It was a family holiday I was approaching with apprehension; a journey into "deep northern Queensland", and into the land of political mavericks. It would also be a chance to see the Great Barrier Reef in a state vaguely resembling the colourful underwater wonderland that makes it one of the natural wonders of the world.
Before our snorkelling trip, we are keen to explore Cape York a little, and in particular the Daintree Rainforest because my partner, Vanessa, has a particular interest in epiphytic plants, vines and fungi.
After the obligatory trip to a crocodile park for a bit of shock and awe for the kids, we set off up the Captain Cook Highway through the valley of cane fields, keeping a keen eye open to run down any cane toads that crossed our path.
At Mossman we head inland through the tropical savannah country and on to Cooktown. The kids quickly discover the water park and the weather improves after a few showery days. Aboriginal kids are fishing off the wharf in the Endeavour river and life seems suitably laid back.
Keen to discover something of the indigenous culture of Cooktown we drop into the office of Guurrbi Tours in the main street. Local Nugal-Warra elder and storyteller Willie Gordon wins us over with his natural charm and we sign up for a trip to Gordon's country.
Gordon is on a mission to bring people together and share his culture. As we walk up over a stunning escarpment he tells the story of the little and big sister rock formations in our distant view, and then of the Bora ground, where his people performed ceremony. Along the way he shares the stories and beauty of his culture with humour and grace, and encourages us to embrace it as our culture as well. Periodically he stops and listens, sensing movement in the landscape. We learn about plants to eat, plants to wash and sterilise with, and how to lure and catch lizards.
We arrive at the women's place, a birthing place in the sanctuary of a rocky outcrop. As we enter, Gordon points to a rock formation with the appearance of a python's head, explaining that it's the guardian of this place. He sits us down in front of ancient rock art that tells its story. There are images of women with legs parted and upside-down men.
"The men are inverted" he says, "because in this women's place, men have no knowledge of how to help a woman in the potentially dangerous birthing process.
"That was the work of a matriarch, or clan mentor, who would spend months in this place with the expectant mother, taking her through the stages of child birth."
Gordon then invites our daughter Ruby to join him under the paintings, to tell her birthing story.
"Where were you born, Ruby?" he asks. "On the couch," is her reply. (Ruby was born via planned home-birth.) A mildly surprised Gordon continues. "Then you were born in Australia, so your story is part of the story of this land. It's the same story as another Ruby, from my family. Our Ruby was of Chinese descent, but she was born on this country, so this land is her story, too," he says, pointing to a hand print on the rock wall. "That's her hand print and her story is part of the Australian landscape, just as your story is."
From Cooktown we head back down Cape York Peninsula for the Daintree Rainforest. We cross the Daintree River by ferry and are officially off grid, amid the World Heritage-listed wet tropics.
It's a geomorphic landscape; a living record of the evolutionary processes from the time of the great Gondwana continent to today. It is the oldest rainforest on the planet, and contains the unique relics of the flora and fauna that were found throughout Gondwana before the super-continent split.
We wind our way around the coast to Cape Tribulation and check into the Daintree Jungle Treehouse. It's an open-air guest house among the treetops, and it provides a chance to be up close and personal with the sights, sounds and smells of the jungle. It is hugely relaxing and intimate. At night we hear the blood-curdling call of the bush stone curlew bird for the first time slightly scary.
The kids, with a little distance between themselves and the iPad, have rediscovered their sense of childhood wonderment in the deep green jungle. They climb the lattice trunks of the strangler fig trees, chase birdwing butterflies and cool off in the mountain stream, while Vanessa delights in the many varieties of epiphytic ferns and orchids that inhabit the treetops.
Our holiday so far has been incident free, but the following morning we discover the car battery is flat. We can't quite figure out how it happened, but after a call to the rental company we soon have the local RACQ bloke on the job. Bob Perry is a big fella, a no-nonsense type with little time for city folk and their First World concerns. He quickly has us back on the road but with some advice: the battery is probably stuffed and we'd be wise to get it checked in Mossman. He also suggests we swing by his workshop to pick up a couple of ferry passes, to save us the cost of crossing the Daintree River.
We take the advice. When we arrive, Perry appears through a maze of car parts and workshop equipment and greets me in front of his collection of electoral placards which are hanging on the wall. All the political mavericks are there: Katter's mob, Clive Palmer and Pauline Hanson, from her first incarnation in parliament. And as I'm thinking, OK, this is the moment that is going to reinforce my apprehension about the "deep north", Perry says "come check out my generator system".
He takes me out the back and it seems there's a slightly greener shade of Perry, as he proudly shows me the machines of his off-grid existence. A system for cleaning and refining cooking oil to fuel his generator, a back-up battery system of nickel ion batteries that last forever. He explains they are a World War II technology, and that the patents were bought up by a battery manufacturer and buried to protect the business model. He also recycles lead batteries to make fishing sinkers.
On the day of our snorkelling trip to the inner reef, our guide, Brooke, is quick to address the elephant in the room. She says there are real problems in terms of the health of the reef, that we often see misleading, colour-enhanced images of the reef, and that the coral, like the rainforest, is in a constant state of growth and decay. We are then all encouraged to look excited while she takes a group photo for posterity.
Arriving at Mackay Reef, Brooke explains where we should snorkel to see the best of the reef, and before long we are swimming with turtles, and all manner of colourful reef fish and coral. But there are also great swaths of brown and bleached reef and staghorn coral decaying on the sea bed.
I put this to Brooke on our return trip to Cape Tribulation.
She says that in the three years she has been working on tour boats she has seen a decline in the health of the coral and recalls a snorkelling trip of a few years ago when the water was 32 degrees and the coral was in a distressed state, with a vivid neon glow. "It all just felt very wrong". But, she adds , the reef is 8000 years old and she believes it will survive for many years more, albeit in a different state.
Justin McManus travelled at his own expense
Daintree Jungle Treehouse, from $189 a night, daintreejunglehouse.com.au
Ocean Safari tours cost from $149 an adult and $97 a child. See oceansafari.com.au