Bob was the most cheerful bus driver I’d ever met. Mid-50’s, tall, lanky, thin strawberry blonde hair parted to one side, an infectious smile, and an Aussie accent as thick as vegemite. At 9:30am, after a speedy check out from the Pink Flamingo and a quick march down the road with all our luggage to the slightly cheaper Reef Club (http://www.reefclubportdouglas.com.au/), a quick change in the lovely bright and breezy self-catering apartment we’d booked, and an even quicker fruit juice and nut bar, Bob was just the man we wanted to see. “Come along and let’s have fun!” He chirped, as he led the way to the mini-bus. We climbed in and Bob drove off towards the skyrail forest cableway (http://www.skyrail.com.au/) , which we would be taking all the way up to the picturesque mountain town of Kurunda. On the way, Bob was a mine of information, telling is all about the history of the sugar cane plantations we were passing, how the winding road we were driving on was built, about saltwater and freshwater crocodiles, and about Kurunda itself. He was one of those blokes who loves his job, loves meeting people, loves sharing information. I bet he’s great company in a bar after a few schooners.
We got to our destination, and, as there was nobody about, we had a cablecar all to ourselves. It takes an hour and a half to get all the way to the top, but you can extend that time with two interesting stops on the way: Red Peak Station and Baron Falls station. Vero and I got off at both. At Red Peak, you can go on a rainforest walk, guided by a ranger if you wait for the tour to start. We’d just missed one, but caught up with a group and tagged on to them. The ranger was like Bob in many ways, wildly enthusiastic about his job, a cheerful character. We learnt a lot about a particular bird that has come to fascinate me: the huge, flightless Cassowary – only the Emu and Ostrich are bigger than this bird. These beautiful looking birds are dangerous when provoked, and can kill, due to a long, sharp nail on their toe which can sever a jugular, and strong, muscular legs. If they charge you, you’ll never escape – they can run at 30mph. They have big horn-like crests on their heads – they truly look like something belonging to the dinosaur era.
After this fascinating walk, in which we also saw a huge spider, we hopped back on a cable car and headed to the next station, Baron Falls station. After a short walk down a track, we saw them – huge cascades surrounded by the dense jungle – an impressive sight. From here we got back on the cable car and enjoyed the most scenic part of the journey up to Kurunda, the rainforest stretched all around us, the sounds of the forest ringing in our ears, with an added excitement – the cable car suddenly stopped and swung ominously for 5 minutes before jolting to a start again. Scary stuff.
We reached Kurunda. I bought an ice-cream to reward myself for making it. We walked up into the small town – I noticed a strong Aboriginal presence in this town, lots of art galleries showcasing Aboriginal art, local markets, small coffee shops, 2 bars….it seemed very pleasant. Hungry, we popped into the excellent Kurunda Rainforest View restaurant (http://www.kuranda.org/listing/kuranda-rainforest-view-restaurant/) , which offered lovely views of, you guessed it, the rainforest. I had a kangaroo burger, which went down an absolute treat, much to Vero’s disgust (she still hasn’t forgiven me for tricking her into trying a kangaroo steak in Sydney which I told her was beef – though actually she really loved it). The service was fantasic (it seemed to be staffed by Thais). Washed down with a glass of white wine, we were ready to explore.
It’s a small place, Kurunda. Quaint. We popped into a few art galleries. The price for any piece of aboriginal art was astronomical for someone like me, though I imagine the galleries do a healthy trade. It’s beautiful art, beautiful colours, inspired by nature, by animals. Some of the markets too were well worth deep exploration. There was so much I wanted to buy. Vero bought some earrings, I bought a cheap and colourful piece of Aboriginal art for $10. Then we found a small place for coffee, staffed by a Japanese bloke and his boss, and possibly wife, an Aussie lass who spoke good Japanese. A couple of Japanese tourists were in there too. So we’d found Japanese corner. “Quiet around here….it becomes a ghost town after dark”, said the Aussie woman. “So, what do people do for fun here?” I asked “I saw a pub on the corner by the Railway station.” “Ha!” scoffed the woman, “you don’t ever go there….that’s the Aboriginals pub….us white’s tend to go to the other pub. A bit, shall we say, classier….gets a bit dangerous here if you get into the wrong half of town.” A bit like avoiding half of Bradford on a Friday night, perhaps. Or certain pubs in Brighouse.
After the coffee we had to rush to Kurunda station to catch the last train back down to Freshwater Station. We got to the platform with 5 minutes to spare. The train, a very long one with red bottom and white top carriages in the middle and green carriages at the ends, painted to resemble an Aboriginal Dreamtime legend called Buda-dji, a carpet snake, was waiting. An old locomotive, grand on the outside, refined leather-seat luxury with bar and restaurant on the inside (in the Heritage Class cabins). Carriages date back to the early 1900s. The good old days of rail travel. The railway is an incredible feat of engineering, built to provide ease of transport from the townships and rich mining areas built during the gold boom in 1873 to the sea. Many men (the majority of workers on the track Irish or Italian) lost their lives on this amazing project.
We sat down to enjoy the spectacular, breathtakingly beautiful journey along the narrow track. At certain points, the train stopped to allow us to get out for a quick photo session. The best of these stops was to see Baron Falls from a different viewpoint. Other notable highlights were the incredible Stoney Creek Falls bridge, where the train passes right beside a raging waterfall, and Spectacular Views, which lives up to its namesake by offering fantastic views over the Coral Sea and Cairns City. After passing through a series of tunnels, we arrived at Freshwater station. One of the most memorable train journeys of my life.
From here, we got on a big coach to take us back to Port Douglas, via Palm Cove, which looked like a beautiful place to stay too, and where I think I’ll stay next time I try Cairns. Back in Port Douglas, we chilled out in our new room at Reef Club. They have a nice living room area in the apartments to chill out and we had a few beers before we headed out for some nosh. We visited a Spanish restaurant tonight, which was mediocre though the sangria and red wine was good, then went to find a Latin club down some back streets to find out we were too late for the Latin party, and presumably to meet the Argentinian girl from our first night on the Aquarius boat who’s recommended the place We had a beer anyway. Then we went to Paddy’s Irish bar on Macrossan Street. After a Guinness, it was late, and I asked a bloke outside Paddys where to go next. “Look mate, you’ve got a woman, you’re still standing, I’d just go home.” He had a good point. But we crossed the road and headed into the last place open in Port Douglas anyway. The upstairs bar had a carpet and smelled of sick and stale booze. It was rough as fuck, and was no doubt the place where a lot of the young British lads working in shops around here had got their black eyes from. We had a drink, and headed out to the balcony, where we got talking to a group of people, including a man mountain from Port Douglas called Bruce, who thought I was an Aussie. As I smile a lot amongst strangers, it tends to diffuse situations before they can become situations. Bruce’s bristles settled down, and, when he learned I was a Pom, he was all smiles himself, happy to talk about Aussie sporting successes against the Pommies. A fight broke out in front of us. A few bottles were smashed. Bruce didn’t flinch. The bouncers came in and broke it apart, but didn’t kick them out. Well-known local hardmen everywhere. A proper port town, Port Douglas. You’ve got to take the rough with the smooth. Vero and I didn’t stay for a second drink, much to Bruce’s disappointment. We walked back. It was 2am. The latest night of the trip for us. And what a day.