QUEENSLAND (Australia) - She cocks her head, flutters her eyelashes and struts towards me.
But at 1.5m tall, with the girth of two humans, her terrifying dagger claws remind me of her reputation as "the world's most dangerous bird". I step back slowly and scramble up my treehouse.
A sighting of the cassowary, a modern-day dinosaur, is rare. To have one show up at your doorstep at breakfast is like meeting a movie star. This is a modern-day Jurassic Park - but more of this big bird later.
In wild North Queensland over a two-week road trip, my animal encounters go beyond a cuddly koala or skippy kangaroo. I ride a horse on the beach near menacing crocodiles, watch a cute duck-billed platypus stealthily attack its prey, and get brushed by a 50kg Napoleon wrasse while diving at the Great Barrier Reef.
In Queensland, the world's oldest rainforest and pristine beaches are launch pads for pure adventure.
I raft down white-knuckle river rapids. I somersault out of a plane and land on a beach. I rekindle my childhood fantasy of staying in glamorous treehouses tucked deep in forests.
This is a vacation with Mother Nature, laced with chance encounters with weird and wonderful creatures, big and small.
Here are some reasons to disconnect from Singapore's city lights and reconnect with starry nights.
1. A mountain table for a picnic
I start my tropical two-week adventures with a happy belly by visiting the fertile region of the Atherton Tablelands, an hour south-west of Cairns.
Formed millions of years ago when angry volcanoes spouted lava and filled the valleys, the 700m plateau - 15 times the size of Singapore - rises amid a patchwork of lush rainforests, crater lakes and tumbling waterfalls.
Blessed with ample rainfall, sunshine and rich volcanic soil, this area is dotted with 2,000 farms.
Sign up for a foodie tour with Brett's Outback Tasting Adventures, which kicks off with breakfast at a Victorian-style heritage teahouse by a lake. My capacity fills up quickly even before the halfway mark of the tour's nine pit stops.
I imagine I am in the English countryside as I savour scones with aromatic Devonshire tea. I also enjoy kangaroo skewers in a platypus park, and greedily ask for seconds at the chocolate farm.
Then I rummage through organic local fruit markets and end with a single-origin caffeine booster from a coffee roastery.
Pro tip: Skip your breakfast, no matter how tempting the hotel's buffet looks. Go empty and hungry.
2. Nature's outdoor shower, swimming holes and rapids
The region is a cauldron of tumbling waterfalls, secret swimming holes and rivers.
With your own set of wheels, do the famous Waterfall Circuit by starting with the serene Ellinjaa Falls, then Zillie Falls and, saving the best for last, Millaa Millaa Falls, which appears in numerous movies and commercials. The trio are Australia's most photographed waterfalls.
The entire circuit, including short round-trip hikes to the falls, is easily completed within three hours. Add an hour or more if you decide to duck under the waterfalls or dip into those tempting swimming holes. Remember: Any place with a pool or water, the children are happy.
Pro tip: Drive to the edge of Millaa Millaa Falls' expansive pool and set up a picnic basket nearby. The kids can even take along their own inflatable flamingos.
The best time for photography is in the early morning sans the crowds. Best to end the day with a treehouse stay in the area.
3. Every kid loves a treehouse - and so do adults
My inner child fantasises about playing in a whimsical house suspended in mid-air, hidden in the forests and surrounded by wildlife. And North Queensland makes my dream come true with its award-winning treehouses.
Canopy Treehouses' luxurious timber houses, which start at A$395 (S$380) a night, come with floor-to-ceiling glass.
Packed with creature comforts - air-conditioning, a full kitchen, washing machine and dryer, TV, a jacuzzi spa bath for two, hammocks and an outdoor barbecue gas grill - each lodge comes with two bedrooms within a massive A-frame ceiling. The resort is surrounded by 40ha - the size of about 75 football fields - of private, ancient rainforest.
An immersive experience with wildlife is guaranteed. During a fleeting one-night stay, I bump into the monstrous cassowary and also spy dozens of wild birds.
I even see the elusive tree kangaroo which most Australians have never seen. Yet, I never spot even one bug in my well-maintained lodge.
