Ken Boddie en Café beBee Ambassador • beBee 8/8/2018 · 5 min de lectura · 2,7K

Rainforest, Railway and Skyrail (Recollections of Far North Queensland)

Rainforest, Railway and Skyrail (Recollections of Far North Queensland)

The 'rellies' from the Netherlands had come to visit and a trip to Far North Queensland was organised (requiring a mere two and a half hour flight north from our home in Brisbane).  Where else to introduce them to the Tropics of Oz (with its stunning flora and fauna) than in Cairns, where the rainforest meets the reef.

They'd tripped around some of the cities of our Land Down Under on previous visits, and so had cuddled a koala, waved at a wallaby, and winked at a wombat, so this time I wanted to give them an overview of our tropical rainforest, with its tall varied canopy of vine decorated skyscraper trees, many supporting epiphyte lodgers way up high, such as basket ferns and elk horn or stag horn ferns, and many overrun by figs which send their roots down to the ground and often fuse together to create a curtain of massive proportions.


Being a regular visitor to FNQ on work related trips, I knew that the rainforest could be explored on foot, along many trails and, more accessibly, via boardwalks, forest walks and botanical gardens, but the best way to view the canopy was either via the Kuranda Scenic Railway (which winds its way up from the coastal plain north of Cairns, to the village of Kuranda on the edge of the Atherton Tablelands), or via the Skyrail (a unique cableway of gondola cabins running from Kuranda, near the railway station, down to near Smithfield, another northern Cairns suburb). 

As you can see from the map below, I had a bit of planning to do, as the lower stations of both railway and Skyrail are a few kilometres apart.  A couple of phone calls later, however, and we were all set to join a party of fellow travellers (courtesy of one of the local tour companies) to take us from the parking spot for our hire car at the Skyrail bottom station near Smithfield, across to Freshwater Station, near our Airbnb property rental in Redlynch.  The same arrangement booked our train journey up to Kuranda, and our return trip on the Skyrail back down to our awaiting car ..... easy peasy! 


And so, after the initial drive and coach transfer, our party of five intrepid thrill seekers stood, in anticipation, on the platform of Freshwater Station, located where outer Cairns suburbia encroaches upon the sugarcane fields of the flat coastal plain.  



Then it was "all aboard" as the whistle blew and we quickly found our carriage and seats, before being shunted off at a gentle pace to wind our way up this historic railway, built some 127 years ago.  The diesel powered loco followed the historic ascending winding track to take us 328 m up the Macalister Range, through 15 tunnels and across 37 bridges, a near two hour trip in all.

 

It was like sitting in a time capsule with impressive fully restored wood work and red leather seats.  The carriages displayed a series of historical photos above us which, combined with a pre-recorded narrative, alerted us to the history of construction, including how excavation was largely carried out using hand tools (although the tunnel excavations were assisted by explosives) and informed us that 32 men were killed in various accidents during the 5 year long construction period. The photo below (sourced from the Cairns Post) depicts a gang of workers at one of the many tunnel portals.


The route passed across several waterfalls, including where the Barron River drops from the upper plateau lands to the steep and incised Barron Gorge below.  We were visiting in the 'dry season' and so the falls were not as spectacular as they can be in the 'wet season', but the scenery was impressive nonetheless. 


The above aerial view (sourced from Australia Travel) depicts the largest and most picturesque of the bridges, this being across Stoney Creek.  Many years ago, I was engaged in quality control assessment of some of the geotechnical remedial works being undertaken on rock outcropping high above the railway at this location, and the combination of scenic beauty and impressive engineering, spiced with the danger (and my fear) of the ascent and descent, across rocky ledges with fixed ropes, was brought starkly back to mind as I looked upwards from the relative safety of the train carriage. Our passage slowed across Stoney Creek Bridge for long enough to enable our trigger fingers to snap away with relish.




Then, all too soon, we were at our destination, Kuranda Station, beautifully set at the edge of the village, with the Barron River on one side and remnant rainforest on the other, and with the platforms carefully decorated with a range of tropical plants and shrubs. 



