Encounters of the Cassowary Kind

The strange and the beautiful 

There’s nothing like travelling in strange lands to make you feel like a stranger. Out of familiar environs, few of the accustomed habits, norms, rules and even languages apply. While not a foreign tongue (although sometimes the accent is so broad it is almost unintelligible), my adventures in far north Queensland have had some of this. 

This has been especially the case when exploring the beaches and rivers. With “Achtung” signs and pictures of long snapping jaws at every creek crossing, my queries about swimming north of Cairns were met with a range of different responses from ‘she’ll be right’ to ‘don’t risk it’. My one venture into the surf was a brief roll in the clear shallows, with the underlying anxiety of being prey. 

Bushwalking has been a similar step into unknowns, my strangeness emphasised by the unidentified tropical birdcalls. The flora as well refuses to grant me my usual cues of ecosystem types indicating water and altitude and rainfall. Even if I wanted to go off track, the dense wait-a-while vine (calamus australis) makes it impossible.

As it so often happens, it was during a moment of complacency that I was taken by surprise. Chatting away to my bushwalking buddy, my sentence was replaced by a loud gasp when an animal straight out of the Mesozoic era walked directly out onto the path.

Emu like but with a peacock blue neck and a horn-like spongy crest on its head, I knew at once it was the elusive cassowary.

My first thought was a flashback to the story of my friends who were in the Daintree when three cassowary chicks wandered out in front of them. Their excitement turned to horror when the alarmed parent went into protective overdrive, turning to chase them down the trail with their notorious three-toed clawed feet, known to tear apart the occasional meddling human (or dog).

The cassowary and I stared into each other’s eyes from mere metres away. Neither seeing any chicks nor sensing any intention to harm, I relaxed enough to take in the fullness of presence of this wild creature. 

A national parks sign about cassowaries earlier that day informed me of their plight. The southern cassowary is the third largest living bird, smaller only than the ostrich and emu. Found in southern New Guinea, northeastern Australia, and the Aru Islands, they are a ninja of the forest, with the ability to run at up to 50 kilometres an hour through the dense forest, jump up to 1.5 metres and ford wide rivers. Cassowaries are vital for seed dispersal in the rainforest, with over 150 rainforest plants relying on them for survival.

 Scientists believe only 1200 - 1500 cassowaries survive in the wild in Australia, comparable with the number of giant pandas in China. The wary cass is the first to break our gaze, and is soon a mere tail feather swish amongst the towering rainforest.