Mount Bellenden Ker tower and cable car mark 50 years of broadcasting from the clouds

ABC Far North / By Kristy Sexton-McGrath and Phil Staley
Mon 13 Jun 2022

A look inside one of the most hostile broadcasting sites in the world.

It is considered one of the most stomach-dropping cable car rides in the country, but this ride is not for tourists.

High above the rainforest in far north Queensland, the bright red cable car carries workers to one of the most hostile environments of any broadcasting sites in the world.

The only way visitors can reach the transmitter, other than helicopter, is via cable car. (Supplied: BAI Communications)

The top of Mount Bellenden Ker, at 1,597 metres tall, is officially the wettest place in Australia, receiving more than eight metres of rain a year on average.

That can throw up all sorts of challenges, according to Spiro Buhagiar, who has been checking the country’s hardest-working weather gauge for more than four decades.

Spiro Buhagiar inspects the massive back-up generators. (ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)
The Bellenden Ker transmission station and cable car have reached their 50th birthday. (Supplied: BAI Communications)

Mr Buhagiar’s job is to carry out the maintenance on the BAI Communications Australia-owned cableway, the 100-metre tall antennae and transmission line that transmits ABC radio channels, as well as ABC television, SBS, and commercial stations Seven, Nine, and Southern Cross Media, across a 250-kilometre radius encompassing Cairns. 

He has completed thousands of trips on the cable car, which travels into the clouds at around 15 kilometres per hour, weather permitting, taking about 23 minutes.

“You get to see the view of what the rainforest looks like from a bird’s perspective, it’s spectacular,” he said.

The views from the Bellenden Ker cable car are stunning, even on cloudy days. (ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)
Contractors work all through the year to maintain the 21 towers that support the cable way. (ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

He said working in the extreme conditions — heat, humidity and rainfall measured in metres — could be challenging, particularly in an area known for cyclones.

“If you look at all the trees, they’re all covered in moss and mould so it’s a constant effort to try and keep the rust off the tower,” he said.

“We can still go up in the rain, but when the winds are really gusting, we don’t go.

“It throws the car around, way too much swinging.”

Engineering feat

It is 50 years this year since the Bellenden Ker transmission station and cable car were constructed.

Some of the transmitters and other technology inside the Bellenden Ker transmission site. (ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

It was an enormous engineering feat, constructing 21 separate support towers in the middle of dense rainforest in the early 1970s, according to Mr Buhagiar.

“Everything was done by hand, all the tower sites for footings were done by shovel, there was no machinery to help,” he said.

“They had to chopper the concrete in with buckets and then you had all sorts of problems like bags of cement going hard from the rain.”

Chris Howe says keeping the transmitter operational is immensely challenging. (ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

BAI’s network planning manager Chris Howe said the challenge of keeping the transmitter operational was immense.

“I equate this place to the Harbour Bridge in Sydney, they paint it from one end to the other and then they start again,” Mr Howe said.

“It’s the same for us, only we are constantly fighting rust, always replacing bits and pieces to keep it running.”

The off-air monitor and other technology in the rack room of the transmission site. (ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

Mr Howe said the Bellenden Kerr station was a vital piece of infrastructure for the far north, particularly in terms of cyclones and the ability for the ABC to broadcast emergency warnings and keep residents informed.

The main building has beds for workers and a kitchen.

The switchboard inside the Bellenden Ker transmission site. (ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

“If the main power goes down, we need to continue broadcasting so we use a generator, that starts automatically,” Mr Howe said.

“We know how important it is to keep people informed during cyclones so we’re constantly investigating in upgrading the technology.”

The transmission tower can be faintly seen from ground level. (ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

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