Mission Beach is the collective name for four peaceful hamlets, South Mission, Wongaling Beach, Mission Beach itself and Bingil Bay, strung out along a 14km stretch of sand. The area owes its name to the former Hull River Mission, destroyed by a savage cyclone in 1918. In 2006, Cyclone Larry stripped the rainforest canopy and flattened farms between here and Cairns, wiping out the entire year’s banana crop, and much the same happened again in early 2011 when Cyclone Yasi hit the region with full force. Much of the damage was reparable, but it will be some years before the coastal forest fully recovers.
The forest is home to the largest surviving cassowary population in Australia. Inland between Mission and Wongaling beaches, a 6km walking track weaves through Tam O’Shanter State Forest, a dense maze of muddy creeks, vine thickets and stands of licuala palms (identified by their frilly, saucer-shaped leaves). If you don’t see cassowaries here – sometimes leading their knee-high, striped chicks through the undergrowth – you’d be very unlucky.
Aside from the lure of the beach, Mission’s forests are a reliable place to spot cassowaries, a blue-headed and bone-crested rainforest version of the emu, whose survival is being threatened as their habitat is carved up – estimates suggest that there are only a couple of thousand birds left in tropical Queensland (though they are also found in New Guinea and parts of Indonesia). Many larger trees rely on the cassowary to eat their fruit and distribute their seeds, meaning that the very make-up of the forest hinges on the bird’s presence. Unlike the emu, cassowaries are not at all timid and may attack if they feel threatened: if you see one, remain quiet and keep a safe distance.