim, so instead we snap photos of the crystal-clear water, marveling at the enormous boulders upon which swimmers are sunbathing. The boulders are almost seven feet in diameter; you could fit two cassowaries on one of those things.
The other site we visit is a secret. To get there, we need to scale a steep, uphill track that leaves us all breathless. When we emerge from the dense forestry, the women and men in the group separate.
Aaron: So in there, ladies, that’s your spot in there. Me and RJ can’t come in there. You’ll see us. We can see you, whatever you do in there’s got nothing to do with me and RJ. So there’s your gate.
Aaron: If you want to go in, that’s your choice. I can’t stop here. It’s all of this is just a female sacred healing place.
Michelle: The women in the group pass through the gate into the waterfall, skipping over stones to reach the water. It’s an incredibly peaceful, untouched place. This site is for ‘women’s business,’ where women once gave birth and rested.
Tammy: I’m feeling the healing. I’m watching this dragonfly dip its butt in the water.
Michelle: It’s just hopping around from spot to spot.
Tammy: Having a dip.
Michelle: Yeah. A great life.
Michelle: Later, I learn that the dragonfly was laying its eggs. Which feels very fitting as a location and for Tammy, someone who gave birth not too long ago. She always tells me that she has a terrible memory, but she remembers every moment of her labor. As we watch the dragonfly flitting about, I think of how Tammy’s life has changed. She’s hugely adventurous, and her work as a documentary photographer has taken her on solo trips from Eritrea to Mongolia. Since she’s become a mother, it’s been incredible seeing how the attentiveness with which she approaches her work has transferred to Coen. I’ve never seen her be able to physically clock off from being a mum like she is right now. And that reality—as someone who wants kids in the not-too-distant future—is daunting to me.
On the journey, my eyes start getting heavy. It’s been a packed day and I’m glad Aaron’s driving. I can hear him and Tammy talking about Coen’s name in Kuku Yalanji language.
Tammy: Do you know what language, Aaron, that is, that Coen means ‘thunder’ in? Do you know what language that is?
Aaron: Language for thunder? That’s our language here.
Tammy: Oh, that is? Oh.
Aaron: Yeah, that’s our language.
Michelle: The conversation shifts, and we hear about a German woman who came to Port Douglas as a backpacker in her youth and decided to stay. As an old woman, she’s spent her life buying up farmland and enlisting the help of the community to repopulate it with native trees—to rebuild the rainforest. Aaron likes her and the work she’s doing. It’s another small step towards helping Aboriginal people restore the land.
My thoughts shift to the sugar cane and cattle farms we’ve seen today, to the tourists lost at Mossman Gorge because they can’t read the land and get sucked beneath the boulders when the current is too strong, and to the sacred women’s healing site that is publicly accessible, but only through a privately-owned wellness facility.
Tammy and I are a little quiet at dinner, thoughtful after our last encounter with Aaron. But the atmosphere in the heart of Port Douglas is pumping. The pubs are full, bursting with the sounds of live music and footy fans cheering and groaning at TVs. Restaurants are booked out, their tables spilling onto the sidewalks. For our last supper, we feast on scallops, tuna sashimi, clam spaghetti and insalata. We knock back Aperol spritzes as we hear a customer loudly ask one of the waiters where he’s from.
“I grew up in Italy but I’m originally from Sri Lanka,” he says.
That night, I stand in the shower and think, how am I going to raise a kid in this country? How is Tammy doing it?
The next day, Tammy and I scour the Port Douglas Sunday markets for souvenirs. It’s a sprawling market beside the water that’s populated by 150 stalls. At one stall, I become mesmerized by a glass-blowing display where the artisan is making—to my great excitement—a cassowary. This is the closest I’m gonna get to seeing the real thing… for now, so I’m bringing it home with me!
Meanwhile, Tammy finds a cute picture book written by a local author for Coen. She puts it in her luggage beside some pieces of orange, white and grey ochre that Aaron helped us find on the beach. Ochre is a natural pigment used in Aboriginal art and body painting. Tammy doesn’t buy anything for herself. I think about how once you become a parent, your children’s needs must always come before your own. I wonder if I’ll be any good at that…
Tammy: It’s definitely something, like, no matter how much you research, how much you speak about it, there’s nothing that can prepare you. I think you’d be a really good mum. I think you’d enjoy a lot of the things that I do, like just having that bond and that like hilarity.
Michelle: I hope my kid’s funny cuz Coen’s really funny.
Tammy: Nah, you’ll have a funny kid.
Michelle: Who knows what the future has in store for me. But in the meantime, I’m grateful to have Coen in our lives. And it feels special that Tammy is helping him engage with the country where we’ve settled; it gives me hope that future generations will be more educated about Australia’s history. But for now, I think Coen’s really going to love the ochre—he’s a big painter.
Tammy: Well, how did you feel when you saw Mummy at the airport?
Coen: Coco go Cairns.
Tammy: Coco want to go to Cairns?
Coen: Coco do dig sand.
Tammy: Oh, you wanna go dig in the sand? Are you happy Mummy brought you some shells and some ochre?
Tammy: Where did you put them?
Coen: Some, some ochre.
Tammy: What did you do with the ochre?
Coen: Coco play ochre.
Tammy: Oh, Toto play with the ochre.
Aislyn: That was Michelle Law. Michelle recently spent some time with Cohen and her family, and they all have another trip planned to the Gold Coast for a joint birthday celebration for Tammy and two of Michelle’s other siblings. Michelle is also hard at work. Her play, Single Asian Female, is being remounted for the fifth time, this time in Adelaide at the State Theatre Company, South Australia.
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This has been Travel Tales, a production of AFAR Media and Boom Integrated. Our podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene, Adrien Glover, and Robin Lai. Post-production was by John Marshall Media staff, Jenn Grossman, and Clint Rhodes.
Music composition by Alan Carrescia. And the special thanks to Irene Wang and Angela Johnston. I’m Aislyn Greene, your traveling-as-much-as-I-possibly-can host. I am so happy to be on the road again. As we explore the world this year, remember that travel begins the moment we walk out our front door.
Everyone has a travel tale. What’s yours?