Another gem within the Atherton Tablelands is the Mount Quincan Crater Retreat, a serene resort sitting on the rim of a volcano overlooking its crater.
The all-adults getaway's cabins, which start at A$390, nestle among the treetops. Tastefully appointed with a full kitchen, a jacuzzi and fluffy rugs, its living room centrepiece is a rotating fireplace to warm those chilly nights.
My unit comes with an "alfresco" shower - I count stars overhead during my moonlit wash-up.
At 5am, I lumber up to the most stunning sunrise of the entire trip, as the sky morphs from purplish hues to champagne yellow, with a dense fog rolling across the foot of the volcano. Go to mtquincan.com.au
Pro tip: Most boutique resorts are small, with fewer than 10 cabins each. Some resorts require minimum stays - just reach out directly to inquire if they can accommodate a short stay.
4. Republic of dinosaurs
Remember the unsettling scene in the 2018 Jurassic Park movie sequel when a horrifying raptor taps its claws as it hunts for the kids in the kitchen? I wager the directors took inspiration from the cassowary's long murderous nails.
In the BBC's Seven Worlds, One Planet (2019) documentary series, the cassowary is described as one of the most dangerous birds in the world.
Standing tall like a human, the unpredictable bird may kick and slash with its sharp claws. In a single swift kick, its claws can sever an arm or rip open a stomach. Human fatalities have been recorded.
But the moment I see it on the Internet during my pre-trip research, the Big Bird tops my must-see bucket list. The striking bird is a sight to behold with a glossy black plumage crowned by a Mohican-style helmet on its head, drooping red wattles and amber eyes.
It is easy to see why researchers bill this flightless bird as the closest relative to the last dinosaur. There are only 4,000 of these strange but shy birds left in the world, scattered among the forests of North Queensland and New Guinea.
Pro tip: A treehouse stay is a good bet for a cassowary sighting - I am just an arm's length from the Big Bird.
In another encounter at the Mission Beach area, I quietly follow a bold cassowary as it pecks at family picnics along Etty Beach. There are a bunch of resident cassowaries that forage in that popular trailer park.
5. Do a mission impossible stunt
A zippy 1.5-hour drive south-east from the Atherton Tablelands is Mission Beach - 14km of golden sand paradise, punctuated with pockets of laid-back communities. Coconut trees lean at impossible angles towards the sea and locals play fetch with their dogs at sunrise.
Apart from cassowary sightings, the Mission Beach area is the launch pad for some adrenaline-pumping action. A top thriller is the white-water rafting on Tully River's roaring Grade 3 to 4 rapids.
I am assigned to a raft with Taiwanese working-holiday travellers - their dainty looks belie their gusto paddling. At rest points, we jump off boulders - taller than a double-decker bus - into the flowing river and dunk ourselves under invigorating waterfalls.
There is also drama as some participants get thrown off the raft over the cascading rapids. But the safety drills kick in and a watchful helmsman does a quick rescue.
Want to move the thrill meter further? Plunge into the air at 15,000 ft or 4,600m. No matter how many times you have skydived, the queasy feeling always returns as you dangle off the edge of the plane for a few seconds.
My tandem master takes it to another level when he pushes both of us off the plane before I count to two. We do a double somersault - I am thankful I skipped breakfast.
Over the 60-second free fall and the gradual descent, I soak in astounding views of the turquoise sea, the surrounding islands and endless stretches of sandy beaches.
The icing on the cake is a soft landing on the beach with locals pointing their camera-phones at you - I pretend to be an action hero and give a thumbs up.
Pro tip: Time your adventures around good weather. Aim for morning jumps before the clouds build up.
Wear your own sunglasses with a bungee retainer cord - you will look shades cooler than wearing the flimsy plastic goggles provided.
6. $7,000 bag or $5 back-scratcher
From Cairns, the northerly route is marked by beautiful beaches, craggy cliffs and also chic and remote beachside communities such as Port Douglas and Cape Tribulation.
