Sublime Utility: Early Tourism Propaganda and the Cairns-Kuranda Railway

By Ryan, Simon | Journal of Australian Studies, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Sublime Utility: Early Tourism Propaganda and the Cairns-Kuranda Railway


Ryan, Simon, Journal of Australian Studies


The opposition between utility and natural values is often presented as a peculiarly twentieth-century development, as if colonial Australia had in its desperate struggle to prosper little time for admiration of the natural beauty of the land. Tim Bonyhady's The Colonial Earth has effectively put an end to such assumptions, demonstrating that there is a far subtler story to be told about the pressures for development and conservation in nineteenth-century Australia. It reveals the conflict between utility and natural values as a constant in colonial culture. It is very difficult, however, to find anything approaching a nineteenth-century claim for the value of 'nature' on its own terms, whatever this might mean. When natural values are highly praised it is usually in terms of the 'scenery', or the 'awe' that a sublime view provides. Even this appreciative aestheticisation of nature and natural scenery ultimately has a utilitarian purpose, being related to the expansion of the tourist trade. Jim Davidson and Peter Spearritt have noted the close connection of the railway system and the development of state tourist bureaus in the early twentieth century. (1)

It seemed by the end of the first world war that tourism could make money, and the resource that could be exploited was natural scenery. The propaganda booklets extolling the natural features of the land had to borrow from the existing lexicon of the sublime and the picturesque, but also adapted these categories for colonial and tourist use. Late in the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth century, in concert with railway development allowing access, nature, at least in the form of scenery, became commercially valuable. The colonial rhetoric of an implacably hostile wilderness had to be adapted. The Kuranda Scenic Railway, as it is now called, was an early tourist drawcard, and promotional material describing it provides examples of the rhetorical work that opened a space for tourist experiences.

Proclaimed a port in 1876, Cairns quickly became a busy outlet for producers. By the 1890s a fledgling tourist industry had begun, supported by the developing lines of passenger ships that travelled through Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and a variety of Queensland ports, to Cairns. The reef proved a strong attraction for visitors as early as the 1890s, but Cairns was also graced by another facility that quickly became a well-known tourist adventure. Although this was not the intention of its construction, the Cairns-Kuranda section of the railway afforded tourists a route into the hinterland before the road made car traffic possible. Originally designed to bring the output of the Herberton tin mines to the coast, the railway had to deal with notoriously difficult country. The first section constructed, from Cairns to Redlynch, was a fairly straightforward engineering task, but from there to Myola just beyond Kuranda required 15 tunnels and some extremely difficult cuttings. (2) The railway opened in 1891 and soon its usefulness in conveying tin was outweighed by the opportunities it provided travellers. This was quite obvious to observers at the time: Richard Newton, in The Work and Wealth of Queensland (1897), notes that 'the line, which hangs on mountain sides and crosses roaring torrents, cannot be outdone in wild beauty; but its present serviceableness to the colony is not comparable to the delight it affords the tourist'. (3)

It is easy to see why the train journey to Cairns became immediately popular. The ascent onto the coastal ridge relieved the traveller of some of the heat of the lower altitudes, and provided extensive views over Cairns and out to the Coral Sea. Mountain resorts and retreats had already played a major part in the development of Mount Macedon, and Katoomba and the Blue Mountains generally were being recognised for their 'healthy climate' and the relief they offered from the extremes of summer temperatures. L L Wirt's essay in The Hand Book to Cairns and Hinterland suggests that Kuranda is to be the sanitorium [sic] of the north, while Beautiful Queensland: The land of variety and the holiday-maker's happy hunting ground is directed towards the 'tourist and convalescent'. …

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