Apart from sugarcane, crocodiles and the Great Barrier Reef, you might be hard pressed to think of what else to occupy your time with (if you have to drag yourself away from the pool that is!) in Far North Tropical Queensland.
Having spent a few days in the sun and finally got in the air for a hot air balloon ride with Raging Thunder, we were excited to do something a bit different! A scenic railway excursion it was. Who would’ve thought that this magnificent piece of engineering would have been built from Cairns through to Kuranda, let alone that it would’ve taken creating 15 tunnels, 93 curves, dozens of bridges and 75 kilometres of track to complete and is now known as the Kuranda Scenic Railway. You can make a great round trip of it by catching the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway back down, sweeping over ancient rainforests for insane views.
We caught a bus into Cairns to catch the early train, not bad at all, a $10 return bus ticket got us there in 45min from Palm Cove and it was a short 5min
walk to the train station. The carriages are fully restored original versions with wooden sliding windows (open, thank goodness!) and plenty of historic photographs. You’re given a map that follows along the commentary and before you know it, the outer suburbs of Cairns are slipping past the window.
It’s a slow and steady climb through the mountain, hearing about the fascinating history of the railway build, especially the characters that were part of building it along the way. The leader of the project’s completion, John Robb, was renown as a tough but fair sort of bloke and several of the sacred standing rocks of the local Aborigine tribe were left standing as they carved the track out of the mountainside, one as a tribute to him.
The Kodak moment of the trip is the magnificent 270 degree turn across an ironwork bridge, enabling you a full view of the bridge and train carriages ahead and behind you from nearly every point. The view is expansive across the rocky valley that’s carved out of the mountain and stretching back towards Cairns. Stoney Creek Bridge was paid a vice-regal visit by the Governor of Queensland, general Sir Henry Wiley Norman. To His Excellency’s astonishment, John Robb prepared a full banquet atop Stoney Creek Bridge with tables, food and wine dizzily suspended may metres over the gorge. History records that there were no speeches that day due to the roar from the waterfalls.
At Barron Falls, you can leave the train for a few minutes to observe the incredible scenery, you can see the watermarks of previous seasons full tide marks and the course of the water over hundreds of years leaving an imprint in the rock. On the return trip, the view from the Skyline Gondola is equally impressive.
Then it’s back on board and no stops til you hit Kuranda. It’s a strange little town now, with much of the original industry that called the railway here ground to a halt. And in it’s place, a curious collection of artisans, hippies, butterfly & venomous insect parks! The Original Kuranda Markets (don’t worry, there are plenty of signs, so many it’s confusing til you realize they all point to the same place!) were started by a group of hippies in the 70s, committed to living a simpler life. Thankfully the tourist trade brings plenty of visitors by train and gondola.
It’s an hour or so walk around the village and market stalls before returning to the platform to catch the gondola down. You can do the return trip by train, but we were keen to see it from the treetops for an altogether different experience! I’ve been a big fan of gondolas so far, but this one is by far the longest, stretching some 15km all the way back to Smithfield, about halfway between Cairns and Palm Cove.
The gondola has a couple of stops where you can either continue to Smithfield or go back to Kuranda, but it’s well worth stopping and taking the brief bushwalk through the boardwalks to view Barron Falls from a completely different angle and enjoy the bush. They also have guided tours at scheduled times to introduce you to the flora and fauna of the rainforest.
It would be hard to believe it’s rainforest until you’re soaring above the trees and can’t see the forest floor. It stretches out for miles until finally clearing the last hill range, Cairns stretches out in the distance and the blue, sparkling coastline is visible from the air.
All in all, a great day trip where you can go at your own pace and enjoy some pretty impressive views.