Thursday – Sunday, November 10 – 13, 2011: Cairns, Australia (Part 2)
The time was already flying by in Northern Queensland as we entered our third and final day of our visit to the region. Our itinerary today includes a visit to the Aboriginal Tjapukai cultural centre, a ride soaring over the forests of the area on the Skyrail, a visit to the sleepy town of Kuranda, and close things out a train ride down the hill on the Kuranda Scenic Railway.
It’s certainly a full day, but the activities have been pulled together nicely into a package deal for visitors and tourists to participate in all of the activities in a single day. The timing for most everything worked out very well and we felt it was not only a great value for the money, but struck a good balance of time for each of the components of the day.
We were fortunate for another beautiful day to explore this area, with the added benefit of a decrease in the humidity, too! As we made our way south towards Cairns, we arrived at Tjapukai just before 9am. We exchanged our vouchers for our tickets at the Cultural Centre and just a few minutes later, we were escorted into a central “lobby” like area that permitted access to two theaters, each of which would combine to present the first hour of our stay at the site.
It was still relatively early for a Sunday morning and the crowd was not very large at this point of the day. Only about 25 of us entered the first theater (it had seating for over 100) and at 9:15am, our host for this segment, Kirri-Kirri, Rainbow, or Dennis (his Tjapukai name, Tjapukai Translation, and Australian name, respectively) arrived to introduce his to “Natures Voice Didgeridoo – A Journey”.
Over the next 20 minutes, we were introduced to the origins of the amazing instrument, along with its many purposes in the Tjapukai culture. Dennis explained how the didgeridoo is made, how it is played, and then displayed his talents to an amazing soundtrack reflective of the unique landscape of Australia as a movie played on the massive screen behind him. It was a great introduction to the day and simply got us hooked for what was to come.
Once the amazing introductory performance was completed, we were led back into the lobby and across to the opposite side of the building to our next presentation in the Creation Theatre. Here, a unique blend of technology and acting came together as a cast of four actors, along with computer generated projections against a specially designed glass wall presented the dream stories of the Tjapukai people and showcased their history, origins, and cultural heritage. The presentation was engaging and the best part was that we each had individual headsets, so the stories were all told in your choice of languages, so everyone could be included. Another fanstastic show, and though each so far was just 20 minutes, it seemed to be just the right combination of length and content to draw the viewer in and to want even more.
Following the Creation Stories, we headed outside into the main portion of the park and across a beautiful wooden suspension bridge over a large pond. This brought us to the outdoor amplitheatre and activity areas of the cultural centre where the crowd (now numbering in the low 30s) moved to the next presentation of music and dance. A dance troupe of four Tjapukai introduced themselves and proceeded to share a number of their dances, along with stories, and some of their traditional tools, including the ability to make fire out of two sticks and some dry grass. We’ve seen the demonstration at least three times now in various locales around the globe, and yet each time it is still a jaw dropping process to see two sticks and a little dry grass become a fireball. The presentors balanced all of their shows with a great sense of humor and it made each experience at Tjapukai not only informational, but a lot of fun, too.
From here, we were led to one of the activity areas where our guide Sheila presented the group with information about the woman’s area of expertise, including bush food and bush medicine. Much in the same way that hearty americans have found a 1000 uses for Duct Tape, the Aboriginal people of Australia have found dozens of ways to use every last plant, tree, berry, seed, nut, and aspect of the land. It is astonishing to see the various ways that the seed from a tree can be used, or how many ailments can be treated with a handful of leaves. Obviously this information was learned and shared over 1000s of years and even today, scientists are only just beginning to understand how to apply some of these principles to modern medicine.
A few minutes later, Running Water arrived to share the information from the men’s area of expertise, that of hunting and weapons. We were introduced to the club, the boomerang, and the spear, not only how they were made, but also how to use them in battle and to hunt. These skills would all be valuable in the next hour as we would all have the opportunity to use these implements out on the activity fields.
With the introductions complete, we headed out to a wide open field, where two Tjapukai males brought us into a safety cage, once again reviewed the steps involved with the throwing of a boomerang. Then one by one, each of us in the group came outside of the cage and were presented with two boomerangs to test our skills. Our group did reasonably well, though no one won the prize. If you could throw the boomerang and it came all the way back to you and you caught it, you got to keep it. It was clear that we were novices and that few, if any boomerangs were going to be given away today, but it was a fun experience nonetheless.
