Season 1, Episode 8

Skyrail – part 1

Benjamin Starr interviews Craig Pocock, the Managing Director of Skyrail Rainforest Cable way, one of the must do attractions when visiting Cairns and Tropical North Queensland.

Craig shares the history and development of Skyrail and what it takes to run one of the world’s leading eco-tourism attractions. 

Hosts & Guests

Benjamin Starr

Craig Pocock



Read the transcript

Ben: So we’re driving our own adventure we’re actually live on location at the minute traveling up we’ve got Chris here we’ve got Marnie and Craig Pocock is with us, as we travel on SkyRail. You know what I’ve noticed coming up here just to start is you never had #skyrail before when I was here so things are changing.

Craig: Yeah absolutely.  Tourism’s changing. I’ve been in business now for over 20-years and I think the last five years of been the most dynamic that I’ve ever seen and that’s largely driven by the consumer. The guests, the tourists to the region, what they’re looking for the style of experience and really the expectation they have of the experiences.

Ben: What are their expectations?

Craig: If I look back in time and I look back to when Cairns was at its peak which was around 2000 to 2004, tourism into the region was largely driven by group business, it was largely underpinned by Japanese.  Today what we see is a just a plethora of nationalities coming in the region, a lot of Chinese, but still a lot of domestic markets the way people travel to Cairns is completely different. So we had a lot of self-drive we get a lot of last minute style visitation with budget, you know the change in air carriers. The expectation used to be more of a passive consumption of our product. 

Ben: Yeah. 

Craig: So, they are used to like to look and smell and listen, but that was it. The expectation now is they want to learn, and they want to understand. The mantra of our about business from the start has always been when we get someone on board Skyrail, we really wanted to try and touch them, so that when they left our product, whether they knew it or not,  they walked away as an accidental eco tourist, and we’re finding now that people want to really engage with that message.

Ben: Well we’re traveling up on this Skyrail thing, so when was this thing built? And we’re going up over what seems like the temperate forest as we are going up you seeing it start to change, but when was this thing all built and why was it built?

Craig: Well we’re going into our 25th year, next year will be 25-years of operation. So 1988 we started.  It was the, I guess the brainstorm of three local individuals in Cairns and it was about trying to present a product that was unique, a world’s first and would link to major sites. One being the Cairns Coast and, in those days,, a major site being Kuranda and along the way, present the option a different form of option of viewing experiencing the rainforest. 

Ben: And now what we have now is this wonderful legacy of all that that brainchild and how many people would travel on this every year? What sort of numbers do you get?

Craig: We’re the largest terrestrial based attraction in Northern Australia. So significant numbers. We are the largest attraction for the region by far and we’re one of the two supporting lynch pins of tourism in the region. So, you’ve got the Great Barrier Reef with some large operators and then you’ve got the rainforest. Our sites are some of the largest or most highly visited sites in Australia.

Ben: And then of course you’ve got the train that all links up to it, everybody knows the old train.

Craig: Yeah exactly. That’s one of the reasons that we’re successful, we have this ability to work in partnership. So Skyrail is one leg of a real triangulation if you like. It’s some skyrail through to Kuranda.  Kuranda itself is the destination, a village in the rainforest and Kuranda Scenic Rail back and it just makes a perfect full day attraction.

Ben: Now all this eco-tourism you hear a lot about it, we hear about the impact that humans are having on the planet you know all the things about global warming. This is a very minimal impact on the environment as you come up this these pylons every so often, but it’s sort of, we’re actually seeing everything in its natural state in the way it should be.  What I find very interesting is with the eco-tourism, there is this a moral thing that’s now come into it, where all the tour operators are trying to educate  everybody that comes to see their attraction whether it in an aquarium  or whether it be a winery, about their impact on the environment. So yes, enjoy the product but think about these things.

Craig: That’s exactly right and I think that’s just really all about the global landscape that people are being experienced to. You know it’s all about the impacts of climate change, it’s about the need for each  one of us to take an individual stance and  really be cognoscente of what we do in the environment, our effects on the environment and from a product perspective  it’s important to make sure that people understand that a traveling with reputable operates is, and we take this as seriously as they do. 

Ben: When it comes to education and training and things like that, what things you have in place for families that are coming up with their kids, what can they learn by coming here.

