There’s this rain forest in Australia called the Daintree and I nearly died there at the hands of a madman.
Perhaps I should explain.
Twenty years ago this summer I quit my teaching job and took off to see Australia. I flew to Cairns (pronounced “cans”) in northeastern Australia with a few grand in the bank and plans to hopefully spend six months there through a combination of scrounging whatever (illegal) work I could and absolutely pinching every penny I had to death. I was traveling alone because all my friends were either busy being responsible, hardworking adults, or were broke-ass deadbeats.
I spent a couple days in Cairns and decided it would be fun to go north to Cooktown. I could have hitched but I was still a little freaked out at being that far away all alone so I opted for the next cheapest option, ride sharing. Gas (or petrol, as they call it for some odd reason) is bloody expensive in Oz, so people do a lot of ride sharing when they have a long trip to go on. It works like this: Tom wants to go to Cooktown and he has a car. But the petrol is going to cost him an arm and a leg. So he puts up a note on the board in one of the local backpackers (they’re like hostels; you share a room with a bunch of other people and save a lot of money) offering a ride in exchange for sharing the gas expense. Eric wants to go to Cooktown but is too cheap for a bus, so he calls Tom. Tom picks him up. They drive to Cairns. End of story.
Unless Tom is a madman.
I knew the day was going to be interesting when we’d been driving for a few minutes and he casually said, “I think we’ll take the short cut through the rain forest, eh mate?” (Try to imagine all dialog in this post with an Australian accent. It will make the experience more immersive.)
Now, what I should have said was, “There’s no such thing as a short cut through a freakin’ rain forest, you damned idiot! The words ‘short cut’ and ‘rain forest’ don’t even go together!”
Instead I double checked our ride. Maybe I just imagined we were riding in a Toyota station wagon. Maybe we were really in a Landcruiser. No, it was a station wagon. Maybe Tom was pulling my leg. The Australians have been known to “wind up” Americans for fun. No, he seemed serious. I should have gotten out of the car right then. But for some dumb reason I stayed cool and offered a noncommittal response.
The Daintree Rain Forest is, as the name implies, a rain forest. Complete with lots of rain, mud and general jungle conditions. It is also home to numerous salt water crocodiles, which are generally considered to be the most vicious predator on the face of the planet. You see, your friendly neighborhood shark isn’t a huge fan of human meat, being filled with preservatives and such, and is only interested in hunting when he’s hungry. Crocs, on the other hand, can’t eat you fresh. They want to eat you after you’ve been rotting for a week or so, because you’re lots more tender then. So he hunts when he’s not hungry, whenever the opportunity presents itself. And salt water crocs, of all the members of the croc family, seem to consider humans as great entrees.
But wait, you’re thinking. Eric called them salt water crocs. He’s going through the rain forest. That’s fresh water. Good. You’re paying attention. The problem with your reasoning is Mr. Salt Water Croc has no problems with swimming miles and miles up fresh water rivers, finding a nice little pond in the middle of nowhere and waiting for some fool to come along and, I don’t know, wash the mud off him in the pond. He can run 35 miles per hour in short bursts and leap clean out of the water if he wants.
Enough about the crocs. I’m setting you up. For the record, I did not almost get eaten by one. I just find them truly terrifying creatures and wanted to spread my fear to you, in case you ever think about getting one at the pet store.
So there I was in a Corolla station wagon, driving into the rain forest with a madman. It was, of course, muddy, and raining. Because it’s a rain forest. Every mile or so we passed another sign saying something like: Danger! Four wheel drives only! This means you, you idiot!
I pointed out the first couple signs but Tom just laughed them off in true Australian madman style. “That’s just to scare the tourists. We’ll be right, mate!”
We did see other vehicles, all of them looking like something you’d see on a National Geographic expedition. Their occupants all pointed and stared. My uneasiness grew.
Tom’s approach to the bad stretches of road, of which there were many, was to wind the little motor up and charge headlong into the morass. While laughing wildly, perhaps even maniacally. We slid sideways as often as forward. There was much crashing through rivers and flying up steep hills. There were many opportunities to consider fiery death while we were sliding towards a wicked drop off on the side of the road. I remember eyeing my backpack in the back seat and thinking, If he slows down enough, I’m grabbing that and jumping out. I’ll walk back to town.
Finally came the hill he just couldn’t make it up. Ruefully, he said, “I reckon we’ll have to turn back.”
Best thing I heard all day. I started thinking I was going to live after all.
Then it happened. We came to a stretch with deep ruts carved into it. Somehow, we’d made it across the first time, but now our luck ran out. The wheels dropped down into the ruts and we were going nowhere. Tom suggested I push and when I got out, the mud was so slick I immediately fell down. It was like someone spread oil over ice. I’m not kidding.
I skidded around back to push and then forgot everything I ever knew about getting a vehicle out of mud. (Growing up on a ranch, I know a bit about this subject.) I positioned myself behind the drive wheel. Which meant that when Tom stomped the gas, mud sprayed me head to toe. Literally.
Tom laughed so hard I thought he’d have a stroke. He suggested I clean off if I wanted to ride in his car anymore. There was a river nearby – big surprise, in a rain forest – and a decent-sized pool. However, due to the aforementioned crocs, I was a little apprehensive so I pretty much cleaned off by the following method: Dash up to the water’s edge. Splash on a couple handfuls. Dash back. Watch for crocs. Repeat. All of which Tom found equally funny.
I got back in the car. It rained some more. I was feeling pretty glum. Tom was downright chipper. I concluded he was insane.
“How the hell are we getting out of here?”
“Something will come up.”
Finally this giant expedition vehicle came along. Eight wheels. Gear lashed all over the top. About ten tourists sitting in it. It stops. The driver rolls down his window. I’m thinking, Great. This guy can pull us out no problem. We’re saved.
“You boys have food?” Yeah. “Because you’re going to need it. Looks like you’re going to be here for a while.” (All the while the tourists are snapping pictures of us like crazy. Look, Martha. Here’s our pictures of those dumbasses in a Corolla stuck in the rain forest! Wonder if they’re dead.)
Then the rat bastard rolled up his window and drove away. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to feed his smug ass to the crocs.
Well, to cut this all short, someone finally did tow us out. By the time we got back on the highway the car was completely covered in mud. There was no visibility through any of the windows, except for the windshield where Tom’s one working wiper worked only poorly. Freed of the restraints of bad roads and mud, Tom proceeded to drive at approximately the speed of sound through mountain roads, careening into the opposite lane half the time, practically blind because of the mud. I only thought we were going to die in the rain forest. On the highway I was sure of it.
Long after dark we rolled into Cooktown. Sitting in a pub, Eric guzzling beers in an attempt to soothe his nerves, and Tom says, “My car before this was also a Corolla wagon.”
“Oh, yeah?” I reply. “What happened to it?”
“I rolled it.”
Big surprise there.