North Queensland by Plane, Train and Cable CarSeptember 15th, 2011
Apparently Queensland is always referred to as ‘The Sunshine State’. But after five days of grey skies and frequent downpours in and around Brisbane, I was starting to wonder why. ‘This weather is so unusual!’ everyone told me. ‘We’ve had nothing but sunshine for the last two months!’ Just great. It seemed like the only way to ensure decent weather was to head north. So I caught a Jetstar flight up to Cairns. Generally I’d say that the view from a train window is much more satisfying than from a porthole at 38,000ft but I have to admit that the sight of the Great Barrier Reef from above and then the descent into Cairns over palm fringed beaches was pretty unbeatable. It seemed that I had taken a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in the Caribbean. And it was sunny!
I checked in to the resort-esque style Holiday Inn and, trying not to dwell on the notice I’d seen in my spacious almost sea-view room about the likelihood of ‘harmless’ ants and geckos possibly making an appearance during my stay, I headed straight for the Esplanade. This boardwalk running along the seafront was stunning and there were even signs warning people not to swim because of crocs! For some reason I found this more exciting than scary. Unlike the ants and geckos.
The rest of the centre seemed to be made up entirely of souvenir shops, restaurants and tour operators. So I was quite glad that the following morning I had booked a trip into the rainforest on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. Pick-up was bright and early at 7.30 and our initial guide did not immediately impress with his commentary.. ‘So, yeah… the guys, they built a railway up the … er .. the um.. the mountain , so yeah.. that was quite good. But once we’d got to the station and started travelling along the aforementioned historic line up the mountain, things began to improve. The vintage carriages wound their way through the forest for an hour and a half offering breathtaking views of the coastline, surrounding hillsides and gorges along the way. The village of Kuranda itself was basically a tourist attraction. The first sight the disembarking passengers are presented with is a coach filled car park. Then, heading up into the village, a loud guy with a whip was touting for punters on the steps of a pub. I wouldn’t have said that was a very promising sales technique.
Numerous shops, market stalls and cafés attempted to part the descending hoards from their cash along with a butterfly sanctuary and koala garden, both of which I gave a big swerve. I did manage to pass a pleasant couple of hours – a chilled glass of local lager helped – and then it was time for the journey back down to Cairns. This I made on the Skyrail, one of the longest gondola cable cars in the world stretching above the Rainforest canopy over a distance of 7.5km with two stops on the way down to get a closer look at the flora and fauna. Spectacular stuff.
Once down on terra firma again it was time for the last element of my day’s tour – the Tjapukai Culture Park for a series of shows exhibiting Aboriginal Culture. Like a lot of these types of shows, there were times when I found the whole thing a little bit artificial and therefore slightly cringeworthy – especially at the beginning when a group of five men wearing nothing but loin cloths (for our own protection apparently) and paint performed a kangaroo dance. But in general, it was fun and educational. I even threw a spear and a boomerang (badly in both cases).
Back in Cairns I indulged in some Holiday Inn room service and had an early night.
The next morning I walked to the station (well hidden at the back of a shopping centre car park) for the Sunlander service to Townsville. Much like the station itself, the train information and the station staff were fairly elusive. But there were only two platforms and one train so I got onboard and hoped for the best. Once we were moving there was an announcement finally soothing my doubts and letting us all know that yes, this was the sleeper train to Brisbane. I had originally planned to go all the way back but the train was packed and there were no sleeping compartments left so rather than sleep in a seat I’d opted for a night enroute in Townsville and then a flight home. The seats were extremely comfortable with plenty of legroom and there were two different buffet cars (one for hot and one for cold food) both serving reasonably priced and fairly tasty food. The scenery on the journey was stunning but fairly unchanging with rainforest cloaked hills offering a stunning backdrop to acres and acres of sugar cane and banana trees. Again, it often felt that I was somewhere in South East Asia rather than Australia.
Townsville brought me firmly back into familiar territory. Though it seemed like a ghost town when I first arrived. There were no taxis at the rank and no sign of a bus stop so I decided to walk through a completely deserted CBD (centre) to my hotel, the Oaks M on Palmer. Much as I moaned about the rain at the beginning of the week, I am not good at heat either. By the time I arrived I looked like I’d run a marathon with a rucksack on my back wearing a coat and scarf. It took a while for me to cool down (thanks to some very efficient air-con) and go out for dinner.
I had a lie in the next morning and then walked down to the Strand (Townsville’s answer to Cairns Esplanade but with stinger warnings rather than crocodile ones) for a delicious breakfast. There was just time before my flight to take a quick tour of the local Aquarium, ‘Reef HQ’ which was advertised as being the largest living coral reef aquarium in the world. It was quite expensive but definitely worthwhile with an amazing collection of tropical fish that almost made up for the fact that I hadn’t seen the Great Barrier Reef itself.