Oh Savannah, don’t you cry for me

A new year and it’s about time I got back to work. My dearly beloved says I’m just lazy. Up to a point, Lord Copper. Fact is, my natural tendency to procrastination has been reinforced lately by an attack of the I-don’-wannas fuelled by I-dunno-what. Murder and mayhem are everywhere and the Jaapes made the start of the Test cricket season absolute misery. But that’s not why.

Also, my Wodehousean correspondents at the other end of the Kangaroo Route have been far from gruntled and I’ve been electronically patting their hands and cooling their brows, and getting a little TLC in return. That’s not why either.

I just can’t put my finger on it. For some reason floating in the shallows of my mind, I’ve not been able to finish off my tales from north Queensland, although I’ve had plenty of time and opportunity. Indeed I made a number of attempts but there’s no excuse really.


Where was I? Oh yes. I’d zapped across north Queensland by bus from Cairns to Karumba on the Gulf of Carpentaria and had started on the return journey via the Gulflander and was about to board that other railway relic, the Savannahlander, to wind my way over a couple of days from the remnant mining town of Forsayth to the Atherton Tableland and back down the range from Kuranda to Cairns.

The company that operates the Savannahlander offers a longish list of tour options, ranging from the full catastrophe – four-day round trip on the train visiting various attractions – to a number of shorter options including a run out from Cairns on the train to different spots and a return by bus. My Australian Railway Historical Society tour mixed things up a bit and did it all in reverse. Rest easy, though – I’m not about to start on a km-by-km narrative of a couple of days at 40-60kmh on a vintage railmotor through country that at times some might feel lacks that certain wow factor. What follows are a few bits and pieces, mostly from the Savannahlander but also from the bus ride and Cairns.

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The Savannahlander itself comprises three 2000 class railmotor units – two built in 1963 and the third in 1971. Externally the units are in (almost) original condition but all three railmotors have had their original engines replaced and automatic gearboxes fitted. They are air-conditioned by the simple method of having all the windows open. Toilets and drinking water are available on board. One of the units has had a wheelchair lift added and that doubles as a dumb waiter for the tea urn and accessories.


Savannahlander interior . . . wood and corrugated iron for that Outback feel, air-conditioning via the open windows

The interiors have been kitted out, somewhat cheesily, with an “outback” wooden décor and the driver’s compartments at each end have been taken out, to give passengers a clear view out the front and rear. The driver encourages people to rotate through the second seat up front. On our trip, a few of us parked ourselves at the back so, instead of shouldering aside little old ladies to sit on the right hand of god at the controls, we just enjoyed the receding view on a permanent basis. Inter alia, this included the opportunity for splendid views of the Phillips sleepers underpinning unballasted track as highlighted in my Gulflander post, and also of unwelded rails held together with fishplates in the historical manner. The sound of the wheels going over the joints was the old familiar music now superseded on main lines by the hum of the pre-tensioned continuous rail.


The view from the rear, ascending the Delaney Gorge out of Forsayth

At a particular place way out beyond the control of Queensland Rail – I never made a note of where exactly – something happened that you won’t get anywhere else, possibly in the world. The driver and his offsiders stopped the train so anyone who wanted to take pictures/videos of the train in motion could get off and position themselves appropriately. The line at this point, going east, sweeps down a slope through a cutting and over a low bridge crossing a river. All we brave photographers climbed down on the eastern side of the bridge and the driver backed up the train until it was out of sight. With a toot of the horn, he then brought it slowly back down the hill and across the bridge towards us. The sound of camera shutters going off nearly drowned out the diesel engines – well, they were loud anyway. We then climbed back on board and the Savannahlander continued on its way. The whole operation took about half an hour, I guess, but, as the timetable is fairly leisurely and there’s no other traffic on the line at any time, it really didn’t matter. Safety freaks shouldn’t be concerned – we were all consenting adults.


