Friday, 9 August 2019

Ballyhoo on the Bally Hooley Railway, Port Douglas

On my visit to Port Douglas I was hosted by the Bally Hooley Railway.


When visiting Cairns last year, I was unable to ride the Kuranda Scenic Railway because of cancellations due to rockslides. So I took a bus to Port Douglas to try out a substitute: the Bally Hooley Railway. 

Parked at a platform at one end of the marina’s shopping arcade was an open-sided train. Its carriages’ bright yellow wooden benches, decorative wrought-iron doors, and firetruck red roof made it look like a funfair novelty, but it had an industrial heritage. 

“The carriage beds are from real sugar cane bins,” said the young train driver wearing a baggy blue cap, referring to the carts hauled by narrow-gauge locomotives through the cane fields of the region.

These modified carriages were attached to an original loco from the cane fields, a blocky, blunt-nosed diesel workhorse that looked like it packed a lot of power for something that ran along track a mere 610 millimetres (two feet) wide. On this damp Sunday it was half-full of day-trippers waiting for it to chug down to its terminus and back, calling at three stops along the way.

The station was an attractive timber structure pained white, with a cafe serving meals at tables on the platform beneath ceiling fans and wicker light shades. Throw in a gin and tonic, and it could have been the Last Days of the Raj.


We pulled slowly out. “It averages 15 kilometres per hour,” said our guide via a microphone, providing a commentary as we progressed. As we passed the waters of the marina, he gave a sketch of the late disgraced businessman Christopher Skase, whose Sheraton Mirage Resort was largely responsible for Port Douglas’ transformation into an upmarket tourist town in the 1980s.

Then we passed the town’s waste water treatment plant, and a sign advising of a coming “sludge treatment upgrade”.

According to our host, this sugar cane line was built over a century ago to serve the sugar industry of inland Mossman, whose refinery still produced over a million tonnes of sugar per week. So Port Douglas had got its own railway eventually, even if it was for sugar rather than people.

Sugar was brought down by train to be loaded onto ships at Port Douglas, but improved road transport had made the railway redundant. Now it had become a brightly-painted tourist train, usually pulled by steam locomotives at weekends (though we’d lucked out because an accredited driver couldn’t be found that day).

Port Douglas is on a stumpy peninsula nosing into the Coral Sea, so as we moved south we could see the mountains of the Great Dividing Range across the water to our right. Closer to hand were eucalypts, and mangroves beyond them.

There were two stations between the Marina Station and the train’s terminus. The first was at the Mirage Country Club, where the railway was lined by immaculate if unused tennis courts. The second was at the QT Resort, whose long white building shared the marina’s colonial tropicana look. 

We passed older blocks of housing built by Skase for his construction workers, then arrived at the terminus, St Crispin’s Station, which housed a cafe with water views.

I stood with other rail fans to watch the crew drive the locomotive onto a turntable (see video clip above), then turn it through 180 degrees using nothing more than physical strength. It then ran past our carriages on a parallel line, to position itself for the return run north. It was a delight to watch the operation, there was something pleasingly analogue about the simple technology involved.

Back aboard, I found myself seated with new fellow passengers, an affectionate couple on a day out. 

“Pity it’s not steam today,” said the man, meaning the locomotive. I demurred, pointing out the diesel loco was just as much a part of sugar cane farming history. He didn’t seem convinced.

On the return leg, the host pointed out lipstick palms with their red trunks, and told us how expensive it was for the shire council to maintain the thousands of coconut palms in the area, which posed a potentially fatal hazard via falling fruit.

We passed more tennis courts and I noticed two of them were a dark grey.

“See that tennis court?” asked the voice. “That’s covered with algae. It’s a non-stop job keeping things clean in the Wet.”


He then detailed all the items in the 47 tons of equipment that Captain James Cook threw overboard from the Endeavour north of there in 1770, when the ship ran aground on a reef. National Geographic had led a recent expedition to recover it, and salvaged items were on display at the museum in Cooktown.

“It wasn’t until the 1960s that Port Douglas was linked to the electricity grid,” he said, moving forward in time. “Just up the road from here to the north, it’s still the same.”

He finished by detailing the recent acquisition of the marina by Syrian billionaire Ghassan Aboud, and his plans to bulldoze the current building and rebuild in an even more upmarket style, catering for super yachts (whatever they are). Port Douglas had lost some of its celebrity-fuelled glam since the global financial crisis a decade before, so this was a chance to revive it.

It was hard to imagine Port Douglas was once a serious contender for chief city of Far North Queensland, but if the Ranges railway had been built from here it would now be a glittering tropical metropolis. Instead, it had bumped along the decades as a sugar port, then a sleepy fishing village, and latterly a getaway place for the well-heeled and super-rich. 

On the way back to Cairns, I asked the bus driver if he was worried the new owner’s plans for the marina might fall over.

“Of course,” he said. “But someone has to give it a try.”

Find timetables and other info at the Bally Hooley Railway website.

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