As it was the rainy season in Queensland, Australia, FT travellers The Woodroffes considered giving Cairns a miss, but are so grateful they didn't when they realised the town was the gateway to a phenomenal Rainforest journey!
We opened the hotel room door and wow! Our room, with balcony, is right on the edge of Cairns harbour- a stretch of water called Trinity Inlet, which leads out to the shimmering Coral sea. Across the bay, forested hills lead down to the waters edge, where a line of yachts stand like sentinels, gently swaying on their anchor ropes. But all is not peaceful in the water. The residents do not swim in the sea or harbour in the hot season because of the influx of Box jellyfish. If the sea is at 24C, and it is during the hot season, the jellyfish are there and these are the most deadly creatures on the planet, killing a human in 3-5 minutes.
We explored the Barron Gorge up to Kuranda. Buda-Dji is the Carpet Snake in the aboriginal people's Dreamtime legend, who carved out the Barron river and the creeks that join into it from the coast to the Atherton Tablelands. It passes through the Barron Gorge tropical rain forest which is World Heritage listed. These forests did not suffer the ravages of any ice age and have been here for 120 million years, making them the oldest, continually surviving tropical rain forests in the world. They were home to the dinosaurs as well as some of the Earth's first flowering species. The rain forests, representing one half of one percent of the total land mass of Australia contain, for example, 65% of the fern species, 60% of butterfly species , 50% of the bird species, 36% mammal and 30% of the orchid species. The forest is a living museum.
We travelled up to Kuranda by Skyrail. Opened in 1995 Skyrail is a 7.5 km journey that swings above the forest canopy in a small gondola, seating a maximum of 4 people. We gazed down in wonder at the forest canopy below us, with all the plants competing for the daylight. There were two intermediate stations where there were stops. Firstly to walk in the forest at Red Peak Station and secondly at Barron Falls to view the tumbling water. Not a huge amount of water at the moment. It has not rained in earnest yet. The river is now dammed and the water conducted down a 2 metre wide pipe underground for a mile to an underground hydro-electric power station.
Only 1% of light reaches the forest floor and some plants have adapted to these condition. The epiphytes, often orchids or ferns, are parasitic on branches or tree trunks. After about an hour and a half we arrived at our destination. The first Europeans settled here in 1885 and the first town survey was filed in 1888. We descended from the terminus down to the Barron River for a forty five minute river cruise.
There were only six adults and a child on board. Our skipper was a "Karunda Dundee" type, who gave us a fascinating trip and imparted so much information it was difficult to remember it all. We saw a Johnson's River Crocodile, river turtles, fish galore, including the Archer fish which can spit a metre to knock an insect off its leaf. The Euolida tree, is the source for scopolamine, a drug with psychoactive properties so if you find a group of "high parrots" lying at the bottom of the tree you know they have been up to no good!
On the skipper's recommendation we strolled up the Main Street to the Well Being Cafe where I had the most marvellous lentil burger, with layered avocado,beetroot and grated carrot and Christina a savoury crepe. Mango frappes all round! Kuranda is a typical one street tourist town with a mix of clothes, jewellery and gift shops.
We made for Birdland, because I had heard there was a Southern Cassowary in residence. I wanted to make sure I saw one before leaving Australia. This was a smallish one. An adult can reach the height of 2 metres and weigh up to 85kg. They have large, dangerous looking clawed feet. Like all marvellous, unusual animals/ birds they are endangered. It is believed only 2,500 now survive in the wild. They play an important ecological role in dispersing seeds on the forest floor.
The return journey to Cairns was by railway. Completed in 1891 it brought wealth to the area. Firstly by timber transport and agriculture and then tourism. It was extremely busy in WW2 in a military capacity, carrying soldiers ready to disembark to the Pacific front, and wounded soldiers on return to the military hospitals. On one day in 1944 forty four trains passed along the line.
Kuranda station must be the most idyllic station anywhere in the world. Its original buildings sit amongst a tropical garden, bursting with plants everywhere.The line is narrow gauge, 3'6", and clings to the side of the gorge, passing over trestle bridges, through fifteen tunnels all hewn by hand. There were very many fatalities during the construction works. We travelled "Gold Class" which gave us comfy armchairs, ad lib drinks and some nibbles. When I originally booked the trip a "Devon Cream Tea" was advertised as the fare, but today it was only rather indifferent cheese and biscuits and Mango sorbet!
We rumbled into Cairns station and the end of another marvellous day. They keep on coming on this trip. Tomorrow we travel to Port Douglas and investigate the Daintree Rain Forest.