Cairns, Sir William Wellington

W. W. Cairns was the State Governor of Queensland and may never have visited the place given his name. It wasn’t much of a place, a few tents in the swampy tropics. Now it is a city in the tropics; which implies a more relaxed, slower-paced approach to life. In Minnesota, winter is life threatening and summer has more mosquitos; in Cairns, summer is life threatening and winter has less rain. And life-threatening flora and fauna.

The area has all the ‘standard’ stuff, you know, like koala sanctuaries, botanical gardens, rain forest gondolas, waterfalls, beaches with stinger nets to keep out the box jelly fish but not the crocodiles, cruises and diving on the Great Barrier Reef, all readily accessible from the downtown. We chilled a bit and took a scenic train through fifteen tunnels, across thirty seven bridges, over Baron River Gorge up to the village of Kuranda. I didn’t count the bridges.

Kuranda is a quaint artsy-crafty little town about 3,000 meters higher than Cairns with an historic hotel, several restaurants looking toward the Coral Sea or into the rain forest, and of course shops selling their arts and crafts. Even the basic souvenir shops featured local items (plus tee shirts;) others were more high-end with lots of opal, numbered prints, and some original art.

We would have liked to spend more than the three hours we had available in the village, but except for one siding more or less half way, it was a single track rail line. There are two trains up in the morning and two trains down in the afternoon. Our ship sailed at six whether we were on it or not. The second train wouldn’t have gotten us there on time, which left one option. (If you have two options and you lose one, you don’t have any options.)

There is a road but the tourists almost all come by train and leave by ‘Skyrail’, which has six-person cars riding a cable just above the rain forest canopy. Or the other way round. The Skyrail, by all accounts was spectacular, but “not suitable for persons with limited mobility;” it was literally “hop-on-hop-off.” The train ride didn’t quite rise to the level of ‘spectacular’ but was certainly memorable with many stunning vistas and informative commentary.

In contrast to the usual approach to naming things here, one small town is called ‘Redlynch’. Red Lynch was the red-headed foreman who did all the construction hiring for that section of the rail line. To get a job, you had to go to Red Lynch. The non-English speaking workers thought that was the name of a place, and so it is.

The rail line was interesting in its own right; Australians consider it one of their greatest engineering accomplishments, along with the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Built by hand with picks and shovels in the late nineteenth century, all the tunnels and cuts involved moving massive quantities of rock. To speed the construction along, there were multiple crews working on different sites along the route, which presented some logistical problems of access (because they didn’t have a railroad to get them there.) In particular, for the longest tunnel (almost half a kilometer), they worked eight faces simultaneously; somehow they managed to meet.

While the justification was to provided access for miners (Did I mention someone found gold?), the line immediately became popular with sight-seers and ‘holiday makers.’

Cairns City is positively bustling for the tropics, but ‘only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.’ Much of the city is built on former swamps, using fill from all the tunnels and cuts; they had to put it somewhere. Even by US standards, this is a new town; the Brits we are traveling with are somewhat amused by historic hotels that are over 100 years old.

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