28th May 2000
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Roger Thiedeman goes ...

Riding above the rainforest

Riding above the rainforestGently gliding over treetops. Skimming, swaying, as branches reach upwards to touch, to caress with their leafy fingers. But I remain tantalisingly out of reach. Spread beneath me, a forest wonderland as old as time. Verdant, lush, in varying shades of green punctuated by flecks of other colours from Nature's palette. Overall, a dense canopy of branches, leaves, shielding the forest floor below. These are the forests of the Barron Gorge National Park near the Australian city of Cairns, in Far North Queensland. 

I am now soaring higher still above the forest roof, just clearing the tops of trees in their march upward to blanket the rising mountains. But I am neither bird, nor flying with the aid of artificial wings. I am ensconced in a bubble of fibreglass, perspex and steel. Suspended from its lifeline, a never-ending galvanised steel rope 40.5 mm. thick, the cable car, or gondola, is my ever-mobile, sightseeing platform. Comfortably seating six passengers it is one of 114 identical gondolas operating on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.

Skyrail opened in August 1995. It took just over 12 months to construct. But the preceding seven years were spent in delicate negotiations with 23 different government agencies and community groups, to ensure minimal impact on the pristine rainforest and its ecosystem. Today, Skyrail is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the tropical paradise of Cairns and its surrounding region.

I board my gondola at Skyrail's Caravonica Terminal in the suburb of Smithfield, a few minutes' drive north of Cairns city. There is a faint jolt as the overhead claw clutches the moving cable in a vice-like grip. I am under way, whisked from the gloom of the terminal building into brilliant sunshine outside. The cable stretches ahead, following the contours of the rising terrain, then disappearing over the other side of hilltops. Other gondolas are strung out at intervals on the endless, continuously moving cable. I pass the cable cars coming down in the opposite direction. 

Like mine, their passengers' eyes are riveted on the forest beneath. As the gondola hauls me ever higher, a carpet of botanical wonders begins to unfold. There are eucalypt woodlands with an 'understorey' of cycads, primitive ferns, many hundreds of years old. Silver-leafed paperbark trees offer a contrast to the riot of green around them. Vines cling to some trees, while the tops of others are host to Green-tree Ants' nests. Ascending further, nearing one of the cable support towers, the gondola almost touches the top of a Black Tulip Oak, reaching for the sky from several hundred feet below.

There are a total of 36 towers along the 7.5 km. route of the Skyrail cableway. Their erection was a masterful engineering feat in itself. Like a giant Lego or Meccano set, the tower gantries, or pylons, were lowered into isolated jungle clearings with the aid of a Russian Kamov Ka-32 helicopter, specially leased for the purpose. The concrete base of each tower measures only 10 metres (33 feet) square, again minimising any environmental impact. Helicopters were also used to build one of the stations along the route, and for laying the 15 km. of steel cable. The tallest tower, no. 6, is 40.5 metres (133 feet) above the ground, but the cableway itself reaches up to 545 metres (1788 feet) above sea level at its highest point.

It is the wet season in tropical North Queensland. Or, as locals abbreviate it, 'the wet'. Often, at this time, sunshine suddenly gives way to showers. Now, an overcast spreads a grey pall over the blue sky. Behind me, the coastline and azure seas with the Great Barrier Reef just beyond, have disappeared in a misty, swirly haze. Driving, pelting rain sweeps swiftly up from the coast, inland and over the rainforest. I am apprehensive. The rain will soon envelop my gondola in its moist embrace. The howling winds: will they buffet me, shake my plastic bubble and me off the security of the cable, hurling us downward into the forest?

My fears were baseless. As quickly as it arrives, the rain sheets around me like a curtain passing over my mechanical cocoon, then moves steadily onwards. The gondola barely quivers. Now the air is fresh and fragrant, cleansed by the tropical downpour. Not only are my visual and auditory senses stimulated, now forest smells drift upwards from the floor far below. Long-forgotten earthy scents of plants, trees, fruits, leaves, evoking childhood memories from faraway, tropical Sri Lanka. But there is no time for the mind to remember the when and the where. 

First stop on Skyrail, Red Peak Station has been reached. Here, one must leave the gondola and board another for the onward journey. Skyrail comprises two endless loops of cable, the first linking Caravonica and the Red Peak junction. The second, and longer, from Red Peak to the other terminus at Kuranda. But there is no hurry to reboard Skyrail. 

Red Peak Station offers a different angle on the rainforest. Making a change from skimming above the trees, one may take a complimentary guided walk at ground level, learning and discovering what makes a tropical rainforest so special. Craning necks upwards at the treetops, now so high above, only occasional patches of light are seen to filter through, as the canopy jealously guards its forest secrets. Acting as a natural rooftop, it protects the forest floor from rain, wind and sun, acting as a blanket to trap humidity, and like a solar panel to harness the sun's energy for growth.

We are reminded that the rainforests are a living museum, once part of a vast forest that covered the Australian continent 120 million years ago. 

The jungles protect unusual plants and animals including the flightless Cassowary, an ostrich-like bird, the primitive Musky Rat-kangaroo, and the restricted Lumholtz's Tree-kangaroo.

Back inside another gondola, I resume my journey above the jungle. Suddenly, down in the forest, a flash of colour relieves the unrelenting greenery. A small patch of vivid blue fringed with black. It moves, flitting, darting, zigging here, zagging there. Restlessly fluttering hither and thither, it is a Ulysses Butterfly, the beautiful, unofficial symbol of Far North Queensland's tourist industry. 

Seconds later, Ulysses is lost from view. New varieties of plant life compete for attention as I float aloft: Alexandra Palms; Cooper Tree Ferns; Wattle trees, with dull, silvery foliage; the Superb Fig; Boonjie Fig; Hard Milkwood Trees, with their long, thin, green hanging seed pods; all different and majestic in their own way. Red leaves and flowers of parasitic mistletoe provide a counterpoint of colour.

Presently a new sound is heard. At first a dull murmur, it quickly swells in a crescendo to the thunderous roar of rushing water. Seconds later, the rugged Barron Gorge looms into view, then the foaming, turbulent waters of the Barron Falls as they crash down from a height of 280 metres to the rocks below. Again, memory takes wing to Sri Lanka, to its up-country waterfalls. 

But Diyaluma and Dunhinda seem docile compared to the angry grandeur of the Barron, fattened by the rains of the tropical 'wet'. The Skyrail gondola presents a spectacular grandstand view of Nature's unbridled power.

At Barron Falls Station, I alight again for a closer look at the Barron River, Gorge, and Falls, viewed from the walkways and lookouts provided. Finally, having drunk my fill of the Barron, I climb aboard a gondola for the last, short leg to the Kuranda Skyrail terminus. I disembark at Kuranda nearly 90 minutes after departing Caravonica.

There is ample time for a leisurely amble around the Kuranda markets, and a long, lazy lunch, before returning to Caravonica aboard Skyrail. The second time around is no less fascinating or breathtaking as I once more soar above the mighty rainforest, courtesy of the unique, unforgettable Skyrail Rainforest Cableway experience.

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