The Savannahlander does a run for the passengers . . . somewhere out the back of beyond

I shot video on my phone, as I did of the receding Phillips-sleepered track, and I wanted to share it with you – and the soundtrack – but I need to update my WordPress account to include AV items. In the depths of my blues, this has been all too difficult: it involves some messing about with things I don’t understand, and an exchange of coin of the realm in which I am reluctant to engage. One day soon, though, I shall, and this site will advance haltingly into the 21st Century. Once more unto the breach, dear friends . . .

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The two major offline attractions of the Savannahlander tours are the Cobbold Gorge and the Undara lava tubes. Both are the result of geological action, although in totally different ways. Neither is spectacular on the Swiss Alps scale, but each is compelling, not merely because they’re interesting to look at but because they provide an up-close, touchable lesson in how the Earth, or at least this part of it, was formed.

For me in retrospect, this was enhanced by travelling west to east because what happens as you head along the Savannah Way out of Croydon is that you cross ancient seabed with exposed sedimentary layers (a vast area that includes Cobbold Gorge) and then you hit the lava fields (including Undara) left by the volcanos of the Atherton Tableland. So there’s a kind of natural progress from the ancient sea to the fiery processes of the forming land.


Top of the Cobbold Gorge

The rugged sandstone formations around Cobbold Gorge were created around 1700 million years ago. The sand and mud sediment deposited on what was then the ocean floor is now more than 10 kilometres thick. Movement in the Earth’s crust caused the sediments to compress and fracture. Torrents of water spilled through the narrow cracks, leaving deep gorges and permanent springs and seepages. Cobbold Gorge is the result of minor movement only about 10,000 years ago. Set between 30 metre cliffs, it narrows to a mere 2 metres wide in places.

Tourists get to climb around the heights above the gorge, guided by the usual khaki-clad rangers, and drift on electric-powered boats along the waters of the gorge trying to spot the various kinds of wild life the guides point out. They claim freshwater crocodiles inhabit the place but none came out to play the day I was there. Funny thing, in all the time I was on this trip, despite the constant talk about their presence, I never saw one of the gnarled munchies, not even dead by the tracks.


Bottom of the Cobbold Gorge

We stayed the night at the resort the property owners have built. It’s pretty well set up, and even with the tourist hordes the gorge itself and the surrounds offer some valuable peace and quiet. The road in is unsealed but not bad if you don’t mind the dust. Look up the website.

There’s a resort at Undara too, built out of vintage Queensland railway carriages. It was booked out, so we had to stay at Mt Surprise (at a place called Bedrock Village – yes, the Flintstones) and bus in and out. Why is it that all over Australia people in the tourist trade feel they need gimmicks to attract the punters?

Undara is good enough by itself. It’s 300km from Cairns and worth every turn of the wheels. The lava tubes are massive voids in the earth. If you think tunnels through the Swiss Alps or under Sydney Harbour or even the Melbourne CBD are pretty awesome, you should go and see what nature has wrought. These are cathedrals to Vulcan.


Undara lava tube . . . a cathedral to Vulcan

According to the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service: “The Undara lava tube system is Australia’s longest, and one of the longest in the world . . . the finest examples in Australia and contain specialised ecosystems that are internationally significant.” Undara was an active shield volcano for millions of years. About 190,000 years ago, there was a massive eruption and an estimated 23.3 cubic kilometres of lava flowed more than 90km to the north and over 160km to the north-west at about 1000 cubic metres every second – enough to fill Sydney Harbour in six days, it’s said. These rivers of lava pouring down valleys at about 1200 degrees Celsius crusted over and a roof formed over the rest of the lava which continued flowing before draining out and leaving an empty tube. Weaker sections of the roof of the tubes later collapsed to form the caves that allow access today.

