TRAVEL / The Australian tropics

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The Independent Culture
AS OUR bus wound its way down the side of the Atherton Tablelands en route to the Queensland coast, the driver suddenly launched into verse. We listened, rapt, as he declaimed in dramatic tones:

He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko's side,

Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough,

Where a horse's hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,

The man that holds his own is good enough.

No matter that we were several thousand miles from Snowy River and Mount Kosciusko, which are in the South-east near the border between Victoria and New South Wales. The coach driver, guiding us through this untypical corner of Australia, wanted to convey a taste of the outback in pioneer days. He knew by heart the whole of Banjo Paterson's ballad 'The Man from Snowy River' and he recited it beautifully.

Just after breakfast the Down

Under Tours coach had picked us

up at our hotel in the coastal town

of Cairns, the main resort of northern Queensland, to take us to the station. The 21-mile railway to Kuranda, the gateway to the tablelands 1,000ft above sea level, is a formi-

dable engineering feat. Completed in 1891, it passes through 15 tun-

nels, around hairpin bends and across bridges spanning wild gorges and rushing waterfalls.

The journey takes 90 minutes. Eight miles out of Cairns the train begins its tortuous climb through the rain forest. A commentary relates how it was built to give the tin miners and sugar growers on the tablelands access to the coastal ports.

The train stops near the top for a panoramic view of Barron Falls, then pulls into Kuranda's pretty station. This was where we made our rendezvous with the poetic coach driver.

He told us he had once worked in the timber industry, but that had been killed by environmental pressure to conserve the rain forests. The town of Kuranda is almost entirely given over to tourism now, with a butterfly sanctuary, an Aboriginal dance theatre and, on four days in the week, an open-air market selling crafts and souvenirs.

The Atherton Tablelands are cooler, drier and less lush than the tropical coast. The change is swift and dramatic; so that at first, by comparison, the landscape on the high ground seems to have an English aspect - except that in England you do not see mangoes, citrus and avocados growing by the roadside.

The coach stopped for lunch at an avocado plantation where we could wander round and see the fruit being picked, graded and packed. On the way back we stopped at the curtain fig tree, one of the giant strangler figs that invade tall forest trees and send masses of roots, like thick strands of straight hair, from the crown to the earth. The 'Snowy River' recital rounded off the day.

Although Cairns is where most visitors to northern Queensland stay, it is dismissed snootily in many guidebooks as merely a dormitory for the natural wonders that surround it, notably the Great Barrier Reef. The downtown area is a curious cross between an English seaside resort and a hick town in the American Mid- west - tacky souvenir shops, cheap cafes and seafood restaurants jostling with saloons where sweaty men drink beer from the can.

The nearest beach for swimming is a 20-minute drive north. But the town does have a well-kept botanic garden of manageable size that includes a marvellous collection of orchids. For walkers, there are marked trails by the river - where signs warn of crocodiles - and through the woods, where you see this exotic admonition: 'The pounding sound of joggers' feet may aggravate cassowaries'.

Many standard hotel chains are represented in Cairns and do good business with the Japanese, who vie for supremacy as the main tourist group with the backpackers who stay in the much cheaper hostels. We were at the Colonial Club, an extensive campus of motel-style chalets built around three swimming pools, shaded with tropical vegetation, and an aviary that you walk through to get to some of the rooms. It is now Japanese-owned but maintains its Australian character of chirpy informality and leisurely service: no waiters serve drinks quicker or food more slowly.

The Great Barrier Reef is the principal magnet for visitors to northern Queensland and makes a handy day's excursion. Trippers may be tempted into expensive options such as scuba diving and helicopter trips, as well as snorkelling and viewing from glass-bottomed boats.

The inner reef is closer to the shore, but the guidebooks tell you there is less to see there than further out, and, moreover, the water is cloudy. Trips to the outer reef are more expensive - ours was pounds 60 a head - but after all, we were not likely to have the chance to go back.

The boat started from Port Douglas, over an hour's drive north, and we were on the large, sleek 'wavepiercer' by 10am. There were more than 300 on board and the day was organised with smooth professionalism. After coffee came a presentation by a marine biologist on how the coral reef was formed, the fish that inhabit it and how they had adapted to their environment.

The trip takes about two hours. The boat ties up to a pontoon on the edge of the Agincourt Reef, at the north-east edge of the Barrier Reef formation. The most popular way of viewing the coral formations and the fish is by snorkelling from a roped area by the pontoon, although strong swimmers are allowed further out.

For those who wanted to look without getting wet, the pontoon had a windowed viewing area just below the surface, where the snorkellers were as intriguing to watch as the fish, circling in expectation of their daily feed. Best of all were the submersible craft, glass-hulled rather than glass-bottomed, which took us a few hundred yards out from the pontoon, for close views of the shoals of multi-coloured fish against the background of extraordinary coral.

People wanting even more adventure could sign up for scuba diving ( pounds 40, equipment and instruction included), helicopter rides to see the reef from the air ( pounds 35), and boat trips to bits of the reef a little further from the pontoon, for snorkelling in the expert company of a marine biologist ( pounds 13). While all this was going on, a good buffet lunch, included in the fare, was served on board.

After about three hours we were herded off the pontoon back on board and counted before the boat left for Port Douglas. Most of the trippers then went back to Cairns by coach but we chose the slower option of going down the coast in the boat, sipping a cool beer and dozing off while the sun set over the cliffs.

Nobody regaled us with 'The Man from Snowy River'. In any case, 'The Ancient Mariner' would have been a lot more suitable.

Travel notes

Getting there: Fly to Sydney or Cairns with British Airways (081-897 4000/0345 222111) from pounds 1,245, carry on to Ayers Rock or Alice Springs with a Bush Ranger return fare of pounds 120. Quantas Jetabout Holidays (081-741 3111) offers a return flight to Australia plus a return flight to Ayers Rock, from pounds 1,035. Trailfinders (071-938 3366) has a flight London-Cairns- Alice Springs-Ayers Rock- Cairns-London for pounds 908.

TOUR OPERATORS: Austravel (0272 277425) Opera and Rock tour includes 4 nights in Alice Springs, from pounds 949 including flights; tailor- made itineraries also available, for example return flight to Cairns from pounds 549, accommodation in Paradise Village on Barrier Reef from pounds 22/night, day trip on reef from pounds 54. AAT Kings (081- 944 5855) specialises in luxury coach tours, Ayers Rock trips 4 days from pounds 296, 5 days from pounds 342, 8 days including Kings Canyon from pounds 730; 11 days including Queensland, Cairns, Barrier Reef from pounds 1,176, 13 days from pounds 1,319. Flights from UK not included in these prices. Rainbow Holidays World of Choice (0904 628080) specialises in tailor-made holidays: example itinerary, return flight into Sydney and out of Cairns with 13 nights accommodation from pounds 1,099, G'day air pass with Ansett Airways pounds 120 to cover flights to Ayers Rock and Alice Springs.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Australian Tourism Commission, Gemini House, 10-18 Putney Hill, London SW15 6AA (081-780 2227).