16 July 2017
Our first tour in Tropical North Queensland is the Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. We have a fairly leisurely start because the pickup time allows other passengers to be picked up from Port Douglas an hour to the north before us. We are still on NZ time 2 hours ahead so we get plenty of time to enjoy our breakfast at Queens Court, and as it turns out we are the first to be picked up and there is only one other couple in our group. Our driver takes us to the Cairns Railway station, purchases our tickets and sees us safely onto the train with instructions for the day. The train has two diesel electric locomotives from the 1960s and 12 heritage carriages built in the early 1900s and still retaining their original character. The locomotives are brightly painted with Buda-dji the carpet snake that according to local aboriginal legend carved out the Barren River from the mountains to the coast.
We are surprised at how empty the train seems but after re-distributing ourselves to better seats they announce that we must stay in our original seats as most of the passengers will be getting on at the next station – Freshwater. Thankfully it is not a full train and we are able to spread out a bit even after the others get on. Along the way we get a commentary initially about the history of the region and pointing out the sugar cane that is planted everywhere along the coast, then we hear a lot more about the construction of the railway which really is an engineering masterpiece and even more so when you hear that it was all constructed by hand in the 1880s. It was built to connect the rich mining areas up in the hills to the coast, and there are numerous colourful figures and interesting stories around the construction and subsequent lives of the train and surrounding area to liven up the commentary.
The first section of the railway carves its way up through the mountain climbing from just above sea level to the summit (327.1 m) and includes “15 tunnels, 93 curves and dozens of difficult bridges mounted many meters above ravines and waterfalls”. I imagine this would be a train-spotter’s dream: there are plenty of opportunities to take photos of the length of the train as it rounds corners and sometimes as it passes over stunning bridges like the iron lattice Stoney Creek Falls Bridge (apparently the most outstanding feature of the railway line). There are spectacular views back over Cairns and Trinity Bay, and the railway runs through World Heritage listed Barron Gorge National Park with “rugged mountains, ravines, waterfalls, magnificent rainforest and varied rare plant and animal species”.
The end of our journey is the Heritage Listed Federation style Kuranda Station. It is absolutely covered in potted plants and looks stunningly beautiful. We have a look in the Kuranda Station Tea Rooms that now houses a gift shop as well as a small cafe. We had heard that their Devonshire Teas were legendary and we got there just as a fresh batch of scones had come out of the oven so we indulged ourselves and sat in a shady leafy spot outside to soak up the ambience.
Suitably fortified, we set out to explore Kuranda. There have been aboriginal settlements there for thousands of years due to a permanent water supply and abundance of food from the rainforest, but the first Europeans settled there in 1885, initially based on timber felling, agriculture and grazing. Very quickly it became a tourist destination – a cool retreat away from the hot and humid tropical coast. During the 1960s Kuranda had a ‘hippy invasion’ and this provided the base for the arts and crafts that provide their economy even today (along with a good smattering of cafes and other tourist ventures). We explored the various arts and crafts market stalls and visited an Opal Museum as we walked the length of the main street from the railway station to the top. There are a large number of different attractions to visit in Kuranda including a Venom Zoo, Birdworld, Rainforestation, Koala Gardens, Fossil and Gemstone Museum. There certainly wasn’t time to visit them all and entry prices were definitely not cheap so we decided to visit the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary that features butterflies from the surrounding area. It was absolutely fantastic. We had a free tour that included their rearing facilities as well as the main aviary and information about its inhabitants. It is filled with large numbers of brilliantly coloured local butterfly species and has feeding and egg-laying stations to make it easy to see them up close. If you are lucky the butterflies will land on you for an even closer look.
We stopped for a delicious mango smoothie at Frog’s Restaurant, which was nestled into the rainforest, and then decided to walk the network of Rainforest Walks that surround Kuranda and would lead us back down to the River front and to the Skyrail Cableway for our journey back. We walked the Jumrum Creek Walk, Jungle Walk and River and Esplanade Walk which takes about an hour or so depending on how often you stop for photos. There were an amazing array of fungi, flowers and we even saw bush turkeys. The Kuranda Scenic train passed us on its way back to Cairns – if it had just been a few minutes later we would have got a perfect photo of the train on the railway with the skyrail cablecars above and the river below. We sat for a while down on the riverbank watching the riverboats cruising up and down the river and geckos cruising up and down a tree.
We had to be on the Skyrail by 3.00pm in order to meet our connection with our bus driver at the bottom. The Skyrail Cableway stretches 7.5km above the rainforest, so you can look down and see the different types of forest from eucalypt woodlands and primitive cycads through to lush rainforest complete with vines and epiphytes. There are a couple of stations where you can get out to explore in more detail – one with a walk to see the Barron Gorge and Falls and another where there is a walk showcasing different jungle plants. On the last segment you get spectacular views over Trinity Bay, the Barron River and back to Cairns.
There is an obligatory gift shop at the bottom of the Skyrail and I was absolutely delighted to find a large hand-painted tile with tree frogs on it that I had seen in the markets in Kuranda and decided not to purchase it as I couldn’t carry it around all day (it also luckily just fit in my suitcase to bring home). Our trusty driver was there to meet us at the entrance and took us back to our hotel. We had time for a brief rest before walking back into the centre of town for dinner – having had prawns last night we both rather fancied some barramundi (fish and chips). We decided that we would go to bed early as though it were NZ time so that we could get up easily in the mornings for our early starts.
Our itinerary for the week:
Arrive in Cairns, Tropical North Queensland
Kuranda Scenic Train and Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
Chillagoe Caves and Outback Tour
Daintree, Cape Tribulation and 4WD Bloomfield Track
Magical Outer Reef Experience to Moore Reef
Atherton Tablelands and Waterfalls Tour
Daintree Dreaming Tour with Ngadiku Dreamtime Walk