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Train Ride to Kuranda's Market in a Rain Forest

October 11, 1987|MARGE KANTOR and KEN KANTOR | Marge Kantor is a former librarian, Ken Kantor is head of communications for Bob Hope Enterprises.

KURANDA, Australia — We've browsed through some unusual markets during our 30 years of travel, but until a few days ago never had sauntered through a flea market in a tropical rain forest.

It was Kuranda's Sunday market here in the mountains above Cairns, jumping-off point for the Great Barrier Reef.

Not only are the market and its village a lovely place to spend a Sunday, but the 20-mile trip on the Cairns-Kuranda Railway is a scenic delight.

Travel writer Arthur Frommer calls it "one of the best, cheapest and most enchanting outings in all of Australia."

The red and gold train rolls through 15 tunnels as it chugs past waterfalls and through rain forests beneath the steep Atherton tableland. The engineer obligingly stops so that photo nuts can shoot the chasm and falls pouring into it.

Restored Rail Cars

Inside the dozen specially restored vintage cars, some older than the nearly 100-year-old line, passengers scramble toward windows for the fantastic scenery. The tall wooden seats with black cushions, four in a row, are all on the view side, with a narrow aisle along the opposite side.

Leaving Cairns, the train passes the city's early homes built on high blocks for coolness and ventilation. Heading northwest it skirts Stratford town, sugar cane fields and jungle-covered Freshwater Valley.

At Redlynch the engine starts the steep, winding climb through the rain forests.

Looking east, passengers see Green Island, gateway to the Outer Reef, and beyond, the Coral Sea where World War II naval battles took place.

Entering Barron Falls National Park coming out of Tunnel 9, the tracks overlook spectacular Stoney Creek Gorge. Across this sheer drop rise prehistoric Glacier Rock and Red Bluff. Signs along the track warn: "Beware of Falling Coconuts!"

Beyond Tunnel 13 we crossed the towering Stoney Creek steel bridge, with falls plummeting 150 feet beside us to the river.

Hundreds of feet above the Barron River the rushing waters of Barron Falls have been bridled by a hydroelectric dam. Skirting Barron Gorge, the train crawls by Robb's Monument, a granite monolith in memory of the man who engineered this amazing rail line.

Arduous Construction

Construction that began 1886 was carried out under three separate contracts, 46 miles of rail in all, surmounting the vast tablelands leading to Mareeba. Extremely arduous and dangerous because of steep grades, dense jungle and hostile natives, the climb began 18 feet above sea level and continued to 1,073 feet.

In addition to the line's 15 tunnels, the project involved 98 curves and dozens of difficult bridges mounted hundreds of feet above ravines and waterfalls. It took five years to complete as far as Kuranda.

Unable to buy tickets on the sold-out uphill rail excursion to Kuranda, we booked a small, 20-passenger bus from Cairns to Kuranda and returned via the train. This provided other views of the mountains and Queensland's lush tropical coastline below.

"No trouble getting seats on the return train," the station master in Cairns assured us. "There will be far fewer coming back. They stay overnight at the mountain resort."

The hour bus ride to Kuranda cost $4, the 90-minute, squeaking-but-scenic rail passage back, slowing at times to 20 m.p.h., cost $3.50.

At Kuranda the 70-year-old depot, surrounded by lush tropical ferns and trees, is Australia's most charming. Below the station we tried for a motorized river-raft voyage, but, with others, were apologetically turned down by the Aussie operating the run. It was the bloke's first day. He was off schedule and overbooked.

Verdant Flea Market

A 10-minute walk from the station through the village center we found what has to be the world's most verdant flea market. Set in a rain forest, close to 200 stalls offer everything from potted plants and wooden puppets to animals made of nails and paintings on slices of rock. The market stretches down a hill for a quarter mile, with side paths running off the main walk for short distances.

Homemade jelly, cakes, bread, quiche and candies lined the stalls, along with nuts, apples, fresh strawberries, oranges, spinach and paw paws (papayas).

A sign advertised "Bugs with Salad and Chips." Like small lobsters, the Morton Bay "bugs," as the Australians call them, were sauteed in garlic and white wine. Delicious.

Two nice Aussie women served us a stand-up lunch of vegetable sandwich (tomatoes, sprouts, cottage cheese, green peppers on heavy-grained home-baked bread), chocolate fruit cake and a grain-coffee substitute with honey. Our tasty tucker cost us $2 each. Later we tried passion-fruit and banana-pineapple ices on sticks (35 cents).

At the far end of the market a transplant from Syracuse, N.Y., Robert Sharkey, was chopping the ends off coconuts, punching straws through them and selling the coconut milk for $1, $1.50 and $2, depending on the nut size. Offering us one, Sharkey advised that we could eat the jelly meat out of the shell after drinking the juice.

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