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Tuesday 9 Apr 2013
Cairns, Australia

Rain and fire in the far North

What a difference a few hours makes!  I left Sydney in the early morning sunshine but arrived in Cairns in a miserable overcast afternoon.  It didn't help that my pre-booked shuttle had done a runner instead of waiting for the 10 minutes that my flight was delayed by. I was the first out with my bags but he had already gone, so six of us had to wait an hour for the next shuttle.  Not impressed.

Luckily, I had booked a lovely little hostel called Dreamtime with friendly staff.  It was made up of two houses with a covered courtyard in between.  When I asked about what to do in the area, they helped me organise my trips based on the weather forecast - essentially rain for the rest of the week - so I saved my reef trip until the weekend.  A lot of people were returning to the hostel looking a bit green around the gills, so I gathered that the weather was pretty rough out at sea causing a lot of seasickness.

Adding to my list of 'small world' encounters on this trip, I met a plumber from Bedford who drinks in the Bear and knows the landlord, Paul (my friend's stepdad); a girl who owns a flat in the same road in Peterborough as my ex-boyfriend - flats which I saw being built a few years ago; another girl who lives in Ashwell and knows my old deputy manager from when I worked in the Crown - she used to babysit for Fraser's children; and a woman who used to play in the garden of a house in Tansor now owned by my friends.  Small world indeed!

My first trip was to the old mining village of Kuranda in the rainforest west of Cairns.  I was joined by a Swedish girl called Christina from the same hostel.  We have similar reasons for travelling and got on well.  We went out to Kuranda on the Skyrail cable car which travels 7.5km over the rainforest canopy.  This was particularly impressive when you consider how it was built.  Building in a National Park is understandably forbidden and restrictions were maintained throughout construction.  All materials had to be walked in by foot as there are no roads, then walked out again as camping is forbidden in the Park.  Dynamite is banned, so they had to come up with some clever techniques to get down through the bedrock for the pylons.  The pylons themselves had to be flown in by helicopter.  Inevitably a few trees had to be removed, though.  When protesters started chaining themselves to the marked trees, the contractors - with typical Aussie sense of humour - started deliberately marking the wrong ones.  When they arrived in the morning, they gave a cheery wave to the protesters firmly chained to the wrong trees and got on with moving the right ones.

There are 2 stops between Cairns and Kuranda.  The first links with a raised boardwalk where rangers offer guided talks on some of the plant and animal life found in the rainforest.  The second leads down to a lookout platform above the spectacular Barron Falls - a multi drop waterfall below the Barron Gorge dam which feeds the hydroelectric power station. 

Kuranda started as a mining town but was taken over by the hippy movement in the 1960s and has now become a centre for arts and crafts.  It also has conservation projects and animal rescue centres.  Christina and I went to the Butterfly Sanctuary - a large greenhouse enclosure filled with plants, ponds, streams and over a thousand butterflies.  It was impossible not to come out of there smiling.

We also went to the Koala Park, home to crocodiles (little ones), kangaroos, wallabies and snakes.  We listened to a fascinating talk at the wombat enclosure while the subject of the talk munched happily through a pile of corn cobs and carrots.  Wombats are funny  creatures - big furry marsupials related to koalas, they walk on all fours and carry their young in upside down pouches,designed to stop it filling with mud while they are digging tunnels.  Their lower back is protected with a solid sheet of cartilidge.  If a dingo attacks, the wombat dashes back to its burrow and uses this cartilidge plate like a door.  The dingo can do little except inflict a few scratches.  Then the wombat moves into the den and flattens itself into the floor.  The dingo will follow, intending to attack the softer parts at the front of the wombat, but when it feels the dingo on its back, the wombat rears up and slams the cartilidge plate against the roof of the tunnel, crushing the dingo's skull in one or two movements.  It then drags the dead dingo out to the edge of its territory and leaves it as a warning to others.  It may be fluffy, but don't be fooled.

Koalas live exclusively on eucalyptus and have to consume large quantities to get enough energy.  Eucalyptus also contains an ingredient that acts a bit like dope, which means they spend most of their days eating, sleeping and feeling stoned.  We both held a lovely sleepy character called Tilly.  Wild koalas can give a nasty bite or scratch if they are bothered, but Tilly was hand reared from a baby so seemed quite happy being held. She was surprisingly heavy but very soft with slightly oily fur, like sheep wool, which helps to keep the koalas fully waterproof when it rains.

We had a dash back through the rain to the train station and boarded the Kuranda Scenic Rail back to Cairns.  The weather had been quite kind on our way over in the cable car, but it got progressively worse throughout the journey back.  The train stopped at Barron Falls for a photo opportunity, but all we could really see was the mist rising from the valley and the clouds beginning to close in from above.

The Kuranda railway was built after a particularly bad rainy season in 1882 left the roads washed out and supplies cut off for months, almost to the point of starvation for the miners in Herberton.  It took two years of surveying before a suitable path for the railway was decided upon - a decision which secured Cairns' fate as the key north east port over Port Douglas.

"Dense jungle and cliffs with sheer drops of up to 327m and a slope as steep as 45 degrees were death traps for workers. Somehow, without modern equipment but simple fortitude, dynamite and bare hands the team eventually finished the job. After removing 2.3 million metres of earthworks, creating 15 tunnels, 93 curves, dozens of bridges and 75 kilometres of track, a banquet high up on the bridge with the Governer of Queensland, marked the completion of Stoney Creek Bridge" (

The railway finally opened in June of 1891.  It now runs twice daily for tourists, with beautifully restored cedar coaches and a guide in each carriage.  We got steadily wetter each time we hung out of the windows to take photos of the train up ahead passing over the trestle bridges and waterfalls, until we had to close all the windows to the pouring rain for the last half hour of the journey.

Luckily our hostel was just across the road from the station so we didn't have far to run.  Each Wednesday, Dreamtime holds a bbq and fireshow to raise money for local charities. The fireshow was performed by a local troupe called Firetech, who entertained us with 45 minutes of very impressive flaming poy spinning routines.  After the show, they stayed on to teach us how to spin poy ourselves.  Poy are balls on the ends of ropes or chains that are hooked around the middle finger and spun around the body in various patterns.  It is not as easy as it looks, though the actions are actually very simple.  After an hour of hitting myself on the legs or the back of my head each time I tried to cross my hands, I finally admitted defeat and sat back down.  I'd like to try again, but I think it will be a while before I dare to try the flaming variety!

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