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Australia is the driest, flattest and oldest continent on the planet – the original sunburnt country. But in far north Queensland, travellers could be forgiven for believing they were on another continent.
The view from the panorama window of Queensland Rail’s Sunlander train as we journey through fields of sugarcane next to the Capricorn Coast is dramatic. At latitude 14 south, green ranges are visible as the rolling mountains of the Great Dividing Range draw closer to the coastal rail track.
It says something about the size of the continent that this 500km-long Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, is less than 1 percent of Australia’s land mass, and still dominates 900 000 hectares of Queensland’s coastal belt.
“We’re just passing Mount Bartle Frere, which is the highest peak in Queensland,” Angela, our on-board maître d’ tells us near the sugar town of Babinda.
Rather bizarre that Queensland’s highest mountain should be named after the imperialist who started the Zulu War in 1879. The aboriginal name – Chooreechillum, the place where the spirits return for rebirth – sounds better
Earlier, checking in at Brisbane’s Roma Street Station, Angela welcomed us in typically warm Queensland manner – guaranteed to make the journey informative, relaxing and enjoyable – and explained the schedule of the 36-hour trip north while we enjoyed a complimentary drink in the lounge car soon followed by morning tea.
Voted one of the world’s top rail journeys, Queenslander Class on the Sunlander is recognised for its fine dining. The Glass House Mountains, looming up through the pine forests, were the first indication of the spectacular scenery we were to see throughout the journey.
With Noosa and the Sunshine Coast close, passengers were distracted from the magnificent scenery by lunch’s pièce de résistance, the Queenslander special seafood platter, a raft of ocean goodies: Capricorn Coast crayfish served chilled with steamed red claw, prawns and oysters Kirkpatrick on a bed of fresh salad followed by apple and rhubarb crumble with macadamia ice cream.
Sugar cane, Queensland’s dominant coastal crop, made its appearance at Bundaberg straddling the Burnett River, with kilometres of irrigated flowering sugar cane. The funfair arrived in town as we passed during the afternoon and seemed the focus of the good citizens of Bundaberg rather than the start of the winter cane harvest soon upon them.
Dry Australian eucalypt and dense stands of mulga woodland-covered hills, rich emerald pastures dotted with Angus beef herds and trees flanked deep and strongly flowing crocodile friendly creeks and rivers were visible before dusk settled near the port city of Gladstone, 500km north of Brisbane.
Russell, the train’s resident musician, strummed away the evening in the lounge car with old favourites – five years on this route so he’s lost count of the number of trips he’s done. “I love it – always something new to see and new people to meet.”
In the evening we were again tempted, this time with a choice of grilled haloumis and a bouquet of vegetables – sliced and grilled capsicum, eggplant, zucchinis and fresh rocket and pesto sauce – or seared eye fillet on wilted spinach with sweet potato and Gympie goat’s cheese rosti. For dessert it was an impossible choice between a delicious lemon curd tart drizzled with pomegranate sauce and espresso terrine sponge with a Tia Maria cream, all accompanied by a selection of Queensland granite belt wines.
While we were enjoying our evening meal, staff converted our twin cabin seating into a fold-down bed and made up with fresh linen. A pleasant extra was the Queenslander Class robe (pamper pack included) which was useful in making the dash to the shower at the end of the carriage.
Stations and hamlets flashed by the panorama window, illuminating old frontiers and experiences: traditional “Queenslander” farmhouses elevated on their stumps for protection from termites and flood; banana, pawpaw, litchi, macadamia and mango orchards; horizon-seeking fields of strawberries; torn roofs from Cyclone Yasi, and names reflecting settlements – El Arish, a post World War I soldiers’ settlement, Murdering Point, Mission Beach, Innisfail and Ayr, where the Sunlander crosses the Burdekin River rail bridge – at 1 000m the longest in Australia.
