“This train is bound for glory…

…this train.”

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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.

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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.

DSC_0689Like 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.

IMG_3621Back 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.

“Scots wha ha’e…”

Saturday dawned sunny in Cairns. We had decided to travel on the Kuranda Scenic Railway on Sunday, leaving Saturday free for a visit to Port Douglas. First, though, we met one of our fellow dive students, Ellen, for breakfast at a little cafe called Che Zest. All three of us ordered Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon. We had been (inadvertently) drinking salt water for the past three days solid, and I guess we were missing the taste of the sea. After breakfast, we said goodbye to Ellen and headed back to the hotel, the IBIS Styles. We rented a car from the Budget office attached to the hotel for AUD 60 for the day. There are cheaper places around but as the temperature hit 30°C, the convenience outweighed the price for me. Port Douglas is around 70km north of Cairns and the road between the two is reminiscent of the winding coastal road that we took from Cape Town to Hermanus back in December.

As we glided along the road in our little Suzuki Swift, we enjoyed regular, stunning views of the coastline ahead and behind us.

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As we drove along, I entered a little reverie around the history of British colonialism. The fact that I was travelling between two towns with Scottish derived names led me to ponder the influence Scots must have had on Britain during its colonial heyday. There are Scottish names all over Australia, but this was also the case in Hong Kong. And South Africa. It struck me forcefully that Scots were very much part of the history of Empire – both for good and ill. Hence the title of this post: another Burns reference. It’s amazing what can go through your head when you’re supposed to be concentrating on driving in a foreign country.

Despite this, we made it safely to Port Douglas and stopped first at the viewpoint overlooking the town, where we witnessed what appeared to be the inauguration of a new colony of tree ants. The queen (pictured below) was travelling along the railing at the viewpoint followed by a number of much smaller workers.


We then drove into the centre and enjoyed a fruity mocktail at a pleasant little cafe, whose name now escapes me. The temperature had risen significantly since we were last on shore earlier in the week and it was oppressive to walk around. I had opted for a cotton shirt today, which was to prove a schoolboy error. We walked from the cafe out to the historic lighthouse, which is hidden down a narrow, shaded path between two houses. We successfully sought it out and discovered it to be historic but not necessarily enthralling.


After the lighthouse, we strolled back along the shady path and back towards town. Then I discovered that my cotton shirt was no match for the local mosquitoes’ mandibles. I had acquired three bites on my upper right arm which started to itch furiously. Luckily, one of the first shops on the main street was a chemist where I was able to acquire insect repellent and itch easing cream. I’m not in the habit of publicly exposing my flesh but the irritation was so extreme that I had no hesitation in stripping off my shirt and asking nurse Ishbel to minister to my puncture wounds. Relief was instant, as promised by the packaging. I immediately put the shirt back on and we both liberally applied repellent to all exposed flesh and any possible point of ingress. I am generally a mosquito magnet and Ishbel need not worry about bites when she’s with me as I appear to be a preferred food provider for mosquitos the world over. But once I’ve sprayed, she needs to as well. When visiting the quaint towns of Northern Queensland, it’s easy to forget that these are mere pinpricks of development in a vast swathe of tropical rainforest. Don’t wear cotton shirts in the jungle.

Now safely armoured, we headed back to the car and drove through the town to the car park by the beach. We wanted a stroll along the beach and this seemed a nice spot. There was an area netted off for swimmers and lifeguards patrolling. There was also a warning that marine stingers were active, so we decided not to dip our toes.


I had already experienced stingers the previous week when we had a swim near Surfers Paradise. My heels and top of my foot suffered at the hands…tentacles…of small stingers known locally as bluebottles. These menacing little creatures are not actually jellyfish but siphonophores, related to the Portuguese man o’ war although smaller and less venomous. The pain lasted about an hour and there were no ongoing ill effects but I was in no hurry to repeat the experience.

After a shortish walk enjoying the sea breeze, we turned and headed back towards the car park. That was when we spotted the osprey circling above and, eventually, witnessed it diving into the sea and emerging with a fish.


Ospreys are so rare in Scotland that we were hugely excited to get an opportunity to see this, even though they’re ten a penny in Australia. This was a pleasant way to finish off our Port Douglas visit so we headed back to the car and pointed ourselves towards Cairns.