The flora and fauna in and around the tubes carry fascinating stories of their own. Ribbons of emerald-green vine thicket, for example, which contrast with the surrounding dry savannah woodland, contain distinctive plants that have strong affinities with Gondwana species from 300 million years ago, before the Australian continent even existed. The high levels of carbon dioxide (up to 6 per cent – 150 times greater than normal atmospheric levels), stagnant air and high relative humidity in some tubes have created a habitat where only specially adapted animals can survive.

The environment has also spawned at least one tour guide with some interesting, if not unique, views on basic chemistry. Our guide (in khaki, of course) propounded a theory on the calcium deposits at one place which had a chemist in our party shaking her head and then went on to demonstrate the CO2 content of the atmosphere by lighting a taper – held at head level it barely flickered; above his head it flared brightly. Fine. Except he then declared this was because there was no oxygen in the air down low. Well I don’t know what he thought he was breathing, nor the various animals that live at the ground level.

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The Savannahlander route

I suppose that, if for some reason, you didn’t want to visit Cobbold Gorge and Undara you could just stick with the train and you’d still get plenty out of the trip, given the variety of country you cross – the line was built to take the easiest and cheapest course through the land and that meant following the contours along hillsides and creeks and rivers over the couple of low ranges until you hit the flats of the Atherton Tableland. Again I think it is probably better to go west to east, at least until you get to Kuranda on the edge of the Great Dividing Range overlooking Cairns. Going up from Cairns beats going down; it’s a terrific run over one of the world’s great railway engineering feats.

We had the advantage, too, of having travelled out by bus, which allowed us to visit a couple of places that aren’t on the train route, like Atherton and Ravenshoe. Atherton was once on the main QR line which ran south from Mareeba to Ravenshoe. The line used today was built by mining companies through Almaden to Forsayth and that was the branch. Mareeba to Atherton and Ravenshoe – today partly demolished – served the vast military camp that was established on the Tableland during World War II. Indeed, that track and the single tortuous line between Cairns and Kuranda was the major strategic supply route for the troops who eventually headed off into Papua New Guinea and the Pacific.

Nowadays the main road virtually runs parallel to the old rail right-of-way and some thoughtful soul has tagged areas along it with signboards stating which army unit was camped where. My dad was with the Seventh Division 2nd AIF and there are many indicators of its occupation but his battalion was lodged to the east of the road in what is now a national park, so I didn’t see where he was.

tumoulin-poetAt the end of the line, Ravenshoe, famed for its mining industry, has preserved its station and has a little rail museum. The Ravenshoe Steam Railway is no longer allowed to operate on the remaining track. Its rolling stock stands brightly painted but slowly decaying. It used to run up the line a few kilometres to Tumoulin, billed as the highest point on Queensland railways. The place is looked after to the extent it has the grass cut and basic maintenance done. The signboard at Tumoulin boasts a poem that expresses one man’s happy day on the tracks behind a steamer. Some of the sleepers at Ravenshoe and Tumoulin have names carved into them – apparently you could buy a sleeper as a donation to the railway.



The mosque in Mareeba .

We got taken to a few spots where the railway used to be but I have to say looking at bare bits of ground is somewhat less than exciting. At Mareeba, where the train no longer stops, our bus driver took us on a whirlwind tour of the town, the highlight of which was not the empty rail yard but the mosque. I doubt many Australian country towns have such an edifice. It was built in 1970 to replace a house that had been used by as mosque by Albanian immigrants who came to the Tableland in the early 1950s to work in tobacco industry. Of course, the tobacco industry is now gone but the Muslims remain. They are as integrated into the local community as any other small group might be and doubtless, in the current political climate, that was the motive of the bus driver for showing us.

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One place the train does stop is Almaden – pronounced Alma-den, rather than Al-maden. Named after a mining district in Spain, it was the rail junction for mines at Chillagoe and Mungana, and later for others out to Forsayth. This is the end of the originally fairly heavyweight branch from the QR junction at Mareeba. West of Almaden it’s lightweight rails, basic engineering and no ballast. The train company offers tours to Chillagoe but we didn’t go there; we just stopped for lunch at the Railway Hotel, which is the most substantial building left in the place.

