In a country boasting the shark, the funnel-web spider, the blue-ringed octopus, the box jelly fish, the crocodile and the ten most poisonous snakes in the world, birds do not rank highly on the danger scale, yet the Cassowary of Northern Queensland is capable of disembowelling a person with one strike from the central claw on its foot. The bird stands up to two metres high, and looks a bit like a stocky emu. Its plumage is largely black, except for a red collar and a blue head, crested by a gold, leathery plate that is supposedly used as a battering ram when moving through vine thickets. In defence of its young, the male has a reputation for aggression, so it was with some trepidation that Karen and I cycled out of Cardwell and made our way towards Mission Beach, the cassowary centre of Australia.
It is about seventy kilometres from Cardwell to Mission Beach. In between lies the town of Tully, the wettest place on the continent. The light rain which had began falling as soon as we left Cardwell gradually became heavier the closer we got to Tully. Karen and I had heard of Tully's reputation, but we still could not believe the deluge which greeted us as we rode into town. We cycled through water six inches deep in the main street before lunching at a café and proceeding on to Mission Beach.
We toyed with the idea of staying at the Dunk Island View caravan park, where we had stayed three years before and where Karen had been locked in the pool area following her unfortunate experience with the child-proof gate, but the caravan park lacked cooking gear and shelter, and somehow did not feel quite right. We rode on to the Hibiscus caravan park and booked in after checking its facilities - great pool, good campers kitchen, no television but a great price. It was also almost deserted.
Next day we went searching for cassowaries. Mission Beach is on the coast, reached via a loop road. The walk we intended following on our search was inland from the coast between each side of the loop, so when Karen saw a caravan leaving the park, she reasoned that it would have to travel past one of the ends of the walk on its way back to the highway. She flagged it down, and that was when we first met Brian and Dulcie. They agreed to give us a lift to the start of the walk, and during the drive out, Brian gave us his card, probably never expecting to see us again. Six months later we would be on his doorstep in Benalla, swimming in his pool, and birdwatching with he and Dulcie just outside of town. But that was all in the future.
The rain had made the fire trail we followed damp and soft, with areas of boggy clay which were ideal for picking up the tracks of any cassowary that strayed across our path. We soon found our first sign - the peculiar three toed footprint of an adult bird. It had been here sometime in the previous two days. A little further on, the trail narrowed, climbing up and over a small ridge. We found some droppings - as distinctive as the footprint - a mass of half digested rain forest seeds. Some authorities claim that in some rainforest areas cassowaries are responsible for a large percentage of all seed dispersal, and are vital to the continued survival of the entire ecosystem. Their droppings are certainly big enough to support such a claim.
With the possibility of a sighting at hand, and with the ever increasing awareness of the potential danger we were in, Karen and I proceeded quietly, hardly daring to breathe. Further on we found another pile of poo and our expectations increased. The rainforest was silent around us, except for the light, misty rain that filtered through the canopy above to splash softly on the undergrowth around us. Then the sound of crashing branches assailed our senses. We froze, expecting a rampaging cassowary to appear at any moment. Karen took a couple of steps backwards, preparing to run. I smiled at the thought. It would be a very slow cassowary that could not catch Karen. She can jog forever, but she cannot sprint to save her life.
The rainforest was quiet again. "What do you reckon it was?" asked Karen.
"It sounded like a rampaging cassowary," I replied.
Karen turned a whiter shade of pale. "You really think so?"
"No, just kidding. It was probably a branch falling off a tree."
We slogged on through the mud, seeing more tracks, and more droppings, but no cassowaries. On and on we wandered, with no success. For fifteen bloody kilometres we trudged along, getting wet through, cold and miserable, all the while expecting to be attacked by a savage bird. It was a beautiful rainforest, but it had not revealed what we had wanted to see. The day had been long. As we walked back to the caravan park, Karen and I agreed that we had given it our best shot, and that we would not go in search of the elusive cassowary again.
The following day we rode out to the base of Bicton Hill, where a track up through the rainforest leads to a lookout over Mission Beach and Dunk Island. Other tourists had told us that the view was well worth the climb. A short way up the track we bumped into Steve and Gladys, a couple we had met in the caravan park. Steve excitedly showed us his video camera and said "Take a look at this!" He replayed the videotape and we all gathered around the tiny little black and white screen.
"This is the first scat we found," said Steve. The video showed the track further up the hill, a small dark object sitting in the middle. The object enlarged as Steve had zoomed in for a close-up. Sure enough, it looked like cassowary poo.
"And here is the next one." Another pile of droppings held pride of place in the viewer.
"Then we went up the track and around a hairpin bend." On the screen, the image echoed the statement.
"That was when we saw it. There it is!"
Our first glimpse of the Cassowary and its chick
A cassowary had appeared in the middle of the screen. The small image made it difficult to determine what it was doing, but it was a cassowary and that was all we needed to know. We thanked Steve and hurried up the track, finding the first poo pile about five minutes later. A hundred metres more and the familiar sight of the second pile appeared. After the hairpin bend we slowed our pace. Twenty metres further and we encountered a male cassowary and two or three chicks. I took a photo, approached to within about twenty metres and took another couple. Karen and I watched the birds for about fifteen minutes. They were minding their own business, moving around in a patch of sunlight and staying mostly on the track. For a moment they moved down below the track, and a couple of tourists walked past, coming down from the lookout. They stopped to look at the cassowary which must have been very, very close. If they had known the danger they were in, they would not have lingered for as long as they did. Then they were past, and the birds returned to the track. I replaced a film, took a couple more shots, then we retraced our steps down the hill.
Birdwatching can be an exciting and dangerous pastime!
Cassowary and chick