CAIRNS, Australia -- The Great Barrier Reef is the main magnet for tourists in the Cairns area, but savvy entrepreneurs have found scores of other venues for eager foreigners to drop their money. In my nearly three decades of traveling in Australia, I have found one common consistency amongst the Aussies; they can take a very dull attraction and make foreigners gladly pay exorbitant prices for the experience.
However, an exception to this scenario is the Kuranda Railway, (qroti.bit.net.au/traveltrain/kuranda.html), the second most popular tourist attraction in the Cairns area. This engineering marvel is the byproduct of Irish, Italian and Chinese coolie labor. Built by hand over a five-year period in the 1890s, the construction of the most northern Australian railroad caused great strife between the laborers and local native Aboriginal.
The most confrontational Aboriginal tribes were cannibalistic and made raids on the working parties and for some odd reason, only took Chinese captives. Local wags remark this was the introduction into Australia of Chinese take-out.
However, all seems to have been forgotten today as there are multitudes of Chinese who have taken root in Australia and you have not heard strange sounds until you hear a Chinese person speaking with an Australian accent.
Because of the multitudes of curves needed to navigate deep valleys, the front of the train can often be observed from the rear cars.
The railway twists upward nearly 26 miles from Cairns to Kuranda and even today still takes nearly an hour and a half for the picturesque journey through magnificent gorges and the lush tropical forest. Originally, the Cairns-Kuranda Railway was built to take supplies inland to tin miners who previously had to wait months for food and equipment during the wet season when the only transportation was horse and wagon. The building of the railway produced one of the most colorful historic construction backgrounds in all of railroad lore.
At the peak of construction, there were more than 1,500 men employed earning 80 cents a day. Scores of entrepreneurial shopkeepers set up makeshift stores on precipitous mountain ledges to provide the workers with everything from work boots to grog.
There were no bulldozers or trucks to move the enormous tonnage of rocks, trees and earth as the working environment was too steep in most cases, averaging slopes of forty-five degrees. Every bit of earth was moved by shovel and dynamite, and to complicate the task, much of what was removed was taken all the way back to Cairns in buckets or wagons and used to fill up the swamps upon which the city was being built.
Compounding the construction process was northeast Queensland's rainy season that plagued the work. One three month period, an astounding 72 inches of rain fell, causing massive slides and flooding.
Because it was quicker to shovel through the mountains than to build tracks around them, the railway goes through 15 handmade tunnels and climbs over 1,800 feet in the last 10 miles. As in the 1800s, a steam-propelled train will soon grace the tracks replacing the current diesel engine powered one.
Kuranda itself is not much more than a place for tourist's billfolds to be opened a number of times during a four-hour stay. It is a mountain town of 750 that became a hippie center in the 1970s and even today shows strong remnants of that culture. Tourists are drawn to the downtown area for the craft markets.
One fun way to get back to Cairns from Kuranda is to opt to take the new Kuranda Skyrail (www.skyrail.com.au/) built seven years ago. The Skyrail holds the distinction of being the world's longest gondola skyrail.
The Australian government has been intrusive in the lives of its people since the days when it kept tight controls on the early convicts who settled this vast country. Getting government approval today to do any construction in eco-areas is a nightmare as evidenced by the travail of 7.5 years it took developers to get final approval from 23 government agencies to build this cableway.
The cableway is supported by four tower stations and 32 towers, each of which were constructed by having materials brought in by helicopters, thereby eliminating the need for any roads to support the cableway. There are 114 gondola cabins that operate much like a ski lift, traveling at top speeds of 11 mph and each cabin holds up to six people. The quiet, gliding trip takes up to an hour and a half due to two stops on the way down to observe the Wet Tropics Rainforest, the second largest stand of rainforest in the world after the Amazon ones. As you ride down in the gondolas, the silence is astounding. Looking down over the rainforest, you catch glimpses of brilliantly colored mountain parrots flitting from tree to tree and the piercing cry of cockatiels and kookaburros interrupt the serenity. More than 25 animals on the rare or endangered species list live in the forest plus scores of bird varieties rarely seen in other locations. When you climb off the gondola at the end of the line, the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park (http://www.tjapukai.com.au/)greets you, which is the only tribal approved display center for Aboriginal culture. Popular with tourists is the boomerang and spear-throwing demonstrations. I laughed when my daughter Meghan pinched the finger of a young Aboriginal in the crook of the spear when he was trying to show her how to throw it. Though I don't understand the Aboriginal language, it was not hard to decipher the short phrase he uttered.
The history of the Aboriginal people is one of continuous sadness once the English began dominating this land. There is not much agreement in how to handle the Aboriginal issues today, but there is plenty of agreement about how poorly they were treated in the past. Good or bad, depending upon your viewpoint, other than in the far outreaches of the Outback, the culture of the Aboriginal has been pretty much decimated.
The first people on the Australian continent are now relegated to the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder and alcoholism has destroyed the hopes and lives of multitudes of the young men who hold the future of this once-proud people. Only a few escape to live what we would call normal lives. I can't begin to describe the hopelessness you sense when talking to young Aboriginal who freely admit they have no future that affords them hope.
As we left this glorious section of northeast Australia and began our travel southward toward our destination of trekking through the national park at Cape Hillsborough, our thoughts began to turn toward all the ways you can lose your life here in Australia to the critters we were about to encounter, but more of that later.
(Henry Hintermeister lives in Crosby and is regional manager for Heritage Media Corp. of Carlsbad, Calif., a publisher of historical and promotional books on American and Canadian cities. His wife Lyn and children Luke and Meghan are Australian citizens. He has traveled to more than 30 countries and plans to visit China next.)
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