I landed in Australia with a list of specific wildlife found only on this continent. I also had a willingness to get as dirty, wet, bruised and tired as it would take to get a glimpse— a glimpse recorded uniquely in my memory, not to be experienced the same by any other human for the rest of time.
At the top of my list was the endangered cassowary. The second largest bird on the planet, the cassowary is included in a group of prehistoric birds called “ratites.” There are only 1,200 left in the wild, lurking deep in the rainforests of Northern Australia. It is rarely seen— even by locals born and raised in the area.
Travellers said that most sightings take place in the ancient Daintree rainforest, so we traveled further North (out of our way) to scratch the creature off my list. Sunrise to sunset, we explored the forest only to leave disappointed (though I did swim with a rare freshwater pipefish in one of the forest ponds, and saw some BIG monitor lizards).
The next day, a woman at the supermarket said we should drive South toward Etty Bay. Sightings were still rare, but a specific family unit of cassowaries had been seen raiding campsites near a beach recently.
Obviously, a few days later, there we were— standing outside of a campsite where the forest meets the beach. Within 30 minutes, I sprinted barefoot toward some movement. A juvenile male was bobbing between some trees, deciding if he should venture onto the beach. He was small— almost five feet tall, with some brown feathers left over from being a chick.
My day was made. He was weary, but did not mind me getting close. The way he walked was straight out of the Jurassic era, leaving large, clawed footprints in the sand.
I followed him toward the campsite, then when he disappeared in the jungle, I went for a walk to look through my pictures. I came across a blue tent, and my jaw hit the grass below. An adult female cassowary (larger than adult males) sat comfortably, eating a watermelon some campers had left unattended. Just sitting, her head was up to my chest. Bright yellow eyes blinked between long, black lashes. You could hear the power of her beak tearing into the rind. Her thick neck transitioned from light powder blue to a deep royal blue, then to red.
After she finished, she stood up. I suddenly remembered all of the documentaries about cassowary attacks. Zookeepers often need shields just to enter enclosures with hand-raised cassowaries. This one was wild.
Her claws were thick and black— built for swift sprinting or disembowelling an opponent, whichever she preferred. She had a fossil-hard horn on her head, raising her height up to my chin.
She walked toward me. I remained calm, though eager. She seemed to appreciate that, as she strolled beside me down the beach toward the jungle. I got really close— closer than I should have. After a few minutes, she straightened her neck, stood up straight and looked me in the eye. Then, as silently as the first one I saw, she disappeared into the foliage.
Maybe I got too close and she was warning me, or maybe she thought I was as abstract as I thought she was. Either way, my number one animal had been seen, and the experience, and photos, will stay with me forever.