Day 5: Kuranda

Where Else But Queensland?

Day 5: Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyway

Word by Andy. Photos by Chris (

We’re still kind of waiting for our first sleep-in opportunity, but there’s so much to see and do in Queensland’s far north! We were out of the unit just after eight this morning with a bit of a drive ahead since today’s activity is closer to Cairns than it is to Port Douglas. It’s not like we’re driving in peak hour city traffic, though, right?

Another overcast day with a healthy breeze sent the locals into long sleeves, so tourists are easy to spot. We shuddered at the sight of choppy waters driving around the coast road, but there would be no boat today, just the reference to one in the form of a gondola. These ones are attached to a wire and travel through the air, so unless the wind has an adverse impact on a pod full of people hanging from a wire, we were all good.

We parked at Freshwater station under a tree right next to the pony club, and the train was just pulling out of the station as we arrived. That was OK, because we were catching the Skyrail up. We hadn’t eaten, and were feeling a bit peckish, and after sorting out where to wait for our ride, we headed to the tea house on the station, hankering after a coffee and something breakfasty. They were closing up. This kind of makes sense because they wouldn’t need to serve food again until much later in the day when the next train was due to depart. They could do coffee and scones, however, which was just dandy!


Freshwater station is a grand late 19th century, Victorian design. It’s high awnings resplendent with decorative poles and trusses from which hand ferns above the tiled flooring. The restored carriages used as the kitchen areas for the tea house transport you to a bygone era, which is completed when you see the restored rolling stock standing opposite. The carriages for the train itself date back to the early 1900’s through to the 1930’s and 1940’s, and apart from being pulled along by diesel engines, which themselves were retired from service in the early 1970’s, replicate a time when rail travel was all about steam.

Back out front we met a couple from WA waiting for the same bus. They’d driven from Bunbury to Darwin with the camper and ute, then driven the ute from Darwin to Cairns. That’s more road time than we cared or dare to dream of. Maybe it’s in our future since sea voyages are struck from the menu?

The mini bus arrived and after trying to close the auto door manually to no avail I took my seat and we made our way to the Skyrail station at Smithfield. The terminal is very busy, with masses of people going through every hour. It takes a bit over an hour to ascend in three sections. The first loop rises up the side of the mountain with spectacular views of Cairns and out to the sea. Below a vista of tree tops with gaps showing different layers of ferns, palms and other species that remain untouched. Just over the peak the first stop appears and the gondola glides into the station. This is Red Peak, and an opportunity to walk a