“Are you sure this is the right place?”
“Positive, gal. Now get out and save some bats.” Our Aboriginal driver, George, gave his deep boom of laughter, a now familiar sound after the long journey north from Cairns into increasingly untamed, crocodile-infested country where, if George's anecdotes were to be trusted, it seemed anything with a pulse was out to get you.
Once the rattle of the battered minibus had faded, my ears tuned into a dense jungle cacophony of birds, insects and frogs screaming at the top of their voices. I wondered how I could still feel a pang of intense loneliness amidst such an abundance of teeming life.
I spied a retro, hand-painted sign by the side of the road. Scrawled in amateur lettering were the words, 'The Bat House', with a slightly dodgy rendition of an upside-down fruit bat next to them. So I was in the right place.
I was here to volunteer for a week at the Australian Tropical Forest Research Centre at Cape Tribulation, North Queensland, which fosters rescued fruit bats on the side. I had been solo travelling for a few months and felt it was time to give something back to the environment, especially given my job as an ecologist back home. So, despite some rather vague email correspondence with the owner who, when I last heard from him two days ago, was still stranded in Bali due to storms, I had nevertheless decided to turn up on the appointed day and attempt to adopt a 'winging it' attitude in true backpacker style.
Cape Tribulation is a tiny settlement teetering on the point where the ancient World Heritage Daintree Rainforest meets the Marine National Park area of white-sand coastline and barrier reef. Verdant forest with ancient ferns, towering hardwoods and rampant vines turns to brooding mangrove swamp and then finally to a fringe of coconut palms that cascades onto the beach, broken up only by fierce signs warning of box jellyfish, crocodiles and sharks in the water. Yet, right now, all I could focus on was the desolate figure that I cut on this long, empty road.
Seeing no alternative, I wandered up a rough path cut through the trees, glimpsing huge goannas shinning up buttressed trunks and enormous golden orb spiders guarding their expansive, yellow webs. At the end of the path I reached a cluster of dilapidated, timber buildings with a sad, un-lived in feel. They seemed deserted, apart from arachnid sentinels. Peering through a dusty window I saw a hoarder's dream of defunct computer parts and engine components. This was not exactly the modern research facility, buzzing with industrious scientists, that I had imagined.
I came across a communal dining area and stared in horror at the germ-fest of a kitchen, just visible beneath a miasma of bloated, black flies. Another building revealed two damp rooms containing sagging zed-beds with cockroaches, spiders and geckos watching from the walls. I guessed I could rule out a good night's sleep whilst I was here. I passed a large cage emanating a pheromone-heavy stench. Intrigued, I approached, and was immediately engulfed in a skull-drilling racket of screeches. Inside, six agitated fruit bats flapped their wings and glared at me with liquid, intelligent eyes. I had a sinking feeling that I had failed some kind of batty appraisal of my rainforest credentials.
Back in the dining area, with tropical heat trickling down my skin, I watched a cane toad hop lethargically towards my foot and pondered whether to flee whilst I could, or wait for someone else to turn up. I was just about ready to set off back down the path to flag down the next vehicle heading south, when a flash of turquoise caught my eye. A huge Ulysses butterfly had alighted on my rucksack and was lazily fanning its wings, centimetres from me. Despite myself, I felt wonder nudging the edges of my mouth upwards. Suddenly the solitariness of the figure I cut, standing in a peaceful clearing in one of the oldest, most ecologically important forests in the world, with wildlife literally at my fingertips and toes, didn't seem such a bad thing. My inner backpacker had rallied, at last.