On the far wall of the airy, well kept main bar, next to the door to a restful garden, hangs a large, wood-framed photograph of a racehorse passing the winning post. The picture is headed: “Almaden Race Club – Queensland 75th Anniversary – May 1996”. The caption underneath states: “Railway Hotel/Class 4 Handicap 1200 metres. Winner: “Up the Creek”. Jockey: Gary Morrisson. Photo: Marie Low”.

Every country pub in Australia, and many city ones beside, has a picture like that on the wall. Once upon a time the die-hards used to gather in the pub on Saturday afternoon to have a bet on the neddies over a few quiet ones. In the summer, the blowfly buzz of the heavy heat outside was broken only by the drone of the radio race-caller. Now, of course, the TV blares out descriptions of every contest in the country, whether of hacks in the couldn’t-beat-eggs class at Upper Woop-Woop or of their aristocratic relatives at Royal Randwick or Flemington. Still, there’s a tradition and here I was in the Railway Hotel, Almaden (pop. two men and a dog, except when the Savannahlander arrives twice a week) and it was, by coincidence, a Saturday afternoon. How could I not notice the racing picture?


Sorry about the reflection

I was standing with a pal from our tour group, backs to the bar, sampling its best product and idly contemplating this picture of Up the Creek winning the Class 4 Handicap at the 75th Anniversary races. I thought it was a pretty good photograph. I’ve had some experience choosing pix for publication and so I reckon I have fair judgement. It was a good pic. But it slowly dawned on me that, good as it was, something was a bit different about the picture – there was only one horse in it. Up the Creek had literally won by the length of the straight.

“I’d like to meet the bookie who’d bet on a one-horse race,” I observed. My drinking buddy began to take notice, too. “But there had to be other horses,” he said, “otherwise it wouldn’t have been a race. Where are they?”

Certainly the picture, which took in the whole of the Almaden straight, contained no evidence that any other hayburner had ever been within coo-ee of Up the Creek, or indeed of the Almaden racetrack. This began to be a bit of a worry. Mine Host was called into play. “What’s the story here?”

Ah yes. It seemed that three horses had gone to the barriers for the race. One broke down before the start and never came under starter’s orders. The other two jumped and headed off towards the turn into the straight – whereupon Up the Creek’s rival decided he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make it today and he believed strongly that the bush off the side of the track was a better option, leaving G. Morrisson to pilot Up the Creek home alone.

Good picture, I said in professional tones. Mine Host agreed but added that it was something of an accident. The photographer, Marie Low, had actually being trying to catch her husband at work down by the winning post as the official snapper for the day. “She won an award for that photo,” he said.

Actually she didn’t. In 1996 when Marie Low took her picture at Almaden, she had a picture nominated for a Walkley Award – the official national awards for Australian journalism – but the Walkley Foundation doesn’t have her on the list of winners. I can only assume the nominated picture was of Up the Creek winning the Class 4 Handicap at the 75th Anniversary of the Almaden Race Club. I have spent hours looking for Marie and her pic on the web (because my effort  caught too much reflection in the glass). Looks like she might still be a photographer in Cairns. I’ll let you know if I muster up enough energy to call her.

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The run back to Cairns from Almaden was again one of those nice transitions that I feel you can get only going west-east. The train heads across the dry savannah country through Mareeba and over some difficult and picturesque hills, all the while accompanied by a commentary from our driver who never seemed to be bored although he’s done the trip hundreds of times. He’s even featured on TV, on a Discovery Channel show about great Australian trains, which has been repeated on SBS or the ABC (can’t remember which). Gradually the land changes into green farming country, and almost imperceptibly becomes more populated and busy.


