When my wife and I decided to visit my old friend Ralph and his wife KC in Cairns for a week, I had no idea what this Northern Queensland city was all about. I thought it was some remote town whose only claim to fame was its proximity to the Great Barrier Reef. Boy, did I have another think coming!
The city, it’s true, is small as cities go, with a population of around 155,000. But the city itself is the least of its attractions. Our hosts live in a suburb called Goldsborough, about 33 kilometers south of the city. In the week we were there, Ralph and his wife chauffeured us around the entire region from Daintree in the north to Innisfail to the south as well as visiting the tablelands in between. All I can say is Wow! The region is unlike any other parts of Australia I’ve seen. Its climate is tropical and it boasts the oldest tropical rainforests in the world. Yes! Older than the Amazon. The tablelands are a rolling plateau on a low mountain range that covers much of the area. The climate is somewhat cooler but still tropical.
The region is dotted with small towns with quaint names, many of them aboriginal words. The region is steeped in history. And it is an agircultural hub with sugar cane and bananas among its chief crops.
On our first day there, Ralph and KC took us on a drive south. We passed fields and fields of sugar cane. And crossed train tracks left, right and center. The region is covered in a dense network of narrow gauge (two foot) rail lines. These are the sugar cane train rails. Each mill has its own rail network and there are 17 mills with over 1000 kilometers of track each crisscrossing from field to field. Harvest time is from June to December and so we did not see any trains operating but we did see many cane hoppers parked on spurs next to cane fields. Australia is the tenth largest sugar producing country in the world, 90% of it produced in Queensland.
In the town of Mossman in the north, they promote the cane trains rumbling through the town as a tourist attraction. It is the region’s sugar capital and its mill has 1867 kilometers of rail feeding the mill. During crushing season, the trains and the mills often operate 24 hours a day. Over 250 diesel-locomotives and over 50,000 freight cars serve the industry’s six large sugar companies.
Our first day’s tour took us to a couple of nature parks passing through myriad cane fields along the way. In Innisfail there is a statue of a pioneer cane cutter in a park alongside the Johnstone river.
There is a large mill in Gordonvale, the town closest to where our friends live. It has the second largest rail network at 1768 kilometers. Below is a video from Youtube of trains hauling cane to the Mulgrave Mill in Gordonvale.
The Goldsborough Valley used to have a good number of cane fields before it became a residential area. The valley has only one way in, Peets Bridge, which crosses the Mulgrave River along the Gillies Range Road. Before the bridge was built, the cane train bridge nearby did double duty, also serving automobile traffic. The valley itself no longer produces much cane and the trains do not operate there.
The whole area is in monsoon territory and cyclones have periodically hit with the last major one being Cyclone Yasi in 2011. But heavy rains can cause flooding in much of the region. Everywhere we went we found signs indicating possible flooding. When the Mulgrave swells with flood waters, it can reach over two meters above the top of Peets Bridge and the valley is cut off from the world. This needs a sustained rainfall of two or more days and only happens once or twice a year. In a day or two, the waters subside again.
On our second to last day there, our friends gave us a tour of the area closer in, including an area known as the Fisheries. Goldsborough Valley Road ends at some point and becomes a dirt road where there are a few homes belonging to people living off the grid. They use solar power. Also towards the end of Goldsborough Valley Road is where you’ll find some brumbies. Some what? Brumbies are feral horses, descendants of escaped or lost domestic horses dating back to early European settlements. Considered a pest by some, others consider them a treasured heritage. As we drove along, one loped lazily in front of the car.
We stopped. Ralph rolled the down the window, and the brumby poked its head in the window, hoping no doubt, for an apple or other goody.
We didn’t have any and it sauntered on its way. The road in the this area is covered in horse plops. We also saw a large lizard ambling across the road.
Back at Ralph and KC’s we enjoyed the view and the wildlife, mostly birds, and mostly sulphur-crested cockatoos. Gorgeous birds with a raucous call. We did see large fruit bats flying overhead at dusk on occasion. KC reported having sighted a venomous brown snake once next to the patio and a green python in a plant next to their outdoor fridge on the patio on another. One morning she found a large snake skin, shed by a python overnight. Three sightings in six years makes it pretty rare but they do keep an emergency number handy just in case. A few years ago, a neighbour’s dog was killed when it had the misfortune to attack a black adder. Although the dog killed the snake, it succumbed to the snake’s bites.
But despite the occasional snake and the croc infested streams, Goldsborough Valley is a little slice of heaven. Both Ralph and KC take daily walks without problem. They have friendly neighbours, a wonderful climate and astounding scenery from their back porch. This is a side of the Cairns region you won’t see by sticking to the city.
More on the rainforest and some of the natural wonders of the region in my next post.
Links of Interest
- Photo Gallery: More Pics from Our Visit
- Queensland Sugar Cane Railways Today – from the Light Rail Research Society of Australia
- Sugar Cane Railways – from Railways and Tramways of Australia
- Cane Trains in Queensland – a collection of videos at Railway Videos and Australian Railway History (one of them embedded above)
- The Kinsol Trestle – from this blog.