After lazily wandering through the various attractions of Kuranda, including the cafes, restaurants, tourist shops, specialist collections of butterflies and birds, and, of course, the famous Kuranda artisan markets, and with our appetites satisfied and thirsts quenched, it was time to board our gondola for the 7.5 km tree-top descent, courtesy of Skyrail, back down to the coast. 

But first, let's take a look at the construction of the Skyrail towers and stations and see how this unique facility was built with minimal disruption to rainforest flora and fauna.  I think you'll find the video below fascinating.



Now let's hammer home some of the facts about this paradoxically enviro-friendly construction process as follows:

  • Feasibility studies and an environmental impact study, plus the consultation and approval processes, took seven years from 1987 to 1994.
  • Construction started in June 1994 and Skyrail was open to the public on 31 August 1995, a remarkably short programme (some 15 months) given the construction details and imposed limitations.
  • The 7.5 km long cableway has 32 towers, with the highest being 40.5 m above ground level (to enable clearance above the giant rainforest canopy).
  • Each tower construction site was limited to 10 m by 10 m (30 ft by 30 ft) in area, just over 1/3 the size of a tennis court, or about the same size as one of the White House 'dunnies'.  This resulted in excavation being necessarily achieved with hand tools, but with some larger/heavier equipment and skipped concrete being brought in by helicopter.
  • The tower sites were reportedly selected to coincide with natural gaps in the canopy.  Such gaps can occur due to collapse of the host tree under the weight of fig epiphytes (or parasites if you prefer) or more simply as a consequence of lightning strikes.
  • The published literature (and the above video) states that the workers had to walk in daily to most of the tower sites, travelling up to one hour each way carrying their tools and equipment.  Funnily enough there is no reference to the undoubted increase in safety boot sales and/or sole repairs over the 15 months construction period.
  • The steel tower frames were fabricated off site and also flown in sections into each tower site by Russian Kamov helicopters, then bolted together on site.
  • The current cableway features a total of 114 gondolas and can carry up to 700 people per hour.  Although at peak periods this may seem busier than "a termite in a sawmill", visitors come to this special rainforest attraction by the busload.  Furthermore, Cairns hosts a popular cruise ship terminal, and Skyrail plus the Kuranda Scenic Railway is a popular onshore activity, once they've regained their 'land legs', no doubt. 
As we stepped aboard our gondola for the trip down to the Baron Gorge Station, we experienced a bird's eye view of Kuranda and the Baron River, prior to almost fusing with the upper rainforest canopy and its predominantly evergreen patchwork quilt of lush tree-top variants.



Although I've been on the Skyrail quite a few times before, I never tire of rediscovering this strange feeling of being atop these monstrous trees, as if I could reach out and touch the leaves, ferns and occasional flowers.



After a brief stopover at the Barron Falls Station, to reacquaint ourselves with where the river (still 'dry season' remember?) tumbles down its dramatically rocky descent into the gorge below (but this time from the other side, directly opposite the Kuranda Scenic Railway Barron Gorge Station), we climbed into another gondola to drift away again on our mystical magic carpet ride. I pointed out clusters of green ant nests to our overseas visitors, characterised by balls of leaves drawn together by these tropical and fastidious insects. This observation afforded me the opportunity to narrate how Aboriginal people historically ate the white larvae found inside the leafy nests, as part of their culture of 'bush tucker'. It reportedly has a lemon taste, although I've yet to try this myself. The ants and larvae were seemingly also "pounded and mixed with water to produce a lime flavoured drink to relieve colds, headaches and sore throats". Makes you wonder if the drug companies have tried to make a buck out of these green ants as yet.

Another stop, this time at the second station on our descent, being Red Peak, afforded us the opportunity to take a short board walk tour through the rainforest at ground level, pausing to read the occasional informative sign and looking in awe upwards to the canopy above us. 



Before climbing aboard again for our final descent to the bottom station, I couldn't resist taking a shot of this model of the fast becoming rare cassowary and his chicks. Yes, the male rears the young, as the female abandons the nest after laying her eggs.