A tunnel of trees . . . the view from the back of the train as the Savannahlander runs into Kuranda from the west

Near Kuranda the farms turn to remnant rain forest and odd houses tucked away among the trees. Along the Barron River into Cairns the track is through a tunnel of greenery, through which to the left the river can be glimpsed. These few kilometres are very popular, especially with walkers who seem to think the presence of gleaming steel rails doesn’t mean anything. Occasionally, therefore, the odd, bearded, backpacking unreconstructed hippie who tends to wander around the bush up there collects the Savannahlander in the small of the back.

I can’t imagine what the tie-dyed bong-bungers thought when a couple of years ago the QR 150th anniversary steam train chugged through to Mareeba and back. I passed up the chance to join that part of the trip and now wish I hadn’t. It was quite an achievement to get that train and that loco up the mountain and then roll over a track that hadn’t felt anything bigger than the Savannahlander railmotor for years. Anyway, apart from hooting a couple of stray Asian tourists out of our way, we got back into Kuranda and down the range to Cairns without incident.

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Cairns calls for the screens

This whole saga started there months ago with my lament for Bernie’s, you might remember. And before I settle back into my Melbourne torpor I want to point out something from Cairns that I’d only noticed before in Europe – that is the practice of disguising restoration work on famous landmarks such as the Rialto in Venice with facade screens painted with the image of the building being renovated. In Cairns, they’ve taken the idea a step further. The electricity sub-station in the middle of the street outside the city art gallery has been painted to resemble a typical high-set Queensland tropical house. It contrasts rather ironically with the Aboriginal motifs painted on the columns of the gallery’s main entrance.


Cairns . . . but is it art?

yorkeys-beach-signOh, and cop this sign from Yorkey’s Knob, near Cairns. It’s one of several posted along a strip maybe 300 metres long. Beachgoers can’t say they haven’t been warned – stinger jellyfish that can and do kill and, of course, crocodiles. I went to Yorkey’s for lunch and only faced the sharks in the yacht club. Cheers.




4 thoughts on “Oh Savannah, don’t you cry for me

  1. Yet another extremely entertaining read. AND, I love the photos. Adds a nice ‘depth’. A picture tells a thousand words, I could almost feel the heat and hear the blowflies humming. The lava tubes got me to thinking how good an orchestral performance would sound in there. I’m finding myself wanting to explore that region myself. Thanks Noel.


    • From what I remember, the sound in the sections I went into was rather dead. Often in big spaces like that you can hear tiny sounds sharply (e.g. the Myer music bowl. But not this. Sounds were almost muffled. Might be the thick air or simply the shape of the roof.


  2. Interesting stuff Noel, well written. Only thing, the Etheridge line (Almaden to Forsayth) and Chillagoe line (Mareeba to Almaden, Chillagoe and Mungana) were built with timber sleepers, and up to the 1970s or so, still had such. Since then, lots of replacement sleepers have been steel, inserted mechanically, flat type, not a through as Phillips. Phillips had his day when Govt of late 1880s chose to try his steel sleeper, but after that, wood preferred because cheaper, but with much the same formation – sleepers laid in earth, earth packed around, low level, etc.

    Keep it up



    • Thanks John. I should have expanded a little on my observation. I was surprised to see on looking out the rear of the Savannahlander for many kilometres that first of all substantial maintenance work was being done on the line, given that only two railmotors a week (one out and one back) operate on it, and that work seemed to be current and continuous. Wooden sleepers are being replaced with steel and I’m afraid I assumed those replacements are Phillips-type because that’s what they looked like and I have no knowledge of steel types other than the ones I saw stockpiled at Normanton. Apart from that, a number of bridges had been rebuilt and, clearly, rails replaced. This is all good news — the substantial cost of such maintenance means that the tourist traffic is profitable and worthwhile. It’s not just a matter of heritage preservation.

      I should also have reiterated — not that this applies to you, John — that this whole trip was wonderful and I would recommend it to anyone for both enjoyment and education. And part of the experience is that it is not comfortable — it’s as easy as the operators can make it but it matches the country, which is remote, hard (sometimes harsh) and by no means comfortable.


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