Saturday, December 08, 2007

Choo-choo trains in Cairns

Most of the photos can be viewed at Flickr (I don't have Sarah's from the start of the weekend)

If you don't count the nine months spent in my mother's womb I recently turned 31 in effin' queue (Far North Queensland). It was my first trip to that part of the world and was prompted by its proximity to Sarah's temporary hometown of Port Moresby. In fact, it takes about twice as long to get to Cairns from Canberra which goes a long way towards explaining why North Queensland is much closer to PNG in landscape and climate than the southern parts of Australia. Cairns would be the spitting image of Port Moresby if there were more dilapidated buildings, violent crime, smoke from burning garbage, and less backpackers. I think I have stumbled on to the secret breeding ground of the backpacker. Cairns is teeming with them and their associated cheap hostels and drinkeries. Such a tourist town is it that it's hard to spot anyone who doesn't appear to be either a tourist or to work in the hospitality industry.

Sarah and I made the very sensible decision to bypass the hoi polloi by outspending them at a resort perched on the edge of the Daintree rainforest complete with a jungle camouflaged swimming pool, a restaurant in the trees overlooking the river below and individual bungalows surrounded by rainforest and the off foraging bush turkey. It's such a relaxing place that I went off into a reverie just thinking about it.

Our only outing on Saturday was to Mossman Gorge where we lowered ourselves into the surprisingly cold water in a secluded part of the river which rolled through the thick forest where creepers climb the trees in an effort to find sunlight. The roots of the trees in the rainforest tend not to exist solely under the ground. The look as though they have grown up from the ground and attached themselves limpet-like to the tree, or else they look like flat anchors spreading out from the trunk, making you wonder how trees usually stay upright without such support. Without doubt the gorge would be more spectacular when the waters are flowing fully, but there aren't many better places to be when the thermometer climbs over thirty, apart from in your exclusive pool resort having a nap and reading the paper.

Sarah and I have developed a bad habit in recent times of getting up early while on holiday. This is not by choice, but usually revolves around stupid, stupid airlines. This trip was no exception. As Sarah's work denied her request to fly back to Port Moresby early on Monday morning, she had to leave early Sunday morning instead. I guess I could be understanding about the fact that Sarah's managers cut her weekend short because there was a conference on Monday that she was organising, and half a dozen staff members were away on emergency flood relief, but it was my birthday and I don't have to be understanding, that's one of the good things about birthdays. So a pox on Sarah's managers for making me spend my birthday alone.

The result of all this was that I was in the unusual position of getting up at 5:15 on the day of my birthday to drive Sarah to the airport. The positive aspect was that the drive to the airport, from Port Douglas to Cairns, is rated as one of the best drives in the world, which we experienced as the sun rose over the water. It was quite a topsy-turvy day – getting up early, driving along a beautiful stretch of Australia's coast, saying goodbye to Sarah at the airport, then hopping on the Kunanda Scenic Railway, a train which winds its way through the hills outside Cairns, passing under mango trees and through 15 tunnels along the way. I wish I could say that the train sped along, generating a cooling breeze, but it seemed to be affected by the heat as well and chugged along at a leisurely pace through the 36 degree heat. If anything it felt hotter in the higher altitude of Kunanda, and after a quick jaunt past the tourist shops, and a brief wander through the residential area dotted with beautiful flame trees, I retreated to the shade of the pub near the station with a cold pint while the staff spruiked the next load of passengers with the offer of mango daiquiris.

The best part about going to Kunanda was the trip back down to the coast. I had a dim idea about a cable car at Cairns but I didn't fully appreciate how cool skyrail is. It travels 7.5 kilometres back to Cairns, but the beauty of it is that the trip doesn't go through the trees, but above them, giving you the sensation of being a bird above the canopy. It is an alpine form of transport in a lush, verdant landscape. Rather than bulldoze a path for the cable cars to travel through, they flew each supporting pole in my helicopter. It's an impressive idea which seems to have been executed well. Both the train and the cable car stop at Barron Falls, a spectacular looking waterfall (even more so in full flow).

On my birthday night I went to bed early in preparation for another 5:30am departure. It's a lot easier to get up early in the tropics than during a Canberra winter, which my taxi driver was attempting to recreate through the power of air-conditioning. It is freezing at Cairns airport as well, as though they feel the need to prove that you can be cold in a hot part of the world. As I sit here shivering, waiting for my plane to be depart, which has been delayed, oh a mere six hours, I really hope that the part they are flying in from Timbuktu is crucial to the successful flying of the plane and not just something to make the toilet flush properly. The Chinese passengers that I am waiting in the terminal with have the unfortunate habit of hawking up a goobie and spitting into the bin. I guess I should be grateful that they are not expectorating all over the floor. Qantas very kindly shouted everyone breakfast from the one food outlet in the terminal. Their thinking seems to be that one plane load of pissed off people is a lot less damaging that the biggest aviation disaster in Australian history. If I wasn't getting this flight free through my parent's frequent flyer points, I would be tempted to ask for my money back.

Just to switch tense on you again, I am back in Canberra now, the flight home from Cairns taking twelve hours in total. One of the stewards on the Cairns to Canberra leg asked me whether I wanted anything because I had kind of a blank look on my face. Sitting in a departure lounge for six hours will do that, I though to myself. He gave me a free Mars Bar. To compound my day of travel hell, although I was rescheduled on a later flight to Canberra, just as we had all boarded, and everyone had shoved their luggage into the overhead locker and sat the hell down, an electrical storm rolled in, and those namby pamby ground staff decided that getting me home on time wasn't worth being struck by lightning. Then a thunder storm rolled across out flight path anyway, making the captain delay us further. After a 50 minute delay we had a stroke of “luck” and got that sucker into the air. So not the most relaxing journey home, but it was another memorable birthday flight to add to the list. I must remember that my birthday falls right in the middle of storm season.