Along the way, I drop by Hartley's Crocodile Adventures to pole-feed massive 3m-long saltwater crocodiles. They pounce up and snap their jaws shut with a stomach-churning thud. You can also take a river cruise for a close-up with half-submerged crocodiles.
The kids get to cuddle a koala or pet a python.
At the gift shop, you can snag a A$5 crocodile-claw back-scratcher or part with A$7,000 for a gleaming crocodile-skin bag.
Eager for an intense eye-level face-off, I drop by the nearby Wildlife Habitat's pool to swim with the crocs. I see my reflection in the croc's eyeballs - quite nerve-racking when it is just a thin acrylic wall that separates us.
Kids will delight in the interactive animal park walk-through, which features more than 100 species of birds, mammals and reptiles.
Pro tip: Along the leisurely coastal drive, stop by hip coffee shops for energy boosters. At the beach, never park your car under a coconut tree unless you want to risk a dented top.
7. The world's oldest rainforest
I push northwards to the Daintree region, tagged as the world's oldest continuously surviving rainforest. At 180 million years old, this ecological bounty is tens of millions of years older than the thick jungles of Borneo or the Amazon.
For an immersive visit, sign up for a walking tour led by a local indigenous guide for insights into the Kuku Yalanji Aborigines' history, culture and local folklore.
Juan, the guide for my tour, spears a mud crab amid the mangrove swamp and whips up a delicious coconut curry crab dish by the beach for us.
I suggest that he throw in some eggs into the curry the next time - a spin on Singapore's chilli crab - and he promises he will.
Rounding off my treehouse experiences, I stay at the Daintree Ecolodge - a wilderness boutique resort with 15 eco-friendly treehouses scattered among the canopy of the rainforest. Its spa comes with a refreshing swimming pool.
In the evenings, guests dine at its outstanding Julaymba Restaurant which overlooks a lagoon, framed by the mythical forest. A truly romantic getaway, but do not forget the bug spray.
Pro tip: Sign up for half-day tours if available, as a full-day tour is not vacation time well spent. If you are booked into a nice resort, you should be enjoying your stay within the surroundings, so it is not just a place to spend the night.
8. The end of the world
Pushing further north for another 1.5 hours (or 2.5 hours from Cairns), I know I have arrived at the edge of civilisation when only a car ferry can take me across a crocodile-infested river.
I lower the window, inhale the fresh earthy air and drive deep into the lush rainforests for kilometres without another human in sight.
As the road winds through the forests, I hear the waves crash against the dramatic drop-offs. The phone signal starts to drop off.
And when the asphalt road turns to gravel and comes to an abrupt end, I know it is the end of my northern journey, with a last pit stop at the wildly remote Cape Tribulation.
Cape Tribulation lives up to the area's slogan - where the forest meets the reef - and offers the shortest getaway to the Great Barrier Reef.
In just 25 minutes, I am whisked to the Mackay and Undine Reefs, part of the world's largest reef system that is visible even from outer space.
There, we frolic in the waters with turtles and work on our tan on a powdery sand cay.
Back on shore, as I walk along the pristine but strangely deserted beach, a concerned local yells: "Stay away from the water."
This is Crocodile Country.
An exhilarating horse ride the next day confirms this - I see crocodiles lying in wait, still as logs, by the edge of the river bank that meets the sea. These predators sneak up to the water's edge to ambush their prey with their jaws of death.
But the guides expertly spot the crocs for visitors during the trek.
Later, at the rustic Cape Trib Beach House, I dip into the saltwater swimming pool in the middle of the forest.
After an appetising dinner, I meander through the forest to the moonlit beach while keeping a watchful eye for the crocs that inhabit the neighbourhood.
Pro tip: Slip on a pair of thin, smooth rain pants to minimise any horsehair being stuck to the clothes or socks.
9. Chill vibes of Cairns
The laid-back tropical city of Cairns is where most tourists arrive and it is also the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.
Day trippers take a 1.5-hour catamaran ride to the reefs where the larger operators anchor pontoons to the seabed. Reef Magic, for example, operates a brand-new high-tech pontoon - the size of 11 four-room Housing Board flats.
