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.