Travel: Rail view through Cairns strikes gold

It's rare that I have the opportunity to travel gold class. I am neither a gold-club member of any airline nor am I the holder of any gold-type credit cards.

I enjoy travelling "pleb" class and have even enjoyed - if that's the correct word - travelling on trains and local buses in India where pleb class is a whole different world.

However, many would say that I have a real taste for all things gold, and when I was presented with the opportunity to experience the Kuranda Scenic Railway in gold class, I almost snatched their hands off.

Boarding at Cairns Railway Station, my sister (who at least has gold jewellery) and I are chaperoned to our club-style leather seats in one of the two authentically refurbished heritage carriages, finished in Victorian style with Queensland red cedar and brass.

Two glasses of chilled bubbles, served by hostess Beth just after we leave Cairns station at 9.30am, are hastily consumed.

It's a fitting start to a rail journey that's steeped in history, surrounded by rainforest and constructed in the late-1800s to link burgeoning gold-mining fields with Cairns.

This engineering feat was constructed from 1882-1891 - mostly under the guidance of contractor John Robb, to whom there stands a fitting monument.

Tucking into a variety of local delicacies, including awesome pastries, sausage rolls and endless little savouries, we snake our way through the stations.

Passing through Redlynch village, named after a hardworking Irish redhead who was foreman to railway workers, we take the 180-degree Horseshoe Bend with its 100m-radius curve before we begin our steep climb from Freshwater Valley.

There's a tale to be told about the engine pulling our carriages. Transformed into an artistic masterpiece, the artwork of local Aboriginal artist George Riley infuses the engine with bright colours that reflect the feel of North Queensland's Barrier Reef and rainforest.

Buda-dji, the Carpet Snake who in dreamtime carved out the Barron River that runs from the Tablelands high in the rainforest down to the coast, stands proud along the side of our engine.

On our way to Kuranda township, which sits in the World Heritage-listed wet tropics rainforest at 334m, we pass through a total of 15 tunnels and 37 bridges.

Hundreds of men carved tunnels and built bridges with picks and shovels, buckets and dynamite, jackhammers and bare hands in order to forge this railway.

The tunnels are eerie monuments to the 23 pioneers who died and were buried alongside the tracks. Seven lives were lost when tunnel No15 collapsed during construction. Nine others went missing and were never found.

As we chug over the sheer drops to the right of us and the river way below, it's easy to see where these workers may have ended up.

But it wasn't the railway itself that took the lives of these mainly Irish and Italian labourers. It was disease. Malaria, dysentery, snakebite, typhus, scrub ticks and even leprosy.

Sipping bubbles and still munching on savouries, we pass beside Stoney Creek Falls. The beautiful waterfall is the highlight of the journey. We pause atop a bridge of iron-lattice construction that stands on three trestle piers, and then watch anxiously as we meander past the impressive waterfalls at about 5km per hour.

Passing within centimetres of jagged rock face on one side and looking down into oblivion on the other side, we all breathe a sigh of relief when clear of the iron edifice.

This part of the journey isn't for the faint-hearted, people who suffer from vertigo or those who've consumed too much bubbly.

Our personal gold-class attendant, Beth, who is "looking after our every need", is informative during our journey, relating a wealth of funny stories and historical information, and wearing a smile for the entire two-hour journey over about 75km of track, rainforest and Queensland sunshine.

The Kuranda Railway Station was completed in 1915, and the small town itself is a slice of rejuvenated history with pseudo-rustic pioneer-inspired shop fronts and tropical gardens with real, as well as stuffed, koalas.

The village is a short uphill walk away, but with three glasses of bubbles and an overdose of savouries we barely make it.

Invaded by hippies in the 1960s, Kuranda still has that feel of "differentness".

For those who don't want to eat, drink or visit the arty-farty shops, there are hundreds of kilometres of jungle at your disposal.

To be offered bubbles, to eat scrumptious savouries and to enjoy that little bit of extra comfort on the Kuranda Scenic Railway gold-class excursion is awesome, but it does not distract one from what's really on offer - a guided train journey through breathtaking rainforest in style.

Kuranda Scenic Railway is a must-do of the "big three" transfers in Cairns. But whether you travel pleb class or gold class, we are all treated to the same view.

- Hamilton News

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