Craig: As I said, we want to try and make everyone an accidental eco tourist. So, we’ve launched a number of world first initiatives, one of which is an app which we don’t have running today. It’s a world’s first app. Disney don’t even have an app of this nature and it allows families and individuals to engage and understand or have a greater understanding of the rainforest.  It’s got an augmented reality function on it so that the children and can interact in such a way that they get up a learning experience out of it, we have got a Ranger tours.   People can join these tours and actually get a one on one interpretation and as I say we’ve got views that you get nowhere else in the world.

Ben: What is it about your job that you love?

Craig: Look I’m a Cairns local. So, born and bred, one of the few that I think that are around these days, and it’s an interesting story for me. I way employed in Cairns when this very contentious project, which was Skyrail was mooted and I was actually asked to come and work on the project. I was about 25 at the time and spent some time assisting with the construction. And, never did I think I’d come back as a Managing Director.

Ben: So, in terms of construction, what was your job?

Craig: I was actually looking after some of the tower footings here. So, helicopters would put tower footings and then I would walk in every night and I would sit on the tower footings and make sure that we’re right and then walk out every night.  

Ben: Well it’s quite amazing. So, do you remember which footings you would have done?

Craig: Yeah, I do remember the footings, we’re going to come up to a couple of very soon. I can remember the walk in and out a little bit more vividly than the footings.

Ben: Really? So, when you look at it now that’s a bit of a legacy to your youth isn’t it?

Craig: Yeah, well I like to think so, yeah. I like that youth word.  

Ben: But you look at it and think well I actually help put this in place.

Craig: Yeah absolutely. So I’ve been with Skyrial for maybe 12 years I think in total and I’ve had a couple stints at it.  I always just keep gravitating back to the product I’m passionate about it, I love it, I’ve got a personal association with it and so it’s part of my yeah.

Ben: So, environmentalist and scientists and stuff I imagine coming up here, as we traveling up. You are seeing so much greenery and change.  There must be so much flora and fauna here too that you’ve got to look after.

Craig: Yeah absolutely. So, this is the world’s oldest continuous living tropical rainforests on the face of the planet, some 80 million years older than the Amazon. So, what you see beneath you now is a remnant of prehistoric times. Birthplace to some the songbirds, birthplace to flowering plants, it really is a special place.  Every time that you travel over this you see something different, so it’s our job to make sure that we act as a custodian to this, so that future generations can come and enjoy this experience as we are.

Ben: The relationship with Kuranda.  What’s the whole thing about Kuranda and a from a tourism perspective, what’s important about going there? 

Craig: Well it’s a great day out and it’s a linkage between our two products, so it has a distinctly local flavour about and then it’s got the   destination. Distinctly local flavour and then obviously it’s got particular attractions and experiences in its own right so, it really does underpin our full day attraction.

Ben: So if people coming to Cairns, they go on Skyrail of course and have a look around, what other things do you think they should be doing?

Craig: Certainly, the Great Barrier Reef. That’s a once in a lifetime experience and as any number of ways that you can experience the Great Barrier Reef. The thing about Cairns and  this region is that  it’s got this  amazing geographic footprint, so you only have to go an hour from Cairns and you’re in        the in the highlands of Atherton Tablelands,  another half an hour in the Outback, go of the north Cape Tribulation where the Great Barrier Reef   touches the world heritage listed as Forrest,  so it’s a three or four day minimum experience.

Ben: Well here we are, we’re coming into Central Railway   Station. Red Peak, is that what it’s called?

Craig: This is Red Peak Station.

Ben: Right.  When you get off here how long would you spend on this platform?  Could you spend a couple of hours on one of these tours or how long would they go for?    

Craig: The tours themselves go for 20 minutes. Typically, people spend up to an hour here. The good thing about Skyrail you’re not time pressed, so you do it you’re own leisure.

Ben: So now we’ve hopped on another sky gondola as you call them and now we’re going in a different direction, so  where are we heading to now?

Craig: So now for the benefit of your viewers, out in the distance we can start to see some buildings some way off, that’s Kuranda. Prior to Kuranda    on our left-hand side is a massive gorge you’re about to see, so that’s the Barron Gorge.  It’s significant, it’s called Din Din and it’s significant to the  Tjapukai people.  Some of their dreamtime stories in relation to the rainbow serpent all originate at  these falls. So we’re going to head to a station near the falls, and we just opened  an amazing attraction which was done in partnership with the Federal Government called the Edge Lookout and it has some glass floors in it so  and you actually skirt around the side of the gorge so it gives our guests a perspective that we’ve never been able to achieve before with a little bit of a nerve tester in there.

