Most beautiful mammal? Tailing tree-kangaroos in Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands

Most beautiful mammal? Tailing tree-kangaroos in Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands

Ulysses Butterfly brings us to a stop. The Atherton tablelands are south-west of Cairns. We’re looking for the rare Lumholtz tree kangaroo. But the bright blue that glistens with every wingbeat is too much to ignore.

The butterfly dances in the rainforest; its iridescent azure alternates with the dullness of dead leaves on the underwing. It then flies high as if a string was pulling it. It is gone after one more flash. Let’s get back to the search.

Two species of tree kangaroos live in the Wet Tropics of Far North Queensland. The kangaroo and wallaby are all descended from the same climbing possum ancestor. However, these northern marvels of evolution have returned to the canopy.

Bennett’s Tree-Kangaroos live in the lowland forests of the Daintree region, between Port Douglas & Cooktown. It takes a lot of effort to find it, as you have to slog your way through thick scrub. Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroo is located on the Atherton Tablelands, where it can be seen near coffee and scones.

Start at Curtain Fig National Park near Yungaburra. This tiny national park’s centerpiece is a giant strangler tree that is believed to be 500 years old. The 15-metre-high roots support a trunk that is topped by branches covered in orchids and ferns.

The fig is surrounded by a flat boardwalk that protects the forest and visitors from the stinging trees, which are everywhere sunlight breaks through.

The rainforest is called mabi, after the Ngadjon term for tree-kangaroo. Settlers cleared much of the many forests that once covered the Atherton tablelands. The settlers cleared the forest for timber and then turned it over to dairy herds. This ecosystem is restricted to patches or splinters of land in national parks and private land.

Tourism potential in the rainforest is well known. In the 1920s, tourists were transported by trains from the humid coast to the Tablelands, while taxis and coaches took them up the winding road from Cairns.

The rainforest patches are still the same a century after the original train line. Today, vehicles are air-conditioned and have comfortable suspension.

Birds abound in the Curtain Fig National Park. Pied monarchs, with their black and white feathers and powder blue rings around the eyes, search for insects on tree trunks. A brush turkey is raking through the leaf litter. A wompoo fruit dove is heard somewhere in the forest reciting its name.

We look upwards into the canopy. Birds and butterflies are moving, but there is nothing that looks like the tree kangaroo.

No leaves swaying. No long tail hanging like a vine in the rainforest. No round shape that looks both out of place as well as completely at home.

The park is an ideal place for these marsupials. However, they are not in the park this morning. Breakfast is in town. We have other places to visit.

We drive 15 minutes to our next destination, Yungaburra. After passing through avocado and cattle orchards, we take back roads to the busy dairy city of Malanda. It has a two-story wooden building and a picture theatre which has been showing films since 1929.

North Johnstone River cascades into a swimming pool at the edge of the town. Malanda Falls Conservation Park is a block of rainforest that was saved from being cleared. It is a good place to see tree kangaroos, just like Curtain Fig. The center’s visitors keep a list of sightings.

As we follow the dirt road through the rainforest, we look for claw marks on the bark of trees and furry tails. Now, the river is far below us, with rocks tumbling in its wake. The tuneful whistle of the female whipbird follows the male whipcrack. A miniature rainforest kangaroo called a red-legged Pademelon bound off. Its rear feet stamp out a warning.

The Norwegian explorer Carl Lumholtz described the tree kangaroo he saw in Queensland as “the most beautiful animal” he’d ever seen – much more proportionate than the ungainly kangaroos or wallabies that live on earth.

I would argue that the small pademelon, with its solid back and white-tipped, long tail, which just vanished among the trees, still manages to get along quite well despite the fact that it appears to be of a flimsy size. It worries me that this may be the last marsupial we will see, but it’s just how nature is. You only see what you can see.

Two more options are on my list. Nerada tea plantation in Glen Allyn and Peterson Creek back at Yungaburra. Both are easily accessible via car with well-made hiking tracks.

As we stood in the parking lot, pondering our next step, I glanced at the wall of trees. Just above the beginning of the rainforest trail, there is a commotion.

As we get closer, the tail is indeed dangling, like a vine in a rainforest. A fuzzy face looks down at the curious onlookers below. This tree-dweller has dark eyes that are calm and contemplative, even though its branch is tilting alarmingly.

The tree-roo is large and solid, with a warm grey coat on its back and black fur on the face, feet, and hind legs. The tree-roo is still watching us and reaches behind to scratch its side. It looks like a cross of a wallaby with its round ears, short muzzle, and long feet. Who’s to say? It may not be the prettiest mammal. It is one of nature’s most amazing creatures.

We leave the tree-roo in peace, feeling joyful and emotional. Rare sightings. The Atherton Tablelands is home to a number of Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos, but no one can say for sure how many there are. Even in areas where they have been reported the most, luck often plays a part in finding one.

Malanda Falls Conservation Park receives around 40,000 visitors per year. In the breeding period, when the tree kangaroos become more active and less cautious, between one and two sightings per week are reported at the visitors’ center. Other times, it can be weeks before a sighting is reported.

We then set off for a stroll along Peterson Creek. Another sighting is possible, and there’s a good chance to see a platypus, too.

As we walk past the rambling Federation-era Yungaburra Hotel, which is nearly as large as the Malanda pub, we get another idea.

We park on a road that is lined with hanging baskets filled with pink and white impatiens. Then we duck in. We raise a toast to Lumholtz’s tree kangaroo, who is still hanging on.

How to get there

The best way to get around is by car. Cairns is the closest airport, approximately 70 minutes via Gordonvale along the Gillies Range Road. Kuranda via the Kennedy Highway is about 90 minutes away.

Yungaburra and Malanda offer a wide range of accommodation and coffee shops.

Guides are available for wildlife tours on the Atherton Tablelands as well as in Cairns.

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