Top of the range
Rainforest town Kuranda, perched on a peak above Cairns, seems impossibly full of diversions. Stephen McCarty figures out what to do next.
A disturbing yet morbidly thrilling sight pounces on the unwary visitor to Kuranda. Close to the town's Heritage bazaar - one of numerous souvenir, food, arts-and-crafts and clothing markets, all within a kangaroo's leap of each other - lies a smashed Douglas C47 aircraft.
A second world war veteran, this military equivalent of the venerated DC3 airliner must have been in a deadly dogfight with Japanese Zeros, because Darwin is (relatively) close and that was bombed by Imperial forces, and so this baby must have crashed-landed here in the village and left all this amazing wreckage! Wow!
Not so fast, aircraft anoraks, because the truth is a mite disappointing. The plane, evocatively christened Geronimo, did serve in the war, having been based in Brisbane as part of the United States' 5th Air Force. In 1946 it operated Trans Australian Airways' inaugural flight, then had two further owners before falling into the hands of a New South Wales film crew.
Repainted in wartime livery, it was broken up and driven on two trailers to Cairns, where it was filmed for the 1986 movie Sky Pirates and made to look as if it had crashed on the Great Barrier Reef. The Heritage Homestead organisation subsequently found the wrecked aircraft in a scrapyard. It was donated by the scrap merchant and today, rearranged in 'crash' pose and partly embraced by jungle, dominates the Heritage Markets.
It's a strange story, but one in keeping with the seemingly illusory nature of Kuranda, about 25km northwest of Cairns in northern Queensland. Go on a hot summer's day and you can almost see time crawling through the torpid tropical air. It's impossible to move fast; it's also a challenge trying to decide what to see and what to miss out; rarely can an isolated outpost of about 750 people, plus its surrounding area, have offered so much for the day-tripper to trip out on.
The Platypus in the Rainforest Tour? The Rainforest at Night Spotlight Tour? Hot-air ballooning? How about the Army Duck amphibious-vehicle tour? Or a more sedate visit to the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary? How many other places do you know with a signposted, rainforest boardwalk - with adjacent fruit bat nursery - beginning a stumble from civilisation? Nor should visitors neglect to build some serious shopping and stopping time into their itineraries. Kuranda has a bewildering range of Aboriginal artefact outlets selling lovingly crafted mementos that don't look like on-the-way-to-the-airport afterthoughts, as well as some dedicated eating and drinking time-outs. The place froths over with bars, cafes and market-stall food kiosks touting every shade of cuisine.
Bohemian Kuranda, which remains a haven for those interested in all derivatives of hemp, sits 336 metres above sea level near the end of Barron Gorge, whose falls explode in a continuous roar during the wet months of December to April. Enveloped by the last pocket of a rainforest that once covered most of Australia, it was established in the mid-19th century, when logging and tin mining were boom industries. When the good times evaporated so too did Kuranda, almost; it was saved when its potential as a 'heritage' town was realised, and as its rustic shopfronts were restored small businesses moved in.
Now Kuranda booms again, jubilantly. But if you really can't accommodate many of its attractions on your day trip from Cairns or Palm Cove, at least ensure you arrive and depart in style. Do this by first ascending from Freshwater Station on the restored railway line, now known as the Kuranda Scenic Railway but originally built in the 1890s to shift tin to the coast. From its re-commissioned, wood-panelled Edwardian carriages the views down the gorge to Cairns, and of and from the iron lattice Stoney Creek Falls bridge, are biblical in proportion. Sobering are the memories that linger in the air as the train passes Jungara, the site of the southern hemisphere's largest second world war field hospital. Its patients were casualties of Pacific-theatre confrontations.
The line - 15 hand-blasted tunnels and 34km of track - is a monument to engineering bloody-mindedness, climbing some of the steepest gradients in the railway world. Having thrilled at your improbable repudiation of gravity, cram in as many of Kuranda's attractions as you can - and quickly make plans to leave. What goes up must come down, and there is no finer way to depart than on another town marvel, this one voted Australia's best Major Tourist Attraction: the Skyrail.
'The world's longest gondola cableway', at 7.5km, the Skyrail whisks passengers over rainforest treetops at a clearing of a few metres, making them feel almost part of the eco-drama going on below. Everything about the Skyrail is designed to minimise its impact on its surroundings while escorting patrons into the heart and soul of the tropical greenery - and educating them in the ways of preservation.
Leading by example and keeping disturbance to a minimum, particularly by constructing no access roads, Skyrail's builders installed the cableway's 32 supporting pylons on a single day in 1995, using a fleet of gargantuan Russian helicopters flown to Australia for the occasion. Yet more engineering prowess exercised without blemishing the area's intrinsic natural glory.
Two intermediate stations break the journey, and at one, Red Peak, visitors can 'walk the forest floor' (actu-ally stroll along another boardwalk) and learn from forest rangers, some so enthusiastic about their jobs they could be eccentrics, what really goes on in the forest 'hood.
The Skyrail ride ends close to another award-winner: Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, which tells the story, through traditional songs, dances and Dreamtime rituals, of the rainforest peoples of northern Queensland. It's an apposite, fantasy-laden full stop to a place unbelievably full of goodies.