Rainforest rail ride sure to relax
Fly three hours north of Melbourne, ride a train west through the mountains, then climb up a steep hill, and you'll find a pub that boasts a sprawling verandah and perhaps Australia's most atrocious wine.
But after the day you've just had in this sunburnt pocket of Australia, that rough-as-guts tipple – “best drunk with the teeth clenched to prevent the ingestion of seeds and skins,” the label warns – will slide down your throat as smoothly as the 35-kilogram python you just saw gliding across the ground.
Far North Queenslanders are hardy folk, whose stories of gigantic crocs and cane toads are enough to turn a tanned English backpacker white with fright.
Did you know they once found a crocodile, alive and kicking, with three bullets in its head? Neither did I before I took a trip to Hartley's Crocodile Adventures just outside of Cairns, where, quite frankly, I'm surprised all the staff still have four limbs.
Duncan our guide ushered everyone onto the boat for the 2.30pm “snorkelling tour”, as he called the croc feeding exhibition on the lagoon, prompting at least one open-mouthed stare from a terrified tourist.
Watching those giant reptiles leap into the air and snap at the food offered, while the back of the boat leaks just enough to soak the passengers' shoes, would send just about anyone reaching for that atrocious bottle of red at the Kuranda Hotel Motel, about 30 kilometres outside of Cairns.
Publicans Gail and Barry Smith introduced the wine, which claims to have “the distinctive bouquet of being downwind of a sewerage system” as a bit of a lark, and at $15 a bottle – including gift wrapping – that's everyone's Christmas gifts looked after. And despite its label, the wine's not too bad, quaffed on the wide timber deck overlooking the leafy tourist town.
They say it's not just the destination that counts but the journey, and that's certainly true of this place. We jumped on board the Kuranda Scenic Railway for a winding two-hour train trip through the hills, through Barron Gorge and on to Kuranda, all the while listening to stories of how the workers blasted 15 tunnels through the rock and built dozens of bridges through the dense rainforest in the late 1800s. Splash a little extra on gold class, and you'll have hostess Maria delivering seemingly endless supplies of food and drink to your seat during the ride. Care for a champagne at 9am? Don't mind if I do, thank you.
On the return trip we floated high over the tree tops on the SkyRail Rainforest Cableway, a gondola that gives you a bird's eye view of the spectacular rainforest. Flying through the air we saw an astonishing array of green, but despite keeping our eyes peeled for a cassowary or any of North Queensland's famous creepy crawlies, we failed to spot much movement. Oh they're there, just camouflaged, the ranger tells us on a short guided tour through the rainforest at one of two stops along the gondola.
“Look, a Golden Orb,” he says, pointing to a spider roughly the size of my face clinging to a web just a metre away. Perhaps invisible animals are the best after all.
But Cairns is the perfect location to get your Alby Mangles on. It's a popular spot on the well-worn backpackers' path up Australia's east coast, drawing tourists with its tropical climate and fierce wildlife.
And let's face it, patting a 5-metre long, 35-kg Burmese python, an animal that usually constricts its prey to death, is pretty darn cool.
At Cairns Tropical Zoo we could also clutch a three-year-old saltwater croc, and cradle a koala named Cooper who snuggled up like a newborn. Everything's very hands on at the zoo, which is perhaps not the best when our tour guide Maddy dumps a bunch of live worms in my hand to feed to the lemurs. They are delicious, apparently, and these gorgeous furry creatures draw our hands closer to gobble them up.
Those looking for a brush with wildlife without leaving the city centre need only venture a few metres out of the casino. Somewhat bizarrely, the Cairns Wildlife Dome is located on top of the Pullman Reef Hotel Casino, meaning gamblers can have a flutter on the gaming floor before catching a lift and emerging in a dome where native birds flutter all around. It's small compared to the Cairns Tropical Zoo but contains crocs, koalas and snakes, and a soon-to-be-completed zip line whizzing over the crocodile enclosure.
