A wealth of natural beauty waits to accost you in Cairns if you venture beyond its famous coral reefs.

You think you know all there is to know about Cairns — and you’re headed for the big coral-themed dive in the 345,000-sq km Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (as are almost everyone). After all, this is one of Australia’s best-known attractions!

The morning after I get here, I prepare to sail to the reef on one of those slick crafts that whisk adventurers forth. Just as the boat is about to set off, the day is hooded in mist and a chilly drizzle — the outing is postponed. Edged thus into confronting Cairns for charms other than those on and under water, I wander around the lagoon on the esplanade, and ask bikini-clad visitors and locals for ideas on how best to spend the day. “Barron Gorge National Park” is the universal chorus. And one of the best ways to see it — really, they whisper mysteriously — is via the Kuranda Scenic Railway.

So it is Kuranda I take. There is something deeply attractive about being on a train that slowly meanders past green peaks and marshmallow clouds, steep ravines, tumbling gorges and rugged coastal mountains. The fact that it takes two hours for a journey that could technically take far less time is enough to classify this ride as a perfect tease.

Four hundred metres from the Kuranda Station is an all-weather, covered heritage market, replete with wooden jewellery, feather belly-button cleaners, ‘made-in-China’ aboriginal art, and all sorts of hippie bits and bobs. Over a lunch of emu with mustard, lean kangaroo with barbeque sauce, and bland crocodile spiced up with sweet chilli sauce, all cooked slowly on a hot rock in one of the little cafés that dot the town, I watch the rain pour down. A dazzling electric blue Ulysses butterfly — North Queensland’s unofficial emblem — flies past, reminding me that I still have to see the aviary, bird world and venom zoo.

Of course, there’s no point going down the same way I came up: A good way to encounter the rainforest is via the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. The 7.5 km long gondola cableway allows you to view the tropical rainforest from up above. You could also explore the rainforest on boardwalks that have interpretative panels at stops along the way.

Inside the gondola cabin, as I glide above the rainforest canopy, I feel a little like Gulliver must have felt on his travels — an insignificant bag of bones in the face of larger-than-life nature. It’s pouring now, and I’m dismayed at the thought of my exploration being truncated by the rain. However, the ranger, in a broad-rimmed hat, dismisses my dismay with a jolly, “What better way to see the rainforest than in the rains? If you travel only in the warmth, you end up missing a lot of the world’s subtlety. In the rains there’s teasing thunder, clouds gathering and the refreshing rehydrating release of it all. The scent of the earth is ripe and juicy, and the light slants at you sideways.”

At the two stops that punctuate our trip, the ranger waxes eloquent on the charms of the cassowary, the unusual large and flightless bird found in this part of the world. And then offers me a few silent moments to drink in the spectral loveliness of the Barron Falls.

But this is far from being the only theatrical performance I am treated to. As I emerge from the skyrail terminal, it’s just a skip away to the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park. Tourism is the lifeblood of the Tjapukai now — in survival mode, they have combined the most interesting aspects of their culture with showbiz. The next few hours are spent in the creation theatre, which tells the story of creation using giant holograms, and there are actors demonstrating boomerang and spear throwing. Sacred, historical, or just playing up to the desire for exotica — whatever your opinion, in a space where the Tjapukai wield boomerangs with one hand and iPhones with the other, it’s impossible not to be enchanted by the didgeridoo performance. Or leave without a sense of connectedness to the earth, from listening to creation myths.

Meanwhile, in Cairns, people continue to live counter to the clock, just like the animals here. By the time I am back in town, I bump into a truckload of friends heading for the nightly viewing of animals at the Cairns tropical zoo. The kangaroos, wallabies, rainforest dragons and crocs at feeding time are delightful to behold. But what really moves my pen, heart and soul is Australia’s heaviest gecko. I’m told this scaly creature stalks the desert at night, eating anything small enough to swallow. When danger threatens, it stands tall and open its mouth wide, and tries to intimidate large animals — even photographers.

It’s midnight by the time I return, and I expect life around the mangrove forest and the water to have folded up for the night. Instead, I’m confronted by the sound of firecrackers, and people dressed in blue-and-red costumes and swollen-moon face-masks. It’s Chinese New Year, and evil spirits are being chased away by a town that knows just how to turn dinner into breakfast. And in the midst of this high-jinks, I realise that the necessity to postpone the Barrier Reef trip to another day was a blessing in disguise.

(This article was published on August 30, 2012)
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