'Yeah, it's miles due north of the hippie belt, mate. No weirdos. Just regular Aussies looking for heaven." This is the fanfare blown for Port Douglas, pitched by a Sydneysider named Norris who owns a home here. "A glorified shed by the Coral Sea." He doesn't warn me about the crocodiles or the snakes. The lethal box jellyfish? Not a mention.
By the time I discover the truth – including the stories about the crabs – I'm feeling pleased with the world in general and Port Douglas in particular. My room at the Mantra Portsea overlooks the sparkling pool reflecting a sky of transparent blue. Pineapple trees and banana palms hug the belt-lands. I half-heartedly splash in the shallows, change into my Elvis shades and loafers and stroll to town like a bargain-basement millionaire in search of his yacht.
There, a huddle of fellow dreamers is shuffling on board the Sailaway IV. Tourists crane from Marina Mirage, their crinkled faces craving a sniff of the champagne action as we settle down on board with fancy flutes of sparkling white, to relax in the sunset while the breeze cracks the flapping sails.
Have you ever noticed that when tourists chill out they spill the beans? Clyde and Myrtle – "Hey, we're from Wollongong, New South Wales" – are so horizontal they're eating canapes off their bellies. "Seventh time here. Perfect weather. Great bars and shopping. Things to do."
"And friendly people," adds Myrtle, burping while popping an olive. "Next visit, we wanna go up the inlet and see some crocs. Never done it." Ah - the crocs. Anything else I ought to know? When they mention the jellyfish I stop trailing my hand in the sea.
I mention none of this to Doug Ryan, a local shaker, who takes me to dinner that night at Zinc Restaurant on Macrossan Street, the long necklace on which Port Douglas hangs most of its bling – its fancy designer shops, bookshops, galleries. Sporting his "office wear" – a stripy polo shirt, shorts and sandals – Doug looks decidedly relaxed. His silver moustache bestows the authority of a man you know you can trust.
"The latest visitor stats show Port Douglas is top of the table for comeback visits," he says, his gaze steady. "This town is infectious." In fact, Come To PD And Get Infected! was a slogan he coined for the tourist board. They didn't get the joke. Clyde and Myrtle are perfect examples of Doug's proposition. I mention the crocs. "Ah, yes, and there's more -"
Thereupon he reminds me that come next morning, I'm hitting the rainforest trail. "I've done it," he says. "It's intense. Called the Bama Way." He narrows his eyes, looking sympathetic, and gives a low whistle. After a pause, he says, in grave tones: "You'll be hunting bush tucker. The guides know where the grubs are. You heard of witchetty grubs? They might cook 'em. But eaten live is the tastier option." Doug smacks his lips. "It'll make a change from rainforest crawlies eating YOU." He wipes his moustache. "Then there's mud crabs. Vicious beasts."
The mud crabs, Doug tells me, burrow deep on the edge of the mangrove swamp. "You must plunge your arm straight down, then grab 'em quick – before they bite. Helluva painful. Female squats on top of the male. If you don't grab her right she'll get annoyed."
I notice that Doug, though he tries hard to hide it, is enjoying himself. "Gotta try it," he says. "Can't wait," I tell him, and swallow the last of my beer with too much swagger. "Fancy dessert?" he asks. But suddenly I don't feel hungry.
Beyond us, Macrossan Street looks festive; the sky pitch black and spread with stars, the heart of the town lit up from within. I walk past window fronts dressed by Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, Gap and Timberland, the mannequins staring dead-eyed across the highway to the activities emporia – the dive shops, bike hire outlets, reef trip operators, a flight centre touting the quick route to the "iconic Great Barrier Reef". "A coral paradise" promises one poster; another "snorkelling heaven".
Yet another poster proclaims a festival come November, to celebrate the Solar Total Eclipse. Port Douglas, it assures me, will go black "lying under the path of totality, as day turns into night and the moon glides completely across the sun".
The street, on either side, is lined with a strip of glossy vegetation, trim yet feral: palm trees, gums and casuarinas. There are no traffic lights. No parking meters. No pressure. No moon above. It feels like a town at ease in its skin. From the downtown pioneer Central Hotel comes a friendly hubbub. "Millionaires and local beach bums come there to mingle on Friday nights," Doug had said. "They play pokies, and sink a few tinnies, chewing the fat for old time's sake. A great tradition that hasn't croaked."
My meet-the-crabs day starts off early, with a pick up by Jorge and Scottie in their 4x4. There are shadowy bodies inside, asleep. "I'm on guitar," says Jorge, jesting. "Scottie's on drums. We're your guides." We all shake hands. "I'm on ear plugs," I yawn, and Scottie turns the muzak down, revs the engine and soon we're zooming up Captain Cook Highway towards the jungle.
On board lie Jay and Lisa "from Englandshire" and Aoife and Shane from Dundalk. We stop to peruse aboriginal art at Janbal gallery outside Mossman. Binna, the owner, lets us try dot-painting. "Tell a story," he exhorts. Binna's paintings feature rainforest plants in thickets of light and shade, showing beaks and claws and shadowy demon-headed amphibians. Where are the witchetty grubs, the crabs?
Hugging the coastline, we drive towards the forest. To the west, the Atherton Tableland rises majestically towards the clouds. "Silky Oaks," says Jorge at last, looking around as we enter the trees. We trail our guides across the contours of the forest for more than an hour. A one-legged bush turkey hip-hops past us. "We cooked the other leg two days ago," jokes Scott. Then Jorge yells, "Stop!" He points gingerly at a jagged plume of motionless vegetation. What's the big deal?
"Behold a stinging tree." He speaks quietly. "Do not touch. If it even scratches you, its thorns inject you with poison. Very painful." He looks around. "Eighty percent of the berries and fruits you see in the rainforest are toxic."
We're now wide awake, big-eyed and cautious. Spiders' webs hang like drapery. Around us the suddenly menacing, alien treescape rises forbidingly: white-apple trees and black palms. "Very hard wood. The aboriginals use it for spears," says Scottie. We pick our way between ferns, and from a clump of tall bamboo a squawking orange-footed scrub fowl suddenly launches itself. Startled, we forget to look for snakes or guard against plants that could shock us with pain and suddenly, silently, simply marvel at where we are. WE are the aliens. Someone's mobile rings, and laughter kicks in, accompanied by the distant, gurgling rush of the Mossman river.
The dry season's heat has made the river negotiably shallow, slow-moving and smooth. "No crocs to worry about," says Jorge, as Shane and Aoife take the plunge. "After lunch [no hint of witchetty grubs] we'll get ourselves out to the mangroves," he adds, "and meet Linc and Brandon Walker."
Linc and Brandon – styled "the Walker brothers", local aboriginals – are detailed to be our hunt guides. But Linc is alone. He has the physique of a heavyweight wrestler, perfectly poised, as is his spear tip. Six more spears stand thrust in the sand by the edge of the ocean where the tide sluices through the mangroves. For practice, we attempt to spear a coconut, proving we're useless. "All right," says Linc in frustration. "Let's hunt crabs."
But instead of wading into the mangrove swamp we head towards deeper water, crossing the sand flats. "Shout if you see them," says Linc, as we splash through swirls of sea grass and fronds of seaweed, watching the spider crabs, a plague of them, scurry away, and the tiny soldier crabs running comically past our toes. The flash of Linc's spear is the first indication of sizeable mud crabs. He holds up his kill. The metal spear has pierced its shell, the bony legs wiggling. "First one down. More to go," he says. "If you see their shadows just thrust hard. And poke the sand – in case they're hiding."
Moments later I spot one lurking, a fuzzy shape, still, on the rippling sea bed. Attempting to steady myself, I take aim and miss by a mile. The crab burrows deep and disappears. Linc spots a fish, spears it casually, throws it back, says it's scarcely worth eating. Ten minutes later he bags a sand crab, smaller, but edible, and Jorge claims his first kill, a modest mud crab the size of a saucer.
For nearly two hours we wade and forage until Linc's bucket is heavy with kill. The mangrove shoreline is now half a mile away. Linc beckons us into a circle. "Let's go back."
It's a well-worn cliche that anything caught and cooked by oneself tastes best of all. It is almost certainly the freshness of the crabs that makes the difference, that makes them so sweet. We suck the shells and afterwards Linc disappears to fetch his didgeridoo, making it holler, drone and yelp to a wild crescendo.
Soon we are clambering into the motor again, Scott on drums, Jorge on fishy-fingered guitar, driving south, a pleasant tiredness seeping through us. As I doze, I imagine taking myself that night to the Central Hotel, to join the jazz of tinnies and glass and the snoozing dogs at the foot of the bar. When I wake with a start, Jorge is grinning. "You were growling," he says. "I'm on ear plugs," says Scott with a laugh. I close my eyes, and picture Port Douglas under its total eclipse of the sun, its skyful of stars, and as Norris had said, in the long ago, with its "regular Aussies looking for heaven".
Qantas Airlines flies from Glasgow to Cairns via Heathrow from £1175 return. Visit www.qantas.com.au.
WHERE TO STAY
Mantra Portsea, Port Douglas has double rooms from £126 per night, including breakfast. See www.mantra.com.au.
WHAT TO DO
Sunset sail with Sailaway, a daily 90-minute cruise. Visit www.sailawayport douglas.com. The Bama Way day tour with Adventure North Australia. Adult £120, children £100. Visit www.adventurenorth australia.com. For information about the Port Douglas Total Solar Eclipse Festival on November 11-13 see www.visitportdouglas daintree.com. For information on holidays in Australia visit www.australia.com.