Mission Beach – Make Way for Cassowaries

Somehow,  the  folks  of  Mission  Beach, Australia  have  managed  to  keep  their town off of the tourist radar—quite a feat, considering  they’re  only  an  hour’s  boat ride from the Great Barrier Reef. When you take  the  Mission  Beach  turnoff  from  the Bruce Highway, at first you seem to be in the  middle  of  nowhere.  Dense  tangled vine  forests  almost  hide  the  town  from view until you round the corner to Mission Beach  Proper,  an  appealing  collection  of shops,  restaurants,  and  hotels.  For  kids, though,  the  highlight  of  their  visit  will probably  be  the  chance  to  see  a  cassowary, Australia’s largest land creature.

If Mission Beach weren’t so laid back, the cassowaries  wouldn’t  have  stayed  here. After all, these highly endangered 1.8m tall (6-ft.) birds abandoned areas like the Mabi Forest  inland—a  significant  loss  to  those forests,  as  roaming  cassowaries  disperse an  extraordinary  amount  of  seeds  in  their excrement.  Scientists  reckon  only  about 900  southern  cassowaries  remain  in  the Wet Tropics, but about 100 of these ostrichlike  black  birds  live  in  the  last  patches  of rainforest  around  Mission  Beach,  which  is actually a cluster of four small towns strung along  an  18km  (11-mile)  beach.  It’s  a  surprisingly   diverse   habitat,   with   half   the world’s  remaining  licuala  fan  palms,  six ancient flowering plant families, and 60% of all Australia’s butterflies.

Though they mostly keep to the forests, cassowaries  have  been  known  to  stroll right through town, cruising for the fallen and low hanging fruit that are the staple of their diet. (Being flightless, they can’t forage any higher than that.) The kids will be astonished by these spectacularly bizarrelooking  birds,  with  a  peacock  blue  neck, long  red  wattles,  and  a  stiff  blue  casque that  may  remind  them  of  an  Aztec  chieftain’s   headdress.   Despite   their   stately walk,  however,  they’re  aggressive  creatures with enormous claws. Warn the children never to approach or try to feed one, and  tell  them  that  if  they  do  accidentally disturb a cassowary to back off slowly and hide behind a tree.

Even  in  conservation-minded  Mission Beach, cassowaries have lost 50% of their critical habitat in the last decade. And living around humans isn’t really healthy for them. Between dog attacks, car accidents, and the temptations of unsuitable snacks from foolhardy humans, they’re at a disadvantage.  Still,  Mission  Beach  promotes itself  as  cassowary  capital  of  the  world, and great local efforts have been made to protect   these   spectacular   rare   birds. Check  out  the  wildlife  displays  at  the  C4 Environment   Center   in   town,   then explore  the  cassowary  territory  on  the 8km (5-mile) Licata Fan Palm Trail, which starts  at  a  parking  lot  on  the  Mission Beach-Tully  Road.  There’s  even  a  “follow the cassowary footprints” trail for the kids. Sightings aren’t guaranteed, but if the kids are patient they may well score a glimpse of this exotic flightless bird.