Few travellers visit Cairns without making a trip to the rainforest village of Kuranda, about 34km up a largely winding mountain range from the city.
Of course you can drive, but there are two much more spectacular and interesting ways to get there.The historic Kuranda Scenic Railway, snaking through the magnificent Barron Gorge National Park, rates as one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world, taking in gorges and waterfalls as it negotiates the 90-minute trip from Cairns.
Its modern equivalent, the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, takes you on a 7.5km ride skimming the rainforest canopy on one of the world’s longest gondola cableways.
Both are incredible feats of engineering, and a great way to visit Kuranda is to go one-way on the train and the other on Skyrail.
Built by hand over five years in the late 1880s, the railway track is today a monument to the 1500 men – mainly Irish and Italian immigrants – who toiled (and in some cases died) to link Cairns and Kuranda.
The line was built in three sections, with teams of men tackling the thick rainforest with hand tools, dynamite, buckets and their bare hands. They built 15 tunnels and dozens of difficult bridges mounted high above ravines and waterfalls. During construction, workers’ tent camps were set up along the line at tunnels and cuttings, some becoming the equivalent of small towns, selling food and clothing and the workers’ other needs. Some even had their families moving along the line with them. Kamerunga, at the foot of the range, had five hotels.The track was finally opened in May 1891.
Most people – and I am one of them – choose to take the train up the range, and Skyrail back down to Cairns (the views are terrific). The train leaves Cairns Central at 8:30am and 9:30am daily, but the popular departure point is Freshwater Connection just out of town, where there is a railway museum, pioneer cottage and restaurant. The carriages are wonderful vintage style.
The track begins to climb near Redlynch, 5.5m above sea level, and rises to 328 metres before arriving at Kuranda station, built in 1913 and today festooned with rainforest ferns in hanging baskets.
There’s plenty to do in Kuranda before you get an afternoon ride back on Skyrail. Kuranda’s a very touristy place, but there’s still a bit of charm about it. Getting around on foot is easy (pick up a map at the train station), and as well as the village it’s worth taking a walk along the river esplanade or to Barron Falls along a trail. Don’t miss the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, which I’ve written about before on this blog.
The 114 gondolas of Skyrail give wonderful views of the rainforest and the coastline around Cairns as you glide back down the range. For a little bit extra, you can opt for a “Diamond View” gondola, which has a glass floor to give an even better view of what’s directly below. The tallest tower is 40.5 metres high, so for those scared of heights, yes…it can be a little nerve-wracking at times, but it’s still worth braving!
When construction of Skyrail was completed in 1995 it was the world’s longest gondola cableway and used some world-first construction techniques. Today Skyrail Rainforest Cableway still lays claim to being the most environmentally sensitive cableway project in the world.
Skyrail’s tower sites were based on existing gaps in the rainforest canopy, and were surveyed to ensure no rare, threatened or endangered species would be affected by construction. The 32 tower footings were built largely by hand, up to five metres deep in some cases, using picks and shovels. No access roads were built; workers had to walk in to the remote tower sites each day, carrying their equipment, which took up to an hour each way. Helicopters were used to carry equipment, materials and cement into the sites, carrying their loads on 100 metre long lines to avoid wind turbulence affecting the sensitive rainforest canopy.
Along the way, there are two “stations” to get out of your gondola and have a close-up look at the rainforest. Red Peak is the highest at 545 metres above sea level and at Barron Falls you can take the boardwalks to lookouts over the Barron Gorge and Falls (at their best in the summer “Wet” season, December to March). When you’ve spent enough time there, just hop on the next gondola that comes along to continue on your way back to Cairns.
A Glass Half Full rode as a guest of Kuranda Scenic Rail and Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.