The composition approaches the Freshwater platform.
The employee finds it difficult to contain the curious passengers, eager to photograph the large colored locomotive approaching and too close to the forbidden end of the line.
We are on the outskirts of Cairns, in the lush north of the east of the Australia. The train arrives from the city center with some delay and the driver knows he has to make up for lost time.
It has the collaboration of the station chief to speed up the procedures: "all aboardscreams this one from the bottom of his lungs. He breathes in again and blows the whistle with equal railway vigor.
Cairns Journey through the Jungle from PN Barron Falls above
We are already installed in the red seats when we feel the carriage sway. The Kuranda Train advances first between the bordering rainforest and the grassy sands of the Coral sea.
Then it climbs the heights of the Macalister Range and enters the thick jungle of Barron Falls National Park where it winds through imposing canyons.
The graceful flow of the carriages, airy and comfortable, and the imposing scenery of the scenery say little about the hardships at the origin of that railway. And yet, little more than a century has passed since the wild draft of the project.
The Historical Urgency in the Origin of the Kuranda Railway
It was 1881, and North Queensland was experiencing yet another of so many protracted monsoon seasons. A large community of tin miners on the banks of the Wild River near Herberton was already suffering from rationing and starvation for months.
This was because the dirt road that had been rescued from the bush had turned into a long quagmire and did not allow the arrival of supplies from Port Douglas. This ordeal aroused a strong dispute among the settlers in that remote area and the intensifying demand for a railway linking them to the coast.
The period of affliction, with the prevailing heat and rains, has passed. As Australia's coldest and driest months came, southern politicians flocked to the Top End to campaign for elections. All promised to build the desired line.
In March 1882, the Minister of Labor and Mines decided to make good on the promises and commissioned Christie Palmerston, a bushman and experienced pioneer, to find the best route between the coast and the Atherton Plateau.
Cairns and Port Douglas Rivalry for the Coastal Terminal
With guaranteed state support, the rival cities of Cairns and Port Douglas fought for the right to host the coastal terminal and develop the line. At that time, Palmerston was already investigating the various hypotheses for the itinerary and systematically came across a trail previously marked by a Douglas inspector.
At the end of his journey, Douglas sent a telegram to the colonial secretary summarizing the situation: “… Fearful journey. No chance of road. Twenty days without feed and subsisting almost entirely on roots. Nineteen days of continuous rain.”
Two years later, Christie Palmerston's investigation reports were submitted and evaluated. The Barron Valley Gorge route was chosen. The population of Port Douglas exploded with indignation. At the same time, Cairns celebrated as much as it could.
This would be just the beginning of a great epic on rails.
The Ever Denser Jungle of Tjapukai Aborigines
On board, we entertained ourselves walking along the carriages and we noticed a kind of babel in movement animated by visitors from the four corners of the world, but with a predominance of aussies and of Asians.
The train comes to a standstill and passengers are granted the privilege of observing the imposing Barron Falls and other smaller waterfalls such as Stoney Creek, just a few meters from the train.
As we approach our final destination, a multilingual voiceover gives curious information about the line's troubled construction.
None of this is part of the text, but in March 2010, Kuranda Train derailed because of a debacle. Five of the 250 passengers were injured and the operation was suspended for re-assessment of risks until 7 May, an insignificant setback compared to those suffered during the original work.
At one point of construction, 1500 men were involved in the project, mostly Irish and Italian, distributed in barracks installed next to each tunnel – 15 hand-excavated – and to each of the 37 bridges.
Over time, campaign villages sprouted up supplied by small grocery stores and clothing, equipment and dynamite stores. Kamerunga, at the foot of the canyon, once had five hotels.
In June 1891, the railroad service to passengers was inaugurated. Cairns thrived while Port Douglas became a quiet housing retreat. This discrepancy remains quite notorious.
The Bitter Resistance of the Tjapukai Aborigines
Almost an hour and a half later, the Kuranda Train makes its way to the final station, Kuranda.
The village of just over 1000 people continues to form part of the Tjapukai indigenous “nation” and hosts the Tjapukai Indigenous Dance Theatre. In practice, it is the settlers who occupy it most.
During the construction of the line, the Aboriginal people, dissatisfied by the invasion and destruction of their lands, responded by attacking, with spears, the oxen and settlers trespassing in their territories.
This led to leader John Atherton sending rival native troops to carry out revenge, which resulted in the infamous Speewah massacre.
As an extra consequence, the Tjapukai clans responsible for the initial settler attacks were segregated and sent on a mission called Mona-Mona where they could no longer hunt, fish or even move about freely.
By the turn of the century, the number of those Aborigines had dwindled dramatically. The few who resisted were employed in coffee plantations introduced in the meantime. More recently, the Australian government has returned land that belonged to their families to their descendants.
Some explore them. Several trade crafts in the markets from the terminal station.
Many never recovered from the setbacks suffered. For them, the ultimate irony will be to see these days the painting of Budaadji, the mythological serpent that created all the rivers and streams of his wild world traveling on the locomotive of the Kuranda Scenic Railway.
The End Station of the Kuranda Scenic Railway
In the 60s and 70s, Kuranda welcomed hundreds of Australians in search of a secluded and more existential life, a new hippie community that delighted in this unlikely haven of refuge.
Rosie Madden writes some proud and esoteric lines in a mini-forum about the village: “I was one of the first so-called hippies in Kuranda. I lived in a tree house that I and some mates we build.
Our foreman Kevin took me from Brissy (Brisbane) there by light aircraft and we were welcomed by friendly residents in a Combi.
Jesus met us, then had a fight with God, two people who left me speechless. This was in the 70s. Since then, I have given two children to the Rusch family: Rastah and Reuben.
But I was there when the markets opened for the first time. There was even a tourist pamphlet that said “Come to Kuranda, the center hippie of North Queensland!” Those days were like that, now that's how it is. But I am very happy to have contributed to the current prosperity of the village”.
Kuranda's Now Touristic and Prosperous Days
“Now is the way it is” refers to the strong influx of ozzie and foreign visitors and the total commercialization of the village, which, from 9 am until the last train leaves, bills against the clock.
There we find modernized remnants of the more spiritual era of the place, numerous psychedelic paintings and quirky businesses. We are seduced by aura readings, the sale of exotic delicacies like mango wine and the inevitable pieces of aboriginal folklore: didgeridoos and boomerangs to mention just the familiar ones.
We descend a small staircase and enter a shadowy part of the market that a sign advertises as Bizarre. Like a hallucinogenic guardian, Lynda manages her staminé from inside a loose-fitting tunic of all colors and, with a small cheek-licking mutt in her lap, foists garments and trinkets from another world.
We climb back up into the merciless sun. In this elevated section, we meet Sada who maintains a small tent of artefacts that he sculpts himself.
A short conversation reveals that the bare-chested aborigine assimilated much more of the external reality than we expected: “Are you from Portugal? Well, how I love your football. But for us, Eusebius continues to be the great idol, I tell you now.
At a time when we, like most African Indians, were fighting for our rights, he rose up and was idolized by whites. That was very important!”.
Nearby, an eccentric-looking woman holds her dolled son in her arms, wearing only a leopard-print T-shirt. We ended up having a dialogue and it gives us evidence of the deepening of the relationship between the parties aligned by Sada.
I am from North Queensland. Kwame was born here but his father is from Ghana. Looks like a little aborigine, doesn't he?