He had salt and pepper hair and a beard equally speckled with grey. He wore a safari outift, an akubra, hiking shoes and ankle guards. A digital camera was tucked into the strap of his backpack, but he also sported a chunky DSLR around his neck.
He looked like he was ready for bird spotting, but he had me firmly in his sights instead.
The bane of travelling alone is, ironically enough, finding alone time. There is a vast horde of solo adventurers out there, yet many seem on the point of panic should they be left to their own devices and this Austrian grey nomad was one of the sociable flock.
As a frequent single traveller, I know the game. You scope out a room, boat, tour group for the lone travellers and then eye them from a distance. It’s like you’re at a school dance, trying to catch the eye of the other only non-dancer in the room in the hopes they’ll smile and invite you to join the fun.
But sometimes, you just want to be alone, and on my trip up to the rainforest town of Kuranda just inland from Cairns, I was anticipating escaping the endless chatter of overly friendly hostellers and enjoying the peace of being truly by myself.
That was before the Austrian clambered aboard my shuttle from Cairns to the Kuranda Skyrail that propels people up to the market town. He sat opposite me and proceeded to chat in that round-vowelled accent Austrians can’t shake. I smiled obligingly, warily.
From the moment I mistakenly said hello, he was off. And for the duration of our endless trip (ok, it was only 20 minutes but it certainly felt longer), he proceeded to list every Australian town he’d lived in as a boy. Inside, my mind was screaming for help.
I uh-huhed and nodded and laughed where it seemed appropriate but I sent him some subtle cues, glancing frequently out the window, not prompting further discussion, pretending to text on my phone. Clearly the hints were too subtle; he didn’t let up.
There are a few ways to access Kuranda. Car and local bus are the cheapest options. But those looking for a little more punch in their day opt for the Skyrail and/or the scenic railway. I was to take the gondola up and return by train. The Austrian took disconcerting interest in my plans.
Him: “Oh, you return at 2 o’clock. Maybe I should do that too.”
Me: “Oh no, I think you’ll have more than enough to do until 3.30.”
Him: “Yes but I want to continue to Cape Tribulation this afternoon. I think I’ll change to 2.”
Me: (mild panic setting in) “Well, I’m not sure yet but maybe I’ll change to 3.30.”
Him: “Yes, I suppose I will have enough time. I’ll stay with the later one too.”
… And so on.
As the driver informed us of our surroundings, the Austrian continued his verbal assault. It was only when I heard him commence to ask – oh dear god no – whether he could spend the day with me that I interrupted with a gentle smile and pointed at the driver, who was still describing interesting tidbits about the area.
Panic rose as I couldn’t shake him in the Skyrail ticket line. But I took my time talking to the woman at the counter, while I surveyed his progress through the line with the corner of my eye. When I reached the gondola line I exhaled my relief that he was nowhere in sight. Maybe he was already being swept up the mountainside.
People joined behind me, and then came my antagonist, two groups behind me.
The universe likes to play games with us, and as I waited with itchy feet to board my gondola, it was laughing extra hard. The couple behind me were moved ahead of me. And with six seats in each cabin, I was now bound to be with my assailant.
I was waved into a gondola and glanced back. Hurrah!! They were giving me passage up the mountain totally alone.
Not quite. The universe always wants to have one last jab. To my horror, as I turned to sit, I saw the Austrian duck from the queue, approach the attendant and ask to be let aboard with “this young lady”.
I froze like a deer in hunting season.
I widened my eyes at the attendant. A desperate plea, unheard.
As my stalker began to climb aboard, my panic rose to breaking point.
“Oh no!” I screamed, in an inelegantly high-pitched tone. “I was so looking to going up on my own, having to view all to myself!”
I emitted a squawking maniacal laughter, a desperate giggle designed to hide the embarrassing situation.
The Austrian paused and clambered backwards. Maybe he’d dismiss me as a bit cuckoo and stay clear.
“I’ll follow you up behind.”
No such luck.
In my guilt, I became consumed with the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway brochure as my gondola lifted off and away from my dejected fiend. OK, I didn’t want to be with him, but he was a harmless, lonely traveller and perhaps the fiend was me.
Of course, my discrimination is clear. If my pursuer had been a gorgeous eligible, 30-something Canadian, for example, I would have readily forgone my solitude and eagerly invited him into my gondola. Alas, his misfortune was to be a rather dull sixty-year-old European. Poor sod, I can say in hindsight.
Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
The cableway, the brochure informed me, is 7.5km long, stretching up and over the Barron Gorge National Park, itself a World Heritage rainforest.
As I glided over the canopy, gathering my composure, I looked out across the farmland and a watercolour ocean beyond. The scenery was pleasing, but not mesmerising.
The advantage of the Skyrail is the two stations you can disembark at to take a moment, traversing boardwalks and admiring the scenery up close. I had no moment to spare. HE was close on my heels.
There was a line for the next gondola segment. I surveyed the area, but could see no akubra or speckled grey hair. Still, nothing is more unconducive to a quick get-away than a gondola. It’s like being in a high speed car chase and getting stuck behind a tractor whose driver has all the time in the world. I jiggled my legs to assuage my impatience.
As my gondola crested Red Peak Station, the rainforest got thicker. A thrum of insects pervaded the air. Vines entangled the trees and butterflies coasted the canopy. Peace.
At Kuranda, I speed walked to town but the coast was clear – I had secured solitary freedom!
Kuranda, for the record, is half hippy and half hobo. Markets are tumbled about the town, congregating mostly in the Historic Markets.
It’s charming, but the stalls are hit and miss. There was everything from China-made junk available in any generic souvenir store to tie-dye t-shirts and even – oh yes – bikinis made of kangaroo fur. Three hours were more than enough for a quick perusal and shop.
Finally, with my solitude secured and exalted, I was ready to return to Cairns via the Kuranda Scenic Railway.
There’s perhaps no journey I love more than a historic train ride. And Kuranda’s can compare with the very best of them.
Opened in 1891 as the gold rush hit the mountains, the Cairns-Kuranda railway is an engineering marvel. Skirting the Barron Gorge, the journey includes 15 tunnels, 55 bridges, and 98 curves, all constructed by 1500 men using picks, axes and dynamite. It wasn’t an easy feat – it’s likely dozens of workers died from malaria, snake bites, heat exhaustion, accidents. In one tunnel alone, 7 workers were lost in a rock collapse. In disconcerting detail, the train commentary explained that the corpses were probably buried beneath the tracks.
The train is a beauty, with carriages from the early 1900s pulled along by a 1720 class locomotive. I’m not quite sure what that means but it sounds impressive. The locomotive was prettified by local artist George Riley, who painted it with the colours of Buda Dji, the carpet snake who, in Aboriginal legend, carved out the gorge.
I settled into my seat, soaking up the scenery, the commentary, and the quiet. Alone. And in peace. The gorge dipped below, and as the mountains opened out the turquoise ocean gleamed in the distance.
And when I arrived back in Cairns, I scurried back to my hostel and slipped slyly into my room without being seen. Herr Austrian was, after all, a lodger there too.
Wanna know what other adventures are out there for a solo traveller? Check out some of these other Aussie East Coast hot spots: