DOWN UNDER IN KURANDA
I’m fanning myself with a newspaper while sitting on a platform bench at Freshwater Station, a small railway junction, a short distance away from Cairns in Queensland. The 35-degree temperature and humidity isn’t relieved by a breeze, and the adjoining restaurant behind me is doing a roaring business in ice-cream and iced lemonade sales. Like the crowds of Japanese tourists milling around the station, I’m eager to board the small train which will chug me uphill through the Barron River Valley to the little town of Kuranda.
According to the displays in the small museum adjacent to the station, the discovery of gold was the impetus for the development of this railway that was completed in 1891. It was no mean feat as the crew had to clear the way using their bare hands, hand tools and sheer determination to carve through 15 tunnels and 98 sharp curves along the rocky terrain and steep inclines. Apart from the hazardous nature of the work, mishandled explosives, snake bites, brawls, accidents and the unhealthy jungle swamp environment brought death and disease in their wake and an estimated 32 men died in the process of construction.
The engine chuffs onto the platform. My carriage is wood paneled with comfortably upholstered benches, but oddly enough there are no ceiling or wall fans to stir the air. Unless we are on the move with a current of wind circulating through the open windows, it will be stiflingly hot.
The train jolts into life right on time, and we climb 323 metres during our 21.7 kilometre journey. The first part of the trip takes us through dense tropical rainforest foliage and several trestle bridges. An excitable woman near me exclaims in wonder as she cranes out of the window at sheer drops off the side of the track, and at the sight of the train turning caterpillar-like along high trestle bridges.
Panoramic views of the towns far below in the valley flash by, the houses like toy blocks spilling across the plains. “Look, look!” my companion urges, pointing out a couple of dramatic waterfalls to me. One is like a broad chiffon scarf tossed over the rocky hillside; the other a thin white pencil streak against dark cliffs.
Kuranda is a quaint little town. It is a gentle uphill five minute walk from the station to the main shopping area, with a flag-stoned sidewalk winding under the avenue’s shady trees. I have time before the next stage of my journey, to dawdle by stalls selling local hand made soap, perfumery, jewelry, summer cotton dresses and inexpensive souvenirs. The sunny morning is filled with the sound of bird calls and the amiable chatter of visitors.
Along with a group of tourists, I embark on the next stage of my trip – a ride through the jungle on an amphibious Army Duck. It takes off, lumbering and lurching drunkenly over the undulating forest pathways, creaking and groaning down the slopes and grunting as it maneuvers its awkward ascent of hillocks.
The jungle growth presses close to the sides and the smell of vegetation and damp earth, thick and fetid, permeates everything. Our very knowledgeable commentator/driver pauses to point out rare plants and trees that are indigenous to Queensland, and he also shows us a poisonous plant with broad leaves which when touched even lightly causes intense pain that can endure for a year or more. Nobody volunteers to put this information to the test.
Back in Karunda town, I lunch at a modest restaurant with chairs and tables set out on a verandah. The owner behind the bar is a craggy type who looks a bit like Anthony Quinn. His wife, a comfortable looking middle-aged woman, smiles a welcome while busily frying my Thai noodles, shrimp and vegetable curry. It is a delicious meal, and I’m treated like royalty!
The final leg of this Karunda trip turns out to be the biggest thrill of all.
I climb aboard a green Skyrail cabin as it swings into place on a turnstile. I’m alone in the glass walled car and as it takes off, the ground falls away and the car settles itself with a little hiccup along the steel rail. A vertiginous small drop and then a sharp rise above the dense jungle with trees looking like clumps of broccoli heads, and the distant horizon a streak of bright blue sky. Above me pillows of clouds throw drifting shadows across the landscape. The steel bands of cable in front of me swoop up and over hills and down into valleys, and I am filled with a sense of childlike exhilaration.
Photos 19 View from my Skyrail Cabin
There are two stops along the way – Red Peak and Barron Falls where I get out to stretch my legs and stroll the elevated boardwalks. The entire journey covers 7.5 kilometres and the last fifteen minutes of the ninety minute ride, brings me over a panorama of flat fields, houses and cars like small crawling bugs moving along threads of highways.
My bus is waiting at the terminal, and I’m back down to earth both figuratively and literally, as we head into Cairns and the Sheridan hotel – my home away from home.
IF YOU GO:
Where to stay:
The Sheridan Hotel in Cairns has comfortable well appointed rooms and the service is friendly and efficient. http://cairnssheridan.com.au/
Australia Package Tours: Contact Discover Australia http://www.discoveraustralia.com.au/holiday-packages/cairns-all-inclusive-mp58.html
Kuranda Scenic Railway: For more information on timetables and costs, see http://www.ksr.com.au/Pages/Default.aspx
PHOTOS by Margret Deefholts unless otherwise indicated.
1. Starting point: Freshwater Junction, Kuranda Scenic Railway
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