There are many places to explore in Queensland, Australia, but not all of them involve swimming, snorkeling, or being anywhere near the ocean. Early one morning, we set out to explore the world’s oldest rainforest and headed about two hours north of Cairns to Cape Tribulation. The foreshadowing was lost on us at that time, but it would become quite evident later in the day. Our goal was to climb to the top of Mt. Sorrow, a peak in the world’s oldest surviving rain forest. We had never heard of this mountain or the Daintree rainforest, but after three straight days of hitting the beach we were ready for something new.
From the minute we set out on the trail, I knew this hike would be different from the ones we had done in Japan. First and foremost, we were bushwalking in the summer, during the wet season. Humid does not even begin to describe the air that day. To compound our personal heat index, we were covered from head to toe despite the soaring temperatures. Jake had done some research and found out that we needed to protect our skin from certain plants and insects. Our pants, leggings, long sleeved shirts, and hats were soaked in well under an hour and we still had five more to go!
The next obstacle was the extreme density of the vegetation. There was only a slight semblance of an actual trail because everything grows so quickly there. Luckily, we started early in the morning on a clear day. We had plenty of light to see the reflective markers nailed to tree trunks about a kilometer apart. There were logs to climb over and scoot under, low-lying palm-like leaves with serrated edges, and thick tree roots erupting from virtually every inch of soil. Vines the size of bullwhips swooped down from the canopy and twisted in and out of our way. Some were smooth and green, while others were covered in masses of thorns. Both varieties could trip an unsuspecting hiker.
I barely said a word to Jake on the way up because I was concentrating so hard on each step. He definitely had it worse, however, because he was our water mule. The recommended amount of water for this expedition is three liters per person. I squeezed a small bottle in my bag, but he had the majority of our supply on his back. All things considered, the adventure was going well despite the challenges. Unfortunately, somewhere near the top, Jake looked down and saw that his lower legs were crawling with leeches. As soon as he pointed it out to me, I felt a dagger of cold panic slice from my throat to my belly. The funny thing is, they were small, soft little things. Another funny thing is sweet old ladies who garden have to deal with these minuscule pests all the time. I was just so taken aback and, when I saw so many of them on me, my heart started to pound. The trouble with leeches is that they suck. Hard. Swatting at them did no good, so we had to grab their disgusting little bodies and pull each one off individually. I would have documented this insanity but I was too busy losing my mind. Thankfully, we still had some bug spray left and doused our calves, ankles, and shoes with the remaining contents of the can. That kept them at bay, but inevitably some would persevere. I kept seeing them crawl into the tiny holes in the mesh overlay of my sneakers and was terrified that they were running amok between my toes. All I could do was charge to the finish line as fast as possible. Poor Jake was dying because he still had all of that water on his back, but I knew that standing still would give the creatures better access to our feet.
At the top, I ran to higher ground, pulled of my kicks and was astonished to see … nothing. I took this to mean that the leeches had met their match in Nike’s marvelously synthetic fabric and were doomed to live out their days wandering in a maze of hi-tech fibers. Sadly, those sneakers did not catch the plane back to Tokyo with me two days later. When Jake joined me, he tore away the bottom of his pants and discovered that the biggest sucker of them all was hanging out under his knee. He remained remarkably poised throughout the entire fiasco even though that stain in the photo above is not red wine. Had he not calmly coaxed me back through the woods (yes, leech territory revisited), I might have set the whole mountain on fire to prevent further encounters with those reprehensible parasites.
P.S. I have since learned that salt and cigarette lighters are the most effective tools for killing leeches in a hurry. Stock your backpack!