21.06.2010 - 21.06.2010 29 °C
After our day of rest today is our first day in the rainforest. About 40 minutes drive from Port Douglas on the Captain Cook Highway is the Skyrail terminal, a cable car taking you above the canopy all the way up to Kuranba, a rainforest village. Fred and I are disappointed to learn there is no glass floor - Mairi and my father are not. Our route will take us up past the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area, the Barron Gorge National Park and the Barron Falls. It was built as surplus to the Kuranda Railway, still in operation, as a quicker and greener way to go up and down the mountain.
Piling into the small cabin we rumble and swing up our first ascent. To start with we are above eucalypt and cycad woodlands with many trees over five hundred years old - you can see right down to the dry, shallow soil underneath as the woodlands were exposed to fire some years ago. Soon however this gives way to a creek valley and much denser, vine-clad trees and more wildlife - birds and butterflies flit above between trees and there are more than a few snakes. There are scores of Banyan trees and emergent Kauri pines, and behind us the view stretches the whole 20 kilometres out past Cairns and the hinterland to the Coral Sea.
We lurch into our first stop - Red Peak Station. There is a small loop here to walk around to get a feel for the rainforest - the main feeling is humidity. The air is so thick at points it feels like breathing treacle - I can only imagine what it's like in the summer proper. Over a boardwalk we find a gaggle of people and a Sky Ranger leaning eagerly over the edge - there is a medium-sized scrub python, about 4 metres long, sunning itself on a rock. We get there too late to get photographs but not to late to appreciate the sheer size of the thing. The guide, with an evil grin, tells us that this one was 'rescued' from local farmers near the rainforest edge after it ate a 35kg goat. Everyone quickly desists leaning over the railing to get a closer look. There is also the massive, 400-year-old Kauri Pine tree, the biggest one in Australia, over 50 metres tall.
We board the skyrail again for another trip over the canopy, this one much closer to the treetops. The rainforest gets more interesting and lush the further we get from civilisation, but it mainly gets louder - at once point we are sailing just a metre or so above the main canopy and actually below some emergent trees and the racket of cockatoos, animals and cicadas is deafening. We also get a glimpse of our next destination - the Barron Falls, and the power station.
Next stop, Barron Falls Station and a longer loop walk, but a more interesting one. We see the vigorous Lawyer Cane, a vine with vicious-looking hooked tendrils so named because once it gets it's mitts on something you can't get it off. We also learn a little more about the natives, the Aboriginal rainforest people of the tablelands, Djanbuganydiji Bama, and their stories of the rainbows that can be seen in the Din Din (Barron Falls) during rainy season:
"Buda:dji (carpet snake), a form chosen by the Rainbow Serpent Gudju-gudju (believed to have created rivers and creeks)used to traverse the range laden with bright miya-miya (Nautilus shells) and trade them for dilly bags with the tablelands Bama. On one of his journeys Buda:dji was followed by three bird men who wanted the shells for themselves but he refused to part with them, believing they belonged to the people of the tablelands. Greed over took them and they ambushed him with stone axes and cut him into pieces, scattering the pieces along the trail where he became a sacred part of the landscape. When the rainbows come when Din Din is in flood, we are reminded of all the gifts of Gudju-gudju and his destruction because of the wanton greed of others."
The traditional homelands of these people stretched all the way from Kuranba to Port Douglas, some 30km north, and they met with the coastal people Yirrganydgi to perform shared ceremonies and share food resources. Both Fred and I feel great sympathy for these people, oppressed so by our own great-great-grandfathers, having taken exquisite care of their reef and rainforest environment since time immemorial only to have their lands and livelihoods taken away by invaders with better weapons and bigger plans.
The Barron Falls are beautiful, all but a trickle this time of year but in the rainy season we are told the whole of the rocky expanse crashes with water. The power station is a green one, dug into the hillside so as to cause as little disturbance to the natural surrounds as possible, and provides a steady 60MW of power to the Queensland grid. It was built in the 1930's, using only a few strung lines and haulage trolleys on crude rails - a horrible task for the workers forced to live in tents and huts battling malaria, diphtheria, snake bite and the perils of the rainforest and construction sites, not to mention the Aborigines, who sabotaged the tracks at nighttime.
The last leg of the Skyrail takes us over figs, wattles and more eucalyptus then over the Barron River - a prime spot for crocodiles, tortoises and water birds but we don't see anything. Kuranda (Ngunbay, meaning 'place of the platypus') lurches into view and is unsettlingly tourist-focused, especially after hearing the stories of the Aboriginal peoples. Nevertheless we grab a bite to eat and then head up to the Kuranda Koala Gardens for some warm and fuzzy goodness. It's not all warm and fuzzy however - we do feed kangaroos and wallabies and stroke Koalas but we see freshwater crocodiles, pythons and the venomous black snake. The gardens are small and we are out in fifteen minutes or so.
Time for a wander through the 'local' markets back to the train - mainly tourist gift shops and Aboriginal artworks, and not all are open as it's not exactly high season. There are some very Australian things here too however - whole baby crocodile backs made into belts, kangaroo-skin rugs and Koala skin pouches complement hundred of varied leather goods. The Crocodile Dundee lifestyle is in full swing here - one shopkeeper relates to us how he sweeps his house every morning for snakes and spiders, and the legs movements required to get away from such creatures if they have nested in your boots for the night.
Kuranda Railway Station is back down the hill by the Skyrail and the train journey is supposed to take approximately an hour and a half. As we sit in the carriage waiting for the off there is some Australian "folk music" by a bloke called John Williamson, something of an Australian legend. I don't know how he achieved this status - the music is somewhere between sea shanty and football song (very Austrlian) but better sung and with some nice guitars to back him up. "Koala, koala, we love you, but we chop down your home, and you run! Koala Koala, where do you go, when we take your gum tree away?" I thought Koalas lived in eucalyptus, not gum trees… I suppose Aussies like this sort of thing, but it bemuses my British brain.
The train journey itself takes us on a winding track through the mountains, over the Barron Falls and through a total of 15 tunnels, all hand-built by the earliest Cairns settlers from 1884-1910. Even completed there were problems with cyclones, unsanitary conditions and accidents - we are told the story of a little girl who had her leg crushed by a falling rock. It took seven days to get her down the mountain, on a mixture of haulage tracks and horseback, to Cairns for treatment but miraculously her leg was saved.
The train is not as scenic as the Skyrail but you are permitted to stand outside on the carriage ends so Fred and I take our cameras out and do our best to snap the glimpses of the view we get from behind the trees. The Stoney Falls are clearly visible and quite beautiful but you've got to be quick to snap the views over the hinterlands and out to the coast. The last part of our journey takes us through the sugar cane and we see numerous curls of smoke where farmers 'burn' the cane to get rid of pests.
Our coach transfer back to the Skyrail entrance offers another interesting look into outback life - houses on stilts, dust and sand, scabby grass and 4WD vehicles with raised exhausts up by the tops of the windscreens and reinforced windows remind us we are in crocodile territory. We also pop through Cairns which turns out to be simply boring - not a complete Karzi*, but nothing really to see or do there.
Our dinner tonight is at a seafood place called Finz and is actually better than last night. Fred and I are intrigued by some things on the menu called 'bugs', attractively, but they turn out to be somewhere between huge prawns and small crayfish. They are also delicious, quickly becoming our favourite shellfish. The rest of the menu is equally delicious and the service superb once more, a poshish place but not intimidating. Gloriously stuffed once more, we are in bed early in preparation for another busy day of beach rest.
- From the Zulu word M'Karzi, meaning toilet.