Ben: I can just imagine. I’m going to ask you a question for all to tech heads  out there.  What size is the maintenance team to run an operation like this and in terms of servicing these gondolas, I mean is there full-time crew technically that look after it?

Craig: Absolutely, so we’ve got a full maintenance team headed up by a maintenance engineer.  They work 7-days a week the bulk of our maintenance is conducted out of hours, so I when our guests    get off our maintenance teams come on and they’ll work every night and they do the preventative maintenance and forward planning that we need.   Yeah, it is a big undertaking to keep a machine like this operational, we’ve got systems on here that are cutting edge that no other lift in the world has, just to make sure that we can provide that safe and enjoyable experience.

Ben: I imagine every pylon is linked somehow so that you can monitor it from a control room.

Craig: Absolutely. Yeah, we have a fibre optics cable that goes from one end to the other. That does a couple things. That allows us to put every monitoring system that we have on the cable way through the fibre optics, but it also gives this incredible band width, so we can then deploy WIFI system wiring and our own private VPN so our guests can lock into our  highspeed networks and they can be sharing photos and doing what I need to do.

Ben: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that, so when it comes to social media in the world that we’re working.  Now you   heavily rely on all the stuff, I mean it’s about being seen with the right people.  You must get a few celebrities up here and if they put a hashtag out on the social media channels, would have a devastating effect with people showing up. 

Craig: No, we’re very popular because we’re one of the key products to underpin the region.

Ben: Yeah.

Craig: Most celebrities that come   into the region you know will typically do us.

Ben: Yeah  

Craig: Yeah, I can remember having Her Majesty   and the Duke we’ve had all sorts of politicians on, including American politicians and Prime Ministers.

Ben: Yeah.

Craig: Yeah. So you get to meet some people.

Ben: And what do they take away from it?  I imagine everybody takes something away from   the trip.

Craig: Yeah. There’re particularly interested if you look at it from a political perspective. The typical question is how you balance tourism with the eco-tourism and sustainability.

Ben: Yeah.

Craig: And that’s what they all want to try and achieve,   so  there’re quite amazed by our model, the fact that we can run as many people as we do, metres    across the rainforest and as you can see looking out there is absolutely zero impact. We do in a sustainable manner, so they are very keen     to understand that.

Ben: I suppose we’re sitting above the treetops, is there a point that the trees actually keep growing or are they just stopped growing?

Craig: No, where’re allowed under our license to operate, just to keep the trees trimmed, so we   keep them outside of about a two-metre buffer from our cabins.

Ben: So, you’ve got to worry about all that too?

Craig: Yes, and we have a full ranger team that comes out, and they come out every three or four weeks or so and they’ll go along on a vehicle and just with pole saws just take the top off vegetation as it grows. We can’t wholesale clear, as you can see there’s no sign of it.

Ben: So, they just hang out of a gondola and do there….

Craig: It’s a specifically designed open caged gondolas, yeah.

Ben: Good grief. So, it’s your service machine.

Craig: That’s it.

Ben: It’s amazing, it’s like those guys that service major electricity power poles, have your ever seen those before?   

Craig: Yeah, I have yeah.  It’s like a skateboard on wheels and they go for miles. I tell you what, it’s such a good ride and such a great experience, that we actually commercialized one of them so our guests can now have a ride on an open air gondola where we harness you in,  put you with the Ranger, and then be one on one with you.

Ben: Like a fruit bat hanging from the sky.

Craig: But you don’t hang, you stand, we call that a canopy glider, it is fantastic. I was lucky enough in 2000 to bring the Olympic torch down on the canopy glider.

Ben: Really?

Craig: Skyrail was in it, and it held the record for the world’s longest torch leg, Olympic torch leg.

Ben: There you go.        Now, how long is the   whole experience, how many it’s 7.5km? 

Craig: 7.5km    

Ben:  That’s a lot. 

Craig: In its day, it was the longest in the world. There is one larger now, I think in China. 

Ben: Yep.

Craig: But it’s not all about size, it’s about the experience.       

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