Finally, our last experience of the day at Tjapukai was to go to the spear throwing area. Though the traditional spears of wood had to be replaced with fiberglass spears for the tourists (the wooden ones take 1-2 days each to make and the tourists seemed to keep breaking them), we all got a chance to throw a few spears at haybale targets off in the distance. Again, years of experience and practice are needed to hone one’s skills in this area, but we all had a good time trying the spears out.
Before we knew it, over three hours had elapsed and it was already midday, and it was time to say goodbe to Tjapukai. It was a great morning spent here and a wonderful introduction to the Aboriginal people and their culture.
We grabbed some lunch and then a short 5 minute walk later, we were at the base of the Skyrail. The best way to describe the Skyrail would be to think about the people movers at Great America or Disneyland — the little pods that hang on the cables about 30 feet above the ground and let you move from one side of the park to another through the air. If that doesn’t do it, consider the large scale gondolas at the big ski resorts. With that concept in mind, scale upwards… significantly.
The Skyrail is made up of nearly 30 towers, covering more than 5 kms of distance reaching a height of nearly 1000 feet when all is said and done. The trip takes nearly 30 minutes from start to finish, but two “rest stops” are provided along the way, where you can get out of the pods at various viewing areas and see the surrounding area and the sights along the way.
The ride on the Skyrail itself is peaceful, quiet, and enjoyable. Once you board your gondola, you have a 360 degree view of the landscape as you silently begin to soar into the air. The views are spectacular of the Northern Queensland coastline and slowly, as you gain altitude, you are surrounded by rainforest for miles in all directions. About 8 minutes into the ride, you arrive at the first stop, Red Peak. Here, rangers are on hand to walk visitors through the rainforest near the stop and to answer any questions they may have. Our ranger Derrick was supposed to be on a break, but took the time to guide us around for the next 20 minutes. He was hilarious and it made for a fun stop.
We got back on our gondola (which we were fortunate to have to ourselves for the entire ride… you can fit 6 people in each of the pods, but having it just for two made the experience that much more relaxed and enjoyable) and headed for the next rest stop at Barron Falls. Here a massive waterfall drops hundreds of feet over no less than 30 separate cascades from top to bottom. We spent another 20-30 minutes here and then reboarded the gondola to our final stop, the sleepy little town of Kuranda.
Along the last leg of the gondola ride, we were floating above the rainforest canopy and could see many birds, plants, and flowers, as we sailed by. Suddenly, the rainforest stopped abruptly and we were soaring over the huge Barron River as the final obstacle between us and the town of Kuranda. Arriving into the town, we offboarded the Skyrail and had about two hours to see and visit the town.
Kuranda is a sleepy kind of town, filled with little boutiques, craft shops, art galleries, and little restaurants. We found an ice cream parlor with some gluten free options and enjoyed an afternoon snack while taking advantage of the shaded patio seating outside of the store. From here, we walked the streets, as Kuranda carefully balanced the competing priorities between tourist trap and peaceful little town. We enjoyed our time here and slowly made our way to the train station for the final leg of our journey.
At 3:00pm, we arrived at the Kuranda train station, the departure point for the Kuranda Scenic Railway. As the train sat on Platform 2 readying itself for a 3:30pm departure, we admired all of the lush tropical plants in and around the station. It was as if the rainforest itself was starting to take over the place with tropical plants, vines, and flowers everywhere. We boarded our vintage train car and once it was about 3/4 full, we began our trip down the hillside back into the valley.
All along the way, we had sweeping panoramic views as we hugged the cliffside along the edge of the Barron Gorge, saw a different vantage point of the Barron Falls, passed Glacier Rock, Red Bluff, Stoney Creek Falls, and moved through 15 different tunnels on the way down the hill. Guided commentary from the train’s master was provided as we made the 90 minute trip back into Freshwater Station, where we offboarded and were shuttled back to Tjapukai.
A very busy day, but extremely enjoyable, it was time to say goodbye to Cairns and to Northern Queensland for the last time. Early tomorrow morning, we will be headed back to Sydney for the final three days of the journey, spent in the Blue Mountains and back in Sydney Central before our flight home.