The one where I ride a cable car over a steaming north Australian jungle, pet a koala, hand feed a kangaroo, go toe to toe with a cassowary, befriend a hungry macaw, and discover a hidden piece of paradise in far North Queensland.
When people think of Australia they perhaps don’t think of its rain-forests. Everybody is aware of Australia’s rich beach culture and its dry, red centre – but like Australia’s small alpine region, the steamy tropical forests of the nation’s north are often overlooked completely.
But believe it or not, the rain forests of far North Queensland are the oldest in the world. With trees over 3000 years old – the small but biologically diverse forests that include the well known Daintree and the smaller patches of forest on the Atherton Tablelands outside of Cairns. Over 36% of Australia’s marsupials, 48% of its birds, and 37% of Australia’s freshwater fish species can be found in this tiny (only 900,000 square hectares) stretch of forest that has existed for over 415 million years.
Those of you familiar with scuba diving might also be aware that after multiple dives, a time of 18 hours must pass before it is safe to fly. With that in mind, Fallon and I opted for a trek up to Kuranda – a small village in the very heart of the rain forest.
Accessible by road, a scenic rail, or the tourism award winning Skyrail – Kuranda is a mecca for alternative lifestyles, artists, and nature enthusiasts. Despite having a permanent population of less than 1000, the village boasts a number of zoos and museums as well as a slew of galleries, markets, and cafes.
DID YOU KNOW: Kuranda literally means ‘village in the rainforest’ in the dialect of the local aboriginal tribe.
With time at a premium for us, we opted for the slightly faster route that was the Sky Rail. Starting just outside Cairns, the scenic cable car ride took us up over the dryer of the parts of the forest and up into the steamy confines of the jungle proper. It wasn’t hard to imagine dinosaurs still existing in the dense growth that passed slowly by beneath us. Basket ferns and lawyer vines looked like something out of Jurassic Park, and the thick canopy was only occasionally broken up by a river or stream. In a nation as dry as Australia, it was hard to believe that an area of such vast natural diversity could exist.
The first stop on the trip was Red Peak Station, which sported a stunning boardwalk tour of the area immediately around the station. After the sticky heat of Cairns it was a pleasant surprise to step out into cool, moist air. Amongst the ancient giants of the forest, it was hard to believe that anybody had ever been crazy enough to press into the woods to investigate what lay within – but without big beasts such as tigers and jaguars to worry about, I guess Australia posed a slightly less daunting task for would be explorers.
Not that its snakes, spiders, ants, and wasps were to be taken lightly. And let’s not forget the Cassowary – a flightless bird weighing 80kgs and with a disembowling claw that would make a velociraptor think twice. These endangered and beautiful birds call the rain forests of North Queensland home and warning signs hung around to remind us how best to escape with our innards intact if we encountered one.
After snapping photographs of the fascinating trees surrounding the station, it was time to head on to the next stop – which proved absolutely breath-taking. Barron Falls is the kind of thing I definitely never expected to find just on Cairns’s door-step. Australia’s rivers aren’t particularly impressive and its waterfalls are even less to write home about – so to find the massive and beautiful falls there was a pleasant surprise. Dammed up river for the Barron River Hydroelectric Station – the falls are in no way diminished.
The next and final stop on our trek was Kuranda itself. Stepping out of the carriage and into the village was akin to arriving at a theme park – albeit without the oversized animal mascots or cheesy music. A street devoid of cars or garbage spread out before us, lined with restaurants and boutiques to tempt even the most tight fisted traveler.
With empty bellies on account of our early start, Fallon and I made a quick pit stop at a Dutch pancake vendor before making our way to the first of our three scheduled stops. A butterfly sanctuary might not sound like everybody’s piece of cake, but it was actually surprisingly interesting. The small aviary was literally alive with butterflies of all colours, and you really had to watch your step as you moved through its confines and were assaulted from all sides. It probably isn’t worth the rather hefty $17 admission fee they request, but since we got it as part of a package, it certainly wasn’t money wasted.
The opportunity is there to learn about how they breed the butterflies and even to have your photograph taken with an emerald blue Goliath butterfly – but we opted to move on to our next destination, Bird World. Fallon was particularly interested in seeing the enigmatic cassowary but as luck would have it, parrots and macaws proved to be the highlight of the visit.
Almost as soon as we entered the large aviary we were amazed by the vibrantly coloured variety of birds that greeted us. Black cockatoos, crimson rosellas, rainbow lorikeets, blue and red macaws, pink and grey galahs, and about a dozen other breeds of parrot I wouldn’t have any idea how to name.
Fallon and I were busy snapping photographs when a large blue macaw decided to make me its friend. Settling down on my shoulder, it proceeded to tear a sticker off of my shirt before attempting to eat my sunglasses. Squawking angrily if Fallon dared approach its new pet, the only way to save myself from it was to take it over to where the crimons rosellas clearly ruled the roost. Despite being about four times bigger than any of them, my parrot companion was quick to flee under their insistent assault.
After the excitement of the super friendly parrots, the rest of Bird World was a bit of a disappointment. The other varieties of birds, from Gouldian finches to the iconic black swan, were a lot less friendly and less interesting as a result. And while it was a bit of a thrill to have a cassowary pluck a grape from our hands – we couldn’t help but stop off at the parrots again before we left.
The final stop on our wildlife pass was Koala Gardens. While we had the opportunity to pose with a koala at Blackbutt in NSW – the laws in my home state forbid actually holding a koala. No such laws exist in Queensland though, so we made a beeline for the koala enclosure where Fallon was snapped posing with Australia’s most famous animal.
From there it was time to hand feed some rock wallabies and eastern grey kangaroos. Fallon got a real kick out of feeding a ‘little Rocco’, and I definitely enjoyed being so close to the big eastern greys. It’s just a pity they didn’t have any red kangaroos to see – as they’re really a sight to behold up close.
DID YOU KNOW: Many marsupials have multi-pronged penises.
With our sight-seeing done, it was time for the all important task of finding a place to eat and doing a little shopping. A detour down a back alley took us to what claimed to be the original rainforest markets, and while there wasn’t much to see, we did emerge on the other side with some delicious frozen fruit to tide us over until we took a lunch of burgers and kangaroo pie on the main street.
With our day drawing to a close and our flight not too far off, it was time for us to bid farewell to Kuranda. I’d definitely have liked an opportunity to spend a little more time there. There were countless galleries that went unvisited, the ominously named Venom World that caught my attention, and numerous markets and cafes could have held my attention (and my wallet) for at least another day. Not to mention the rain forest walks and river cruises that start and finish there.
It was a bittersweet thing riding the Sky Rail back to Cairns. Our four day vacation in Australia’s north had come to a close, and while there’s certainly plenty to look forward to, I’m certain I’ll be heading back to Cairns before too long.
One word of advice if you do head up to Kuranda. Look at getting the three park pass that covers Koala Gardens, Bird World, and the butterfly sanctuary. Individually they’re a tad over-priced, but at $42 for all three, it’s about on par with what you’d pay at any other zoo.