Building the Cairns-Kuranda Railway and the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

Rainforest Construction

The Cairns-Kuranda railway is a nineteenth century marvel; a feat of engineering accomplished in impossible conditions using only hand tools and dynamite. Construction techniques were dramatically different when Skyrail was constructed a century later to whisk tourists through the same rainforest. But, this ambitious cableway had to be built with as little impact to the environment as possible. The ironic result was a return to the hand tools – and challenges – of a bygone era.

The Cairns-Kuranda Railway

In 1882, tin miners in Herberton were on the verge of starvation. The only road leading to supplies and escape was washed out by flooding. Desperate and angry, the miners demanded a railway to the coast.

It would take a remarkable display of fortitude and skill – and nearly a decade – before the ambitious project was completed. Railway workers had to remove 2.3 million cubic metres of earthworks and lay 75km of track through dense jungle. Dizzying cliffs plummeted 327 metres; slopes were as steep as 45 degrees. Fifteen tunnels, 93 curves, and dozens of bridges had to be built across harrowing ravines and dangerous waterfalls. And, it was all accomplished using little more than bare hands and sheer willpower.

Construction began in May 1886 and was broken down into multiple sections. Section one, which stretched 13.2km from Cairns to just beyond Redlynch, was easier to build than section two. Even so, problems plagued the first leg of construction from the beginning. The climate and terrain made life miserable and many of the men fell ill. There seems to have been a general lack of supervision, and more than a fair share of bad luck. After just seven months of work, the original contractor, P.C. Smith, threw in the towel. McBride and Co. jumped in, but by January 1887, they too had given up, leaving the Queensland Government to complete section one.

John Robb won the contract to build section two with a tender of $580,188, and his crew began work on 21st January 1887. This leg of the project cut through 37.4km of extremely steep grades and thick foliage. The ground was littered with rotting vegetation, mould, and rock. Huge escarpments had to be torn down and every loose rock and overhanging tree had to be pulled away – by hand. The men used little more than dynamite, buckets, picks and shovels.

Townships sprang up like a trail of dust behind the crews. At the height of construction, 1,500 men had to live alongside the newly laid rail. A bustling settlement at Kamerunga, nestled at the foot of the mountain range, was large enough to support five hotels. Many locations were far less accommodating, however. Room was tight along the track, and even narrow ledges were converted into shops that hawked necessities like food and clothing.

In 1888, a meeting of disgruntled railway workers at Kamerunga led to the formation of the Victorian Labour League. Two years later, the great maritime strike inspired railway workers to form The United Sons of Toil. The demands were simple; 90c a day for their backbreaking labour. Within a month, the conflict was resolved and the men accepted a raise from 80c to 85c a day.

The work ground on until 13th May, 1891, when the final rail of the second section was laid at Myola. Goods began shipping two days later, and ten days after that, the railroad was opened for passenger travel. The sheer cliffs and deep jungles of Tropical North Queensland were finally accessible to all.

Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

One hundred and four years later, a very different mode of transport opened to passengers traveling through the same stretch of rainforest. Like the Cairns-Kuranda railway, Skyrail’s construction took persistence and creative problem solving. This time, however, the largest challenge was protecting the environment. It was absolutely essential that Skyrail’s construction not mar the lush, untouched forest or disturb its wildlife. The team utilised ground-breaking construction techniques – and reverted to some old fashioned ways of doing things – to execute the world’s most environmentally sensitive cableway project. At 7.5 kilometres, Skyrail was also the longest gondola cableway on the planet when it was completed.

It took years of careful planning to make Skyrail environmentally friendly. After it was first proposed in 1987, seven years of studies followed, including an Environmental Impact Study, pre-construction feasibility studies, and various other reports and assessments. This was followed by an extensive consultation and approval processes with the local community and with local, state, and federal government.

Approval finally came, despite protest from many environmentalists, and construction began in 1994. It was a painstaking process. Before any ground was broken, every ounce of leaf litter and top soil had to be collected and stored. Workers meticulously catalogued each plant seedling within this material, then removed and propagated them while construction was taking place. After construction was completed, each seed was carefully re-planted – along with the leaf litter and top soil – in the exact location where it had originally been removed. As a result, the environment was returned to its original state as much as possible.

Crews cleared an area no larger than 10 metres by 10 metres to build each cableway tower. This area was carefully surveyed to ensure that no rare, threatened, or endangered species would be affected by the construction. Each site was also placed as far apart as mechanically possible to minimise environmental impact, and each location was carefully chosen to fit existing gaps in the canopy. The Barron Falls and Red Peak Stations were also erected in pre-existing clearings to minimise impact.

No roads were built; instead, workers trekked to the remote worksites every day on foot, hauling their equipment with them. The long walk took up to an hour. Heavy-lifting Russian Kamov helicopters brought in items that couldn’t be carried by hand. To prevent wind turbulence from disturbing the delicate rainforest canopy, the loads were dangled from 100 metre long lines, so that the blades never came close to the trees. For the Red Peak station alone, these choppers flew in over 900 tons of cement, steel, and other building materials. Helicopters even brought in the towers themselves. Each tower arrived in sections weighing as much as five tons and was assembled on site. Remarkably, helicopters also laid and tensioned the cableway haul rope across the towers.

Ironically, the tower footings had to be built primarily by hand. In some cases, only picks and shovels were used – the same tools that workers building the nearby Cairns-Kuranda railway had relied on a century earlier.

After fifteen months – and $35 million – Skyrail was completed. The first portion of Skyrail opened in 1995 and included 47 gondolas able to carry 300 people per hour. Two years later, a $2.5 million upgrade added 67 additional gondolas. As a result, 700 passengers an hour have the opportunity to glide through the canopy for a unique and dramatic rainforest experience.

A little over a century ago, hundreds of workers toiled and sacrificed to lay a railroad track through nearly impossible terrain. Some even gave their lives for the effort. At the end of the twentieth century, Skyrail workers were able to take advantage of modern machinery – like helicopters – that the Cairns-Karunda railway workers could not have imagined. Protecting the World Heritage listed rain forest created a unique set of challenges, however, and modern workers had to hike through the jungles and rely on hand tools just as their predecessors had. From the amazing grit taken to build the Cairns-Karunda railway, to today’s innovative construction of Skyrail, building in the rainforest is a remarkable accomplishment.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

July 27, 2021, 3:52 PM AEST