After patting a python we feel invincible - so it's off to hurl ourselves down a few rapids during an afternoon of whitewater rafting on the Barron River. Leon, our lean and dreadlocked guide, announces shortly into the trip that we're approaching the “Super mega ugly death rapid”, whose ominous name creates mild panic in our boat until we realise it's a grade one baby rapid and that Leon fancies himself as a bit of a joker.
It's not until we're dragging the boat back onto dry land that Leon points out a sign, warning that crocs might be present in these parts. They're only found further down river, he assures us, although there has been a highly unusual case of one being pulled out here.
Drive 75 kilometres north of Cairns and you'll reach Mossman Gorge in the Daintree National Park. It looks like a lush paradise, but it hasn't always been for the small Aboriginal community living in the shadows of this world heritage-listed site.
The story goes that 30 years ago Roy Gibson, an elder from the local Kuku-Yalanji tribe, was sitting under a large tree taking a breather from his job cutting sugar cane. As he sat there, he despaired about the direction his small community was heading in, in a world of unemployment, drugs, and alcohol. He dreamt a large boulder rolled down and blocked the entrance to the gorge, forcing him to lead people up through the rainforest into the wilderness where he was born and grew up.
Today that vision has led to the establishment of the $20-million Mosman Gorge Centre, which opened to the public this week. The tourism venture is the gateway to the gorge, which attracts 500,000 visitors a year and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in North Queensland. The centre will be staffed by members of the local Aboriginal community and includes a training facility, including residential accommodation for up to 50 Indigenous students each year in hospitality and tourism, as well as a cafe and tourist information centre.
Tourists currently drive up into the national park and park their vehicles along the narrow road while they enter the gorge and wander along its many tracks. However Roy says this has led to congestion and erosion along the narrow road. The new centre will provide parking for cars and tour buses, while a shuttle bus will ferry tourists into the national park for a small fee, which has led to some opposition in the community. But Roy is convinced it's essential to protect this world-heritage listed site.
Roy, who has now been leading tours through the area for years, conducts Dreamtime walks through the rainforest, pointing out plants and trees, and explaining the customs of his people. A small hut here, he explains, is where a boy would come and live alone for a week, as part of the initiation process to become a man.
Roy guides us through the rainforest, before leading us down to the river where we scramble over boulders to reach the water.
We bomb into the river and float downstream, a perfect way to take in this wildly beautiful part of the country, where the wildlife is lurking just over yonder.
And where you just might need a dodgy wine to recover.
The writer travelled as a guest of Tiger Airways and Accor Hotels.
The Novotel Cairns Oasis Resort is located right in the centre of town, with a standard room starting from $132 a night. The hotel centres around a large lagoon-style swimming pool, with a sandy beach and swim-up bar.
Another option in the centre of town is the five-star Pullman Reef Hotel and Casino, on the waterfront. It is located inside an entertainment complex which also features a casino, nightclub, four bars and four restaurants, including the excellent Tamarind Restaurant. Rooms start from $189 for a superior room.
For those wishing to escape the hustle-and-bustle of Cairns, one option is to head north to Palm Cove, a laid-back tourist town where palm trees and good cafes line the small main street along the water's edge. The Novotel Palm Cove Resort offers standard rooms starting from $135 a night. It's extremely child friendly, with a number of pools and a slide in the shape of a giant crocodile.
Things to do
Hartley's Crocodile Adventures – Tickets cost $33 for an adult, $16.50 for a child or $82.50 for a family. http://www.crocodileadventures.com
Cairns Tropical Zoo – General admission is $33 for an adult and $16.50 for children. Wildlife experiences – including holding a koala or patting a python – come at an extra cost. http://www.cairnstropicalzoo.com.au
The Cairns Wildlife Dome will be closed until early June while construction takes place on the new zip line and ropes course. http://cairnszoom.com.au
Kuranda Scenic Railway – The one-way trip from Freshwater to Kuranda costs $48 for adults, $24 for children, or $120 for a family. http://www.ksr.com.au
The Mossman Gorge Centre is due to open to the public shortly. http://www.mossmangorge.com.au
An afternoon of white-water rafting on the Barron River with Raging Thunder tours costs $133, including transfers from Cairns. http://www.cairnsrafting.com.au
Sydney Morning Herald