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.
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.