These big birds (typically 1.5 m or 5 ft tall) are hard to spot or encounter in the wild, due to their shy reclusive nature.  Perhaps not a bad thing for the hapless tourist bush wanderer, as, if the cassowary is cornered with his chicks, his arsenal includes head-butts with that bony helmet (or casque), pecking with that seriously pointy beak, and downwards kicks with his 'razor-sharp' claws. Best rather satisfy your curiosity with a visit to one of the wild-life sanctuaries in Queensland, where you may see the cassowary in a near natural environment, safely behind a tourist-proof barrier.



Then, all too soon, the bottom station appeared below us out of the trees and, before we knew it, we were recalling the day's fascinating experiences over a cup of espresso next to the obligatory tourist shop, prior to picking up the car and heading back to our hire home to plan the next day's thrilling activities. 

I trust, if you're ever in Queensland, that you'll consider putting Cairns on your agenda and allocate a day for the round trip to Kuranda via the Kuranda Scenic Railway and the Skyrail.  Just remember to .....  

Plan ahead and use your brain, 
KSR means take the train, 
You'll be set to shake the blues, 
When you see those stunning views.
Tunnels here, bridges there,  
Fascinating thoroughfare.

Later soar atop the trees, 
Via cablecar, with ease, 
See the forest canopy, 
Soon you'll be a devotee, 
Tree ferns here, creepers there, 
Nothing else can quite compare.

This is no false propaganda, 
Come and see what's in Kuranda.
 
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Websites 

If you would like to read more about this fascinating environment and these unique and historic engineering constructions, try these website links:
Building the Kuranda Railway  
Kuranda Scenic Railway  
Skyrail Rainforest Cableway  
Cableway Facts  
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Photographs

The photos in this post were all triggered by my own bony finger, except for the historic tunnel portal view (accredited to the State Library of Queensland) and the aerial shot of the train crossing Stoney Creek (accredited to Australia Travel).
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When not researching the weird or the wonderful, the comical or the cultured, the sinful or the serious, I chase my creative side, the results of which can be seen as selected photographs of my travels on my website at:

http://ken-boddie.squarespace.com

The author of the above, Ken Boddie, besides being a sometime poet and occasional writer, is an enthusiastic photographer, rarely leisure-travelling without his Canon, and loves to interact with other like-minded people with diverse interests.

Ken's three day work week (part time commitment) as a consulting engineer allows him to follow his photography interests, and to plan trips to an ever increasing list of countries and places of scenic beauty and cultural diversity.


Ken Boddie 20/8/2018 · #40

#39 Nice to see you back in the beBee comments chair, Ms Fraser (@Lisa Gallagher), and thanks for the thumbs up. Skyrail and the Kuranda Scenic Railway certainly are 'awesome', Lisa, but as I keep telling you, Australia is 'awesome'! 😁
Time for a visit? 🤗

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Lisa Gallagher 20/8/2018 · #39

This was awesome to read, the photos were mesmerizing, and the sky rail looks awesome. I loved the car on the train, sure did take one back in time @Ken Boddie. What a unique experience/trip!

+1 +1
Ken Boddie 10/8/2018 · #38

#37 There are many visiting drivers, @Paul Walters, who appear unaware of the coach deal between Skyrail, Smithfield and KSR, Freshwater, and hence either go up and back to Kuranda via the railway alone or via the Skyrail alone. Then there are those who drive to Kuranda and miss the magic of both the KSR and Skyrail. I hope you add both to your bucket list.

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Paul Walters 10/8/2018 · #37

@Ken Boddie . ow that I am back on Bali I should write more after 4 months on the road in Europe and North Africa. Great piece and although I have been to Cairns many times I have yet to do the train or the Skyrail...a must do...Thank you

+1 +1
Phil Friedman 10/8/2018 · #36

@Federico 🐝 Álvarez San Martín, the point is not what I can use. I know what the original posts look like because I created rhem. The point is what happens when someone with an iPhone follows one of my links from elsewhere off-site. Cheers!

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#32 At the moment you can use iPhone with the mobile browser. Sorry for the inconvenience.

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#31 Good morning, do you happen in the iOS App? if so, you can use the mobile web in Safari or Chrome as an alternative.

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#28 Of course!

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