Thursday, 14 October 2010

Kuranda - Scenic Rail & Skyrail

Struggling to find a smile
Sue and I are exhausted after battling the rain all day and for half of last night leading to a change of venue in our next destination , the Daintree. Spirits are still up but we have been soaked several times today. In the morning, we face a difficult wet pack up and then the hope that the Forrester can get enough traction to pull the trailer up a sodden short sharp hill.

The rain, the rain, the rain.

The rain I spoke of started at 1:00am and varied only in its intensity from pouring to teaming down for the next six hours. I woke at first light to bulging canvas full of water in the outside canopy and got soaked fixing it. I went to the shower and got soaked on the way there, while I was there and on the way back. When it reduced down to misty drizzle, we made it to the car and drove back into Kuranda in more of the heavy stuff.

We spent the morning wandering through the Kuranda village which may have been a quaint little place once but is now totally geared for the tourist dollar. There are designated markets but many which have a shop-face on the main street are little more than markets themselves. Most of them open at 9:30am, just before the first tourists arrive on the Skyrail from Cairns and its clear, it is these tourists who arrive by rail or cable-born gondolas that their businesses exist to serve. There are the T-shirt places - "Your Are Entitled To My Opinion" being my favourite - the Australiana shops, the jewelry (from glass to opal), hippy clothes, Aussie clothes, retro clothes, the cafes, the cafes, the cafes and of course the galleries. My limited tolerance for these things generally keeps me safe from Sue expecting me to enter such places and meant Sue went her way and I went mine after we had had a hearty breakfast during which I caught up with Dad on the phone.

The real action of the day started after lunch at the Kuranda Railway Station, where we boarded what is now the Kuranda Scenic Railway but in 1891, it was the most direct way from Cairns to the Tablelands above. Still run by Queensland Railways using old rolling stock taken from other old services such as the Sunshine Coast Rail, the twelve cars are dragged up and down the range now by two powerful diesels but steam locomotives had the task until the 1960's. The track is an engineering marvel, taking five years to complete the 327 metre ascent, which includes 15 tunnels, 55 bridges and 98 curves and it is National Heritage listed and is also a National Engineering Landmark. Armed with only picks, shovels and dynamite, the 1500 men who built the railway had to endure the heat, the humidity, the rain (even then), torrential waterfalls, deadly creatures and dense jungle to create this link between tableland and coastal plain.

The first of the spectacular views was the Barron Falls, at the head of Barron Gorge which were flowing with maximum force follow a wet winter in the north. Our ten minutes stop was marked with torrential rain but we both managed to jump out and brave the elements for the awesome sight of the falls breaching the head of the gorge and cascading in three distinct parts over a fall of more than 100 metres. Wet but excited, we settled down for the remainder still to come, this highlight coming only 15 minutes into the trip.

Stoney Creek Falls
What followed were amazing views down to Cairns, exquisite rain forest at close range, incredible engineering in the form of bridges and once we had left Barron Gorge, the Stoney Creek Gorge Falls. The bridge here is the longest on the track and was the scene of the official opening. As it was used for the opening, steel gangways had to be provided on either side of the track and a covering put over the bridge in event of rain during the official duties. The Stoney Creek Falls were so loud, that no speeches were made as they would never have been heard. It was a romantic, fun, exciting trip.

After arriving at Freshwater Station, we were greeted by a one armed man called Paul who wanted to know if we had seen Richard Kimble but then invited us to jump on his coach for the ten minute transfer to the Skyrail terminus at Caravonica. Paul also turned out to be our driver, having come to the tourist industry via service in the Australian Army, where he had donated an arm.

We were shepherded into the terminus and the two of us boarded our six seater gondola as the last passengers heading up to Kuranda for the day on the Cairns Skyrail. With very little ado, we were instantly climbing, accompanied by incredible view of Cairns and the coast and the shaking of Sue's knees as she adjusted to the vehicle. Essentially a perspex bubble suspended from high tensile cable, its much like a safer, sealed ski lift. The first two of three pylons really gave Sue a start as the gondola negotiated the rollers with noise and bumping. Before long, it didn't matter as we climbed to Red Hill and our first change of gondola.

We didn't stay at the station, making the transfer swiftly and moving across towards Barron Gorge. Parts of this ride were immersed in so much cloud that we were alone for large sections of time, with our cable ahead and behind disappearing into the clouds. Our isolation was broken every twenty seconds or so by a gondola descending in the opposite direction, with a variety of passengers but eventually, only empty vessels whizzed past. These times in the clouds were quiet eerie.

At the second station, Barron Falls, we jumped off and spent half an hour looking at and photographing the magnificent Barron Falls, now from the opposite side of the gorge as we had from the train earlier in the afternoon. There were full descriptions of the hydro electricity scheme developed here and working continuously since 1932. The similarities to Paronella Park were uncanny, even down to the number of flows coming over the Falls but also in the timing of the development of a hydro electric plant. It appears Mr Paronella was more of a copycat than innovator but brilliant never the less. The original flying fox - a cage with a wooden floor and a wire basket - which transported workers down to the hydro plant in the 1940's, was on display, as where the personnel and goods carriages that were pulled up and lowered down a narrow gauge track attached to the extremely steep slope. Fascinating stuff when you consider the goods were chained in but passengers travelled unrestrained!

The final ten minutes of our journey back to Kuranda included a magnificent crossing of the Barron River. Even thought we lost a lot of the longer views in our trip, it just made us concentrate on the views closer in. What a fabulous experience.

We reviewed our afternoon over a few Guinness' and red wines at the Kuranda pub, went back to our camp site - now being promoted as Water World - where the rain was still the dominant feature and quickly returned to town to one of the two places still open at 7:00pm. All the rest of Kuranda had its roller shutters down and may as well not exist. It was as though we had wandered into Stepford at the wrong time.

The pizzas were home made and delicious and as much as we may have liked to linger and talk with the locals, it wasn't possible because they had returned to their recharging stations and were plugged in readying themselves for the next day. We sloshed off home and mud danced our way from car to tent which was by now, wet outside and in - the humidity making the inside of the tent a damp, clammy environment which would only deteriorate as we slept and added our body heat and exhalations to the mix. With windows shut to keep the rain at bay, we created our own rain inside which would occasionally drop from the ceiling.

Gotta love camping in the tropics!

1 comment:

  1. Until i had read this, I though one of you must have ended up with the bends! great story.


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