ARTICLE ©2020 PAUL O’DOWD
There is something inherently human in the practice of ritual.
From the sacred rituals of spirituality and worship, to the obsessive urgings of bedtime door-lock checks, rituals bookend the important cycles in our lives and they reinforce the gravity of occasions and locations for which our high regard must never become diminished.
In this region we have a few such locations for which our high regard must never become diminished.
These are places which stand alone in the world in terms of their incalculable value and their importance to a picture far bigger than our embedded perspective can easily reveal.
The Daintree Rainforest is just such a place. I could list the features which render this priceless landscape so important to our community and to the world at large…
I could quote for you, the statistics or recite the fascinating data which prove that our reliance on the rainforest is real and urgent and fragile…
I could do that, but many of you will already know the basics of this story. Some of you will know these facts and figures better than I do. I will assume there is, in this audience at least, a broad consensus on the need to protect our last remaining fragments of rainforest from the real threat of destructive over-development.
Luckily, there are numerous aspects to this coast and its infrastructure which present impediments to runaway development. These barriers serve to discourage the sort of interest that has resulted in the destruction of other more accessible and less intimidating landscapes.
These impediments include physical barriers, like narrow mountain roads which can’t be practically widened and a big ugly barge which acts as a traffic capacitor, pulsing the vehicles into predictable, limited packets of traffic, rather than enabling a constant surging, unpredictable flow of cars, trucks and busses into the area.
The Ferry and the narrow roads compliment each other. The roads are just wide enough to accommodate the pulsed, ferry regulated traffic, but any large increase in the volume of traffic would absolutely require a massive and destructive expansion of the road.
The widening of the road would necessitate a comprehensive restructuring of the entire forested hillside above the road. This is because the wider road could only be accommodated by digging further into a steep hillside already prone to frequent slippage. The cost in environmental and economic terms, of facilitating the increased traffic that would follow the development of a high volume alternative to the ferry, would dwarf the cost of that “river crossing upgrade” in the first place.
These facts present almost insurmountable limitations to the sort of heavy development promoted by certain voices over the years.
Other barriers are psychological, like the lack of grid connectivity. This simple fact filters out many would-be settlers, deterring those who find the lack of mains power just too hard to get their heads around.
Another psychological barrier is The Ferry.
The Daintree River Ferry represents a dramatic and famous departure from the usual experience of living in a place.
It makes that area north of the river into an island of sorts, only accessible by a big ugly cable barge.
To enter the Daintree Rainforest, one must stop and wait to be lifted from the familiar world of connected roads, power lines, farms, shops and houses. The driver must relinquish control, to be taken safely but dramatically over a swift river full of huge crocodiles, and deposited into a land full of man-sized dinosaur birds, tree kangaroos and the most primordial forest on Earth.
You have to be a certain kind of person to want to live in Jurassic Park.
Removing the Ferry, would make the Daintree Rainforest just a bit more “normal” to the masses who are currently deterred by the perception of isolation that the existing arrangements create.
Despite these limitations, a few hundred hardy, independent people, do make their home “over the river”. I for one, lived in the heart of the rainforest for most of the 1990s.
More people are regular visitors. From tour drivers to nature buffs and families with 4X4s who just love fishing and camping along the coast.
Vastly many more people visit just the once, for hours, or for days, and for a wide range of reasons.
The local traditional people knew that their interactions with their landscape needed to be moderated and that their every act had consequences for the environment that sustained them.
In the forests north of the river this was particularly strongly felt.
Their access was surrounded by strict ritual and traditional admonitions against certain behaviours. These customary constraints kept them and their landscape safe from each other and facilitated a mutual coexistence that has persisted over tens of millennia.
And herein lays one of the most subtle and important services provided to this community by the big ugly barge we call “The Ferry”.
The Ferry is a unique and important ritual.
Crossing The Ferry is a ritual which is performed by anyone wishing to enter the World’s Most Ancient Rainforest.
It is an observance that must be undertaken before setting foot on that sacred ground.
It is a moment of stillness on a journey, during which the traveller or the local alike must sit and consider the place they are about to enter.
I have enjoyed three decades of lived experience in this region, leading tour groups, running academic programs for students and scientists, or just taking friends and family in to see my old stomping ground. In that time I’ve learned that the value of the ritual of Crossing The Ferry, as an unavoidable meditation on the uniqueness of that place over the river, should not be underestimated.
ALL IMAGES SUPPLIED BY DALE PRIEM