The Sunlander and Queensland Rail’s north-south Tilt Train provides a convenient access for holidaymakers as they traverse the state’s spine, with coach and rail connections to outback and coastal destinations, hopping-off points for the Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsunday Island group and World Heritage Fraser Island. At Innisfail, the “Canecutters Way” meanders through tropical rainforest, old sugar towns, canecutters barracks, mills and fields.
Arriving at Cairns we say our farewells. This is the hub in far north Queensland for commercial and recreational fishing and dive charters. Residents there are still reeling from news that the Australian government has locked out the best spots in the Coral Sea as part of a parcel of new marine parks encircling the continent.
We absorb this as we drive next to the coast on the Cook Highway before reaching the laid-back resort of Port Douglas, fringed with Foxtail and African oil palms, and a de rigueur trip to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
Port Douglas was in carnival mood, despite an overnight dump of 300m of heavy unseasonal rain. The Mossman and Daintree rivers draining off the tropical rainforest are a deep chocolate brown, with a strong gale-force southerly whipping up white horses.
Not discouraged, we board the Quicksilver catamaran with fellow grey-haired nomads, backpackers and Japanese tourists and make for the activity platform positioned at the pristine Agincourt ribbon reef 72km out at the edge of the Great Barrier Reef.
Jayne, our friendly hostess, explains that though the Great Barrier Reef extends for 2 300km along the north-east coast of Australia, it is a network of many thousands of individual reefs, islands and cays. The Quicksilver Group operates under a strict permit system that allows water activities in designated zones, but not fishing or collecting on the reefs.
We set off from the Port Douglas marina with a deep swell running, whipped up by the strong winds. Ninety minutes later we enter the calm waters of Agincourt reef and the platform – a wonderful installation that allows swimming, diving and snorkelling. And a post box for those postcards. Or, if you’re not too energetic, a leisurely amble around the stationary platform to watch a frenzied fish feeding session. Crew, who include marine biologists, explain the fragile ecology of the reef and the amazing biodiversity of plants, corals and fish life.
The platform is uncannily steady while the surface of the sea is peppered with surf breaking over the outer reefs.
Pity a skipper without a good chart, as Captain James Cook found when his barque stuck a reef 30km north of here on his search for the legendary Great South Land “Terra Australis” in 1770.
The opportunity to enjoy a closer look at the Unesco-inscribed World Heritage Rainforest came on our final day when we boarded the Kuranda scenic railway in Cairns to travel 37km to Kuranda high up in the rainforest.
The line was hewn from the granite rock face of the Barron Gorge more than 100 years ago by navvies working with pick, shovel and dynamite. Even today, as we travel over spectacular curving iron bridges, deep culverts and 15 tunnels, we marvel at the engineering linking Cairns with the goldfields.
The return trip is equally spectacular on the Skyrail cableway that carries visitors 8km over the rainforest before descending to Cairns. One might recoil at a cableway through a World Heritage area, but to give them credit, Skytrain have been named the most environmentally sustainable tourism business in the Pacific region – and the only cableway in the world to achieve this status.
The unseasonal rains have an added benefit with forest trees flowering and, from our gondola skimming metres above, we spot tall Alexandra Palms, Briar Silky Oaks and Hickory Ash fruiting along the entire cableway.
The brilliant white flowers of these magnificent trees growing up to more than 30m are visible on the top of the canopy in large bundles. The forest is also home to rare species including tree kangaroos and cassowaries.
At our final stop at Red Peak cable station the forest ranger shows us a towering 400-year-old Kauri Pine with majestic buttress roots. Before the Barron Gorge National Park was proclaimed, these heavy timbers were logged but now are safe for posterity and, hopefully, the same holds true for all of this wonderful world heritage area. - Sunday Tribune
If You Go...
The Sunlander operates an overnight service three times a week between Brisbane and Cairns, in both an economy and premium Queensland class.
Kuranda Scenic Railway: www.ksr.com.au