North of Port Douglas, just past the sugar cane town of Mossman lies one of the most beautiful tropical rivers. Most visitors turn off earlier, making for the resort town of Port Douglas, the Great Barrier Reef or the magnificent Mossman Gorge with its enormous boulders and ancient rainforest that inspired the movie Avatar. But drive through Mossman, hang a left and you'll discover this short but magnificent waterway loved by locals.
The river, which the local Aboriginal people call Jinkalmu, is one of the shortest and cleanest in the world and starts in the hills behind Mossman. It flows east through a deeply incised valley, through the gorge, part of the Daintree National Park, and onto the coastal plain where the river is crossed by the Captain Cook Highway. Eventually it discharges into Trinity Bay and the Coral Sea between Newell and Cooya Beach.
Margaret Heffernan, whose family operate drift snorkelling tours on this magic stretch of waterway describes the river as "paradise".
"The water is so clear that it looks shallow until you step into it; cool and inviting in the warmth of the tropical air. Small fish dance around your feet not in the slightest bit worried about your movements. Palms and ferns encase the bank and looking up the rainforest trees carry bird nest ferns on their branches," she said.
Juan Walker, a Kuku Yalanji man who owns and operates Walkabout Cultural Adventures, said the river is special to locals. "As kids we floated down the river on rubber tyre tubes, which is heaps of fun. You often see fresh water turtles, eels, heaps of bird life. Occasionally you'll see water snakes or shy platypus."
Because the water comes from the mountains, it's typically icy cold and crystal clear, having being cleaned as it runs through the big boulders found in Mossman Gorge – the algae on the rocks filtering away sediment and bugs. Past the gorge, the water rounds a corner and becomes a river just down from the famed Silky Oaks Lodge; ancient rainforest one side, lush cane fields the other.
Walker said the river is particularly popular in summer as that's when box jellyfish and Irukandji are found in the ocean. He said the river had some well-known swimming spots and others that locals preferred to keep to themselves. "We want people to enjoy the river so if there are people already in one spot we respect their privacy and find another."
One popular spot to take the plunge is Anich's Bridge. Park just before the small bridge and make your way down the embankment covered in a web of gnarly tree roots (thongs or reef shoes advised). As your feet land on the pebbled riverbed, above you stretches an ancient canopy entwined with strangler figs.
From January to March (wet season) the water is particularly fast flowing. "Where it's shallow and rocky the speed of the river picks up," Walker said. He advises not to swim downstream of the Mossman Bridge where the water becomes brackish and the chance of crocodiles likely.
Personally, I love nothing more than floating on my back – the gurgle of the river in my ears – watching butterflies flit and kingfishers swoop. Afterwards I warm myself on the river bank and sip a fresh coconut purchased from the nearby Mossman Markets. A swim here always manages to make everything feel right with the world.
Anich's Bridge is found off Finlayvale Road at Mossman (turn left at Syndicate Road). Be careful not to swim or venture into the river if flooded and only swim upstream of Mossman Bridge. Take heed of crocodile warning signs in the area. Back Country Bliss Adventures run half day tours of the river. See backcountrybliss.com.au