Snorkelling, scuba diving and even sea helmet adventures are offered, with a buffet lunch in between.
Some 20 years have whizzed by since I last dived at the Great Barrier Reef and I gladly observe that the reefs have remained relatively healthy.
The marine life is decent, with giant clams the size of van tyres. And unforgettably, a friendly Napoleon wrasse swims up and brushes against my cheek.
Topside, Cairns is worth a few days to bookend the adventures of North Queensland. Its vibrant boardwalk is a popular trail with endless rows of food and beverage temptations.
Aussie urban planners get top marks for providing a saltwater swimming public pool with angelfish sculptures spouting water to make up for the muddy harbour beachfront.
I stay at the sophisticated Crystalbrook Riley (rates for rooms start at $400) and the funky Crystalbrook Flynn (from $314), both beachfront properties smack in the city centre. The properties emphasise sustainability, doing away with all single-use plastics.
The chip-embedded wooden keys are a cool statement about recyclables.
The award-winning CC's Bar & Grill boasts premium cuts from its own farm, with top-notch aged beef. I will return for its slow braised beef brisket.
Pro tip: Explore beyond the waterfront tourist traps. Focus on local produce and you can get white-linen dining with quality fare at half of Singapore's prices.
Adventure awaits: 5 travel tips
North Queensland is an adventure land replete with nature and wildlife. It offers a pandemic detox and a jolt of eco-consciousness. And all this at great value.
Best of all, you never know who is going to show up at breakfast.
1. No wheels, no go
When a country is a continent, a car is a must even if you explore a tiny fraction of it. Tropical North Queensland, where I spend two weeks whizzing through selected attractions, is 523 times the size of Singapore.
Car rentals are not cheap - about A$150 a day for a sport utility vehicle, which is recommended if you are travelling to remote beach areas.
Be mindful that many car-rental companies provide limited free mileage, so if you want a Mad Max adventure of extreme distances, there will be extra costs.
2. Open jaw flights/multi-city itineraries
You can fly into Cairns and exit via Brisbane (or any other Australian city) and vice versa. This is considered a return ticket, but you need to use the same carrier. That way, you can explore more cities if time is on your side.
Singapore Airlines and its subsidiary Scoot currently fly to six cities in Australia, with five flights a week to Cairns and multiple flights daily to Brisbane.
3. Good value all round
A four-star stay in a chic downtown Cairns hotel can be snagged from A$270 - fantastic value compared with a similar-grade property in Singapore which would cost around $500 a night.
And one wonderful Australian way of life: There is no tipping culture, unlike in the United States. Hotel room rates are also not inflated by a service charge - you get what you pay for.
I left a tip for the housekeeper, clearly marked under the TV remote and she returned the cash neatly folded onto the desk. But I slipped my gratuities into the tandem master's pocket after my skydive jump - he gave me an appreciative wink. Then again, he is Canadian.
4. Mobile access: Be prepared to be cut off from the world
North Queensland is massive but has a meagre population of some 200,000 - the size of Singapore's typical Housing Board town, so you get easily off grid over the vast area.
Telecommunication signals are spotty and many secluded hotels run on generator sets, some with non-existent Wi-Fi signals. Telstra and Optus give much better signals in remote areas, than Vodafone.
Do not try to pick up a SIM card at the supermarket and try to register yourself - it is almost impossible for foreigners. You need to drop by the network operators' store to register, but be prepared for long queues. I spend many frustrating hours trying to get a new SIM card. Looking for a cassowary may be an easier bet.
5. Australia travel requirements
Singaporeans must apply for a visa online before travelling to Australia. I got my approval within minutes, but it may take longer for others - so make sure you apply in advance.
Thankfully, Australia has done away with its cumbersome Digital Passenger Declaration since July 6. It was an IT obstacle course for me then.
Covid-19 tests and vaccination status declarations are no longer required. Go to this website.
- John Tan enjoys the open-heart culture of the Australians. His road trip in Australia was his 22nd international border crossing over the past nine months.
- The writer was hosted by Tourism and Events Queensland.
- On The Road is a new series on the freedom of road and rail journeys amid the resurgence of international travel.