Today’s title is borrowed from a traditional American gospel song, “This Train“, which also gave its lyrics to Woody Guthrie’s biography, Bound For Glory, and which has been recorded by artists as varied as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Bob Marley. And the Worthing Bluegrass Jam guys. I am missing those jams!
Anyway, the title is a tenuous link to our Sunday adventure, which started with a trip on the Kuranda scenic railway accompanied by our German dive friend, Ellen. The railway may now be described as scenic, but the construction process, which started in 1886, was far from enjoyable for anyone involved. The first two contractors on the job went bust trying to complete Section One, a 13km section from Cairns to Redlynch, rising to just 5.5m above sea level.
Section Two was the real difficulty, intended to ascend a further 320m over the next 24.5km. Eventually, this part of the railway passed through 15 tunnels, rounded 93 curves, and crossed dozens of bridges positioned across ravines and waterfalls.
All of the work on this section was completed using hand tools as it was impossible to get powered equipment up the track. Over 150 men died in accidents while working on the railway’s construction, while an unknown number died from the natural hazards of jungle work, such as disease or snake bites. The railway was eventually completed and the first train completed the journey between Cairns and Kuranda in 1891. Interestingly, this also spelled the demise of Port Douglas as a commercial centre since all of the traffic from the tablelands now passed through Cairns, relegating Port Douglas to relative obscurity and, ultimately, to an economy based almost entirely on tourism.
Nowadays, one makes the journey in vintage rolling stock, built between the 1900s and 1930s, pulled by a slightly more modern diesel electric locomotive, built in 1966.
Since the carriages are so old, there’s no air conditioning, so all of the windows are wide open to catch any passing breeze.
On the trip up, we saw plenty of evidence of the extreme weather the area has suffered recently. Because of the rain, many rivers are in spate and look very brown as a result of silt being washed into the waterways.
The journey time is two hours, which includes a 10 minute stop at the overlook point at Barron Falls, before eventually arriving at Kuranda.
Having climbed 1,000 feet, we were hoping that the elevation might have made the temperature more bearable. Sadly it was not to be. The temperature up here was 36°C and the humidity was stifling. There are some signposted footpaths around the station and village so we followed the river walk. After 500m in the signposted direction, we reached a point where the river had burst its banks and the path was impassable. We returned to our start point and tried the other direction. Again, we only managed around 500m before encountering another flooded bank.
There was a jungle boardwalk on the other side of the village so we walked up there and, this time, there was a sign posted, warning that the path was blocked. This was just opposite the tourist information point so we went over there to ask whether there were any paths available. They informed us that, although the sign said it was blocked, the first 1.5km was still passable. By this time, (with the heat, humidity, and distance already covered) we were perfectly happy with a 3km round trip.
We walked down the boardwalk until we reached a creek that flowed along a valley floor. Once again, we were reminded that in this part of the world, it doesn’t take long to completely leave civilization behind and find yourself in dense tropical rainforest.
Back to the village for a cold refreshing drink – another mocktail – and then on to the Skyrail for our return journey. The Skyrail isn’t a train – it’s a cable car. It descends from Kuranda to Smithfield over the rainforest canopy, providing a unique view of the jungle.
Like the train on the way up, the windows are wide open to catch in any breeze there may be. We had another opportunity to disembark at Barron Falls, which we took, and the view from this side was even more dramatic than from the train stop on the way up.
Back on to the cable car after this and on to Red Peak station where there is a compulsory change as the cable is divided into two sections. Since we were getting off anyway, we decided we would take the guided ranger tour as the next one was due to start in just 6 minutes. We waited the appropriate length of time then the ranger talk started dead on time. In Chinese. That ranger pointed us on to a group ahead which was in English so we went and latched on to that. It was a private tour. That ranger pointed us on to another group even further ahead so we joined that. Another private tour. By this time, we could hear an ominous sound. Silence. The cable had stopped running. We gave up on trying to find a public, English-language tour and walked back to the cable car station to investigate.
When we got there, they were putting out seats and handing out bottles of water to be shared one between two. The water – not the seats. We didn’t need the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes to recognise that this was not a good sign. An approaching storm meant that the cableway was switched off. I imagine that, being made entirely of metal and protruding from the forest canopy as it does, the system is a preferential target for any lightning strike. We waited for about 15 minutes then heard the sound of the cable starting to run again. Another 10 minutes later, we were in a car bound for the end of the line where bus transfers to our Cairns hotels awaited us.
It was a relief to be back in air conditioning. After freshening up, we headed out for dinner. We met up with Ellen again on the Esplanade and wandered in search of an eating spot for our last night in Cairns. Through general indecisiveness, we ended up eating at Rattle n Hum, where we had enjoyed a beer with our dive colleagues on Friday. Although philosophically opposed to dining in a bar named after a U2 album, I actually quite enjoyed the food here. And the beer. 4 Pines American Pale Ale is a tasty drop.
After dinner, we said goodbye to Ellen and headed back to the hotel to think about how on earth we were going to fit our new diving accoutrements into our luggage and stay within Jetstar’s draconian baggage weight limits.