As we approached the city, we decided to stop off for what is fast becoming a tradition on this trip: a visit to the Botanic Gardens. After the vast acreage of the gardens of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Brisbane, it was a nice change to stroll through Cairns’ considerably smaller version. It did, however, offer us one of the most appropriately named plants I have ever seen:

DSC_0482 2.JPGthe Beefsteak Heliconia. It’s not an Australian native, but it’s quite a striking plant.

After the Botanics, we drove back to Cairns and had an early dinner, before calling it a night.

Diverse Photos of Divers

Just some pics from the dive trip. Clicking on each photo will get you to a larger version which you’re free to download if you were on the trip…

Our Dive Boat

“Peace on the reef”

The title of this post has been stolen from the skipper of our dive boat. Warren made a number of announcements to us during our three days on board and ended each one by saying “Peace on the Reef.” By the end, we were all responding in kind, and on one occasion even pre-empted him by saying the phrase en masse before he had the chance to.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Having qualified as PADI Open Water divers on Thursday afternoon, Ishbel and I didn’t dive again on the day. However, we were determined to have our first unsupervised dive together on Friday, 8th February. The dive schedule had three dives planned for Friday, the first of which was to take place at 6:30am. Wake-up time was scheduled for 5:45, twenty minutes before sunrise on the reef. After Thursday’s second dive, we had moved from Milln Reef to the Boulders site on Flynn Reef, which was to be the site of Dive 1 this morning.

We had devised a cunning plan to be last into the water and, ideally, first out so that we wouldn’t be getting our newly qualified selves in the way of the more experienced divers. The first part went exactly to plan. We let everyone else off the boat then stepped in to the water ourselves. On this memorable occasion, I contrived to mess up my giant step. The key is to look at the horizon as you step out. Stupidly, I looked down, the result of which was to push my mask off my nose and up on to my forehead. Luckily, I didn’t lose the mask completely. Only my dignity. Ishbel joined me in the water with considerably more grace and we swam round to the rope which we decided we would descend before swimming off to the reef.

This particular site is one which doesn’t require any real navigation skills as you descend the rope to a concrete block to which the boat is moored, then swim off. There is a steep reef wall on your left hand side, so you just keep it on your left on the way out, and on your right on the way back and you can guarantee finding the boat again.  Finding the boat is a skill all on its own and even some of the experienced divers missed it on some of the dives. Sometimes, they were close enough to be able to swim back on the surface but on a couple of occasions, someone from the boat went out in the little motor launch to tow them back home. It was comforting to know that we were in no danger of getting lost.


For our first dive, we had a great time. No dramas, as Australians are fond of saying. We swam along the wall as recommended and saw a wide variety of fish and even a couple of reef sharks, about 2m long. For all the hard work that we put into the course, and the even harder work our instructors put in to getting us through it, this was the payoff. Our relaxed dive along the Great Barrier Reef, going down to 18m for 28 minutes, was a wondrous experience. We weren’t even first back to the boat as we were enjoying it so much.

Winds, tides, and encroaching weather were all conspiring to make life difficult for the skipper and crew in determining where the next dive would be. The boat changed position in the hope of finding better sea conditions, but it was still very choppy. The decision was taken to cancel one of the Day 3 dives to give more down time between them and allow a longer dive rather than two abbreviated dives. We decided conditions were too rough for us to venture back down, and a couple of other people sat out the last dive as well. The boat was rising and falling quite noticeably as we sat at our mooring, so we decided this was a good time to take another seasickness pill. If it was like this when we were at rest, it was going to be very rough on the way back to Cairns.

One interesting event did occur between the two Friday dives. As we sat around the tables in the lounge area, someone said “I think I can smell burning” two seconds before a loud bang and a flash emanated from one of the cabins. There was a group of three American couples, all qualified divers, and the emergency occurred in one of their cabins. Nothing actually went up in flames, but someone had hung up a wet costume immediately above an electric point where they were charging their phone. The drips had fused the power, and melted the charger. The group are all current or former members of the LA Fire Department!

We skipped Dive 2, although Ishbel went out to snorkel the shallow part of the reef. After Dive 2, we headed back to Cairns, after repairing a mooring buoy at one of the sites that had been snagged the previous day. We ended up getting back to town about an hour later than scheduled, but it didn’t interfere with anyone’s plans so we weren’t unduly concerned by the delay.

The homeward journey also allowed for a moment of reflection on the whole experience. Our decision to go through the diving course was something of a whim that we had decided would be a fun thing to do on our travels. I had certainly underestimated the scale of effort required to get through it and certainly wish that I had worked more on some basic fitness before the course started. Our fellow open water students were a diverse bunch of people, ranging from 18 up to, well, our age since we were the oldest. They were from Australia, Canada, Netherlands, Germany and the UK. Despite the obvious differences between us all, the sense of camaraderie was overwhelming, We could always put that down to the fact that we were united in adversity, all trying to qualify as divers. But once we were on the boat, that diversity increased as we met qualified divers from Denmark, Sweden, the US, China, Taiwan. And everyone still got along really well. There’s something about the experience that just brings out the best in everyone. We loved it.


As we approached Cairns, we were informed of a tradition whereby the instructors book tables at a German Beerhouse in town for the evening of our return to port. So it was that we showed up at 7:30 and met up with our fellow divers and a couple of the instructors for possibly the last time ever.


After some 3 litre beer towers and schnitzels, the group moved from the beerhouse to another bar where live music was playing. We had a last drink there with our fellow divers, then headed back to the hotel.

The next post will be just a collection of photos from the dive boat that will hopefully be of interest to everyone who was on board at the same time as us.



Under the ocean wave


Having been chided for a faltering schedule of blog posts, I’m going to just jump in with current events and try to catch up on the lost week at some point in the future.

We arrived in Cairns in Northern Queensland on Saturday afternoon, 2nd February. We flew up from Brisbane on one of Australia’s budget carriers, Jetstar. Ishbel’s sister kindly let us leave our instruments and one suitcase behind with her while we made this side trip which helped keep the cost down. In common with budget airlines everywhere, Jetstar are vigorous in their upsell, which includes paying extra for luggage.

We had a quiet Saturday evening in Cairns. Ishbel needed a new swimsuit so we managed to acquire that at a shop called Splish Splash Swimwear at Cairns Pier. As we came out of that shop, another caught my eye. Man Overboard had a collection of really quite striking shirts in their window. One of my shirts has frayed at the collar and cuffs so, in accordance with our “one in, one out” policy for packing, I bought a splendidly garish linen shirt to replace it. We found a bar/restaurant called Salt House at the Pier where there was live music and decent food so we spent a couple of hours there before heading back to the hotel.

We had booked our dive medicals for Sunday morning and it turned out that the Cairns 24 Hour Medical Centre was right across the road from our hotel, so that was easy to get done. We then just had a leisurely walk around the town to see what it had to offer. Northern Queensland has been experiencing some severe weather. Most of it has hit Townsville, south of here, where over a metre of rain fell just in the last week. By comparison, my home town of Glasgow which is notoriously wet, has an average annual rainfall of 1.079m. (I checked). the edges of the weather system are affecting Cairns so it was overcast and a bit drizzly for our walk. We ended up back at Salt House for food and the live music again. We were very good and only drank mocktails. Having passed our dive medicals earlier in the day, we were faced with the brutal reality that we were now going to try to learn to dive so didn’t want to impair ourselves in advance. We waited out a thunderstorm which rolled through then headed back to the hotel for an early night and a pickup the next morning at 8:15am.

We were waiting in reception Monday morning as the minibus from Pro Dive rolled up outside. We were picked up and met the first cadre of our fellow students as the bus took us to the private Pro Dive facility for our first day of classroom and pool education. We were in the classroom for three hours until lunch, learning many of the basic safety precautions necessary to qualify as a diver and some of the dangers associated with the activity. Then, after lunch, we changed into our costumes and hit the pool. There were 11 of us on the course so we were split into two groups. Ishbel, me and three others were with our instructor, Line from Norway, in Pool 1 and the other 6 were with Steffen from the Netherlands in Pool 2. They proceeded to bombard us with information on the technical and practical aspects of diving, made us swim 24 lengths, had us tread water for 10 minutes, and swim underwater fully loaded with scuba gear and weights. I learned that I’m not fat, just overly buoyant. That explains the 10.5kg I had added to me which, when combined with the tank, regulators, Buoyancy Control Device (BCD), and my own mass, gives me my own gravitational pull. It’s also quite a lot to move around in when you’re not in the water. After four hours in the pool, class was dismissed for the day and delivered back to our respective hotels.

That wasn’t enough education for one day for us. We decided to attend a session at a place called Reef Teach, which does exactly that. It was recommended by our instructors and was scheduled to run from 6:30 to 8:30, so when we got out of there at 9:30, we were considerably better informed about what we could expect to see on the Great Barrier Reef when we eventually got out there. After that, we had time to grab a quick bite at Evo Burger which was delicious.

We were exhausted by this time so headed back to the hotel then up in time for a 7:35 pickup on Tuesday morning. We were driven back out to the facility then were straight into the pool for the morning. We again practised skills and emergency procedures, like taking off our BCD and putting it back on, while in the water. Taking off our weights and putting them on again, in the water. Taking off our mask and putting it back on again. In the water. Throwing away our regulator (air hose) and finding it again. In the water. This all finished about noon and, once again, we were feeling a tad fatigued by the whole exercise. Bear in mind that we have a good 10 years on the next oldest student and he in turn has a few years on most of the rest of the class. We’re entitled to be tired!

We then all went for lunch together at a place called Grill’d before stopping by the Pro Dive shop in central Cairns to look at and possibly acquire equipment. We, of course don’t have any room in our luggage for such things. So imagine my surprise when I found myself the proud owner of dive boots and flippers and Ishbel had a snorkel and mask! These things happen.

Anyway, after the shopping spree, it was back out to the facility to sit our exams. Luckily, we all passed so the whole class was set for the next part of the course: the Great Barrier Reef. Pickup on Wednesday was at 6:15. It just keeps getting earlier! We were driven to the shop to check in for the trip and to store the luggage we wouldn’t need on board. Once that was done, we were back on the minibus and out to the marina to see our boat for the first time, the Scubapro. I should mention that I had chosen today as the first day to wear the previously mentioned garish linen shirt. So when the skipper, Warren, completed the roll call once everyone was on board, he stopped at my name for a special mention of the shirt. Yes, it really is that loud.


In total, there are 31 divers on board. Apart from the 11 of us PADI Open Water students and one snorkeller, the rest are already qualified and are either having fun dives or are trying to qualify for more advanced qualifications. For our group to qualify, we have to complete four open water dives and perform certain skills both at depth and on the surface. I don’t usually get seasick but the skipper pointed out that even people who don’t get seasick get seasick on this boat so Ishbel and I decided to take a preventative tablet each. The ride out to the reef was very turbulent and once the outbreak of seasickness inevitably happened, I was delighted that we had done so.

It was a three hour trip out to the reef, and the skipper informed us that North Westerly winds were making it very choppy at the usual Day 1 site so we would head to what was called the “Wild Side” of Milln Reef. Once moored, everyone changed into their gear. The water is warm out here, about 28°C so we all have highly attractive full body lycra suits to wear. My apologies for putting that image into your heads. If you don’t want to be further traumatised, look away now.

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Thus it was that, looking somewhat like an aquatic Santa Claus, I made my way to the back of the boat, held my regulator and mask with my right hand and the mask strap with my left, and took my giant step into the ocean. As we descended to about 12m, we again were obliged to go through a variety of skills similar to those we had learned in the pool, with the added thrill that we were in the sea with waves buffeting us and currents pulling us around. We all survived that and just about managed to scramble onto the boat at the end. That is a whole new skill.

IMG_3594.JPGThere’s a well defined schedule for dives for the three days we’re on board. As learners, we need to do Dives 1 and 2 on Day 1 and Dives 1 and 2 on Day 2 in order to qualify as PADI open water divers. Once we’ve done that, they actually allow us to dive without an instructor.

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Ishbel has the turquoise snorkel and I have the yellow hood.

The good news is that Ishbel and I managed to complete the 4 dives necessary – 2 at the Wild Side, Milln Reef and 2 at The Whale, Milln Reef –  and are now, as I type, qualified divers. I’m sure you find this as difficult to believe as I do. However, having qualified, we declined the opportunity to go diving unsupervised on Day 2. Mainly because we are absolutely shattered. We slept 9 hours straight on Wednesday night and will probably do the same tonight (Thursday). We plan on doing at least one dive on Friday before the boat returns to port in Cairns.