Australia's most-popular food blogger Not Quite Nigella, aka Lorraine Elliott, enters the Daintree Rainforest for a trip back in time.
"The best time to see the rainforest is …when it is raining” our guide tells us as we take a walk around Daintree Eco Lodge and Spa. This particular lodge has an amazing setting – right in a 100 million year old World Heritage listed Daintree Rainforest no less! The Daintree Rainforest in tropical North Queensland is 65 million years older than the Amazon rainforest and it’s quite mindblowing to think that you can stay at accommodation inside the rainforest. And to think that by the end of the three days, I’d be pampered, fed, enlightened and shot at! And be warned, this is a long story so settle in with a cup of coffee or tea.
There’s the chirp of birds (135 varieties are found here at the lodge) and the noise of frogs, a light gentle rain patters down and the lush greenery, humid but not overwhelmingly warm 27C/80F weather. The Daintree receives an astounding 4-6 metres of rainfall a year and unlike other country areas which have drought the greenery is abundant and lush. Daintree village has a mere 90 residents. And the news was been confirmed that Daintree Eco Lodge is played host to some of Oprah’s guests!
We arrived here after a three hour flight to Cairns from Sydney and we take the 90 minute scenic drive to the Daintree Rainforest with our guide Juan Walker, who despite his name is not South American, he is an indigenous Australian. And he happens to be able to answer every single question that we throw him (and being with a group of journalists, we are a curious lot!). Stalks of green leaf topped sugar cane whizz past and this is one of the biggest industries in the area. Did you know that it takes 10 tonnes of sugar cane to make 10 kilos of sugar?
We arrive at the Daintree Eco Lodge and Spa which was built 15 years ago on 30 acres of virgin rainforest adjacent to the Daintree River. The point of difference for the Daintree Eco Lodge is the way they integrate into the community and the indigenous community in particular and the local Kuku Yalanji people from this region. We meet Terry and Cathy Maloney who own the lodge and they work there along with their three daughters.
It is really a family business and one of their daughters is married to an indigenous Australian and another is dating Juan. There are Aboriginal guided rainforest walks, a cultural workshop and half and full day walkabout tours. The revenue generated from the indigenous activities is reinvested into the indigenous programs. The Maloneys consulted with the Aboriginal elders in many elements from the spa to the design of the lodge and also hire indigenous people from the local community as part of the Champions program – one of whom just joined NIDA as an actor and Juan himself was a part of the Champions program.
Another key element to this lodge is the women’s only area near the waterfall and the creek down stream to one of the bayans (rooms) where women bathed and cleansed and men weren’t permitted. The women’s and men’s separation is a key distinction in indigenous culture and at times Juan tells us that there are things that only women can speak about and vice versa for the men. In fact women do not play the digeridoo as it related to birth and fertility and it is believed that if a woman plays one then she will not bear children.
We check into our bayans (which means home in aboriginal language). The bayan are free standing buildings on stilts designed to minimise the environmental impact. Outside on the balcony is a spa bath where you can sit at night-there are screens all around so no mosquitoes or flies get in and there is a gentle running creek below. In each room there are basic features like air conditioning, television (four channels) and a mini bar. The bayans are clean and low key but not lavish or luxurious. There are the signature Daintree Essentials organic products that you can use which are kind and mild on the skin. In fact the water used at the lodge is spring water from the waterfall!
There are aboriginal paintings and an example of a balji or a dilly bag which is a basket that Aboriginal women weave. There is air conditioning too but the weather is a pleasant 28 degrees. Things do get wet here though – obviously it is a rainforest so you do get wet looking hair quite quickly (let’s call it Soul Glow!). In fact when I put a piece of paper on the balcony, within less than half an hour it was damp. So forget your heels and your hair straightener and succumb to nature.
After checking in we take a seat at the table where Linda Burchill, mother to the young NIDA actor Leon Burchill (the first indigenous Australian to have attended and completed the course) teaches us about Aboriginal painting. We’re all given a coloured canvas each and choose from a set of paintbrushes. She shows us how to make the dots from the famous Aboriginal dot paintings – you simply use a skewer! Larger dots are made using the flat end and smaller dots are made using the sharp, pointy end.
She explains that the paintings represent journeys or to tell a story. She also explains that elders teach their young about animals through drawings and that they draw the internal organs inside the animals to teach them. It is important information as some animals such as turtles or dugong have a gallbladder that turns poisonous if it leaks after they die which can kill people.
We have a few hours relaxation time before heading downstairs to the Julaymba restaurant for cocktails and dinner (Julaymba means "the Daintree area from the river to the ocean” in the local Kuku Yalanji dialect). You learn quickly that as this is tropical rainforest, things get wet and iced drinks drip many beads of water but life is nice and relaxed here so it is all just brushed away. We take a seat at a table hungry and ready to try some bushfood.
The damper, served warm is moreish and served with three accompaniments: a bush tomato butter which has an almost light garlic flavour, a macadamia nut and herb dukkah and a macadamia oil. I particularly like the bush tomato butter.
Described as a journey down the Daintree River from the waterfalls high in the hills (red claw yabby) cruising the river (crocodile salad), to the mangroves of the entrance (oysters) to the waters of the Coral Sea (prawns). The four part platter features four of their more interesting dishes including crocodile! I’ve eaten crocodile once before and it reminds me of a rubbery chicken or a type of seafood. Here a smoked crocodile fillet is sliced into half a centimetre pieces and is tossed with black sesame seeds, Vietnamese mint, red onion, hearts of palm, honeydew, chilli and a ginger and mirin dressing. And how did I find the crocodile here? Well it’s similar to a type of fish cake that you can get in Asian supermarkets, lightly chewy and spongy it’s closer to white fish than anything else.
There is also a grilled freshwater yabby split in half on a sweet coconut rice – so sweet that it could almost double as a sticky Asian rice dessert. The yabbies are tossed in a lemon myrtle, pepperberry, pineapple juice, sugar cane syrup and mysterious rainforest liqueur. Then there are my favourite – the oysters with diced watermelon, pickled ginger and lime which are lovely and refreshing. Lastly there is a fabulous gulf tiger prawn salad which is one of their mains. It comes with cubes of locally grown Hawaiian paw paw, tiny little lilly pilly berries (which Cathy tells us is something that grows all over Sydney in random car parks, parks, backyards etc), red onion, mint and coriander with a sweet rosella coulis drizzled on top. The food here we observe features a lot of fruit with protein which is more successfully combined in some dishes than others.
This is an abridged version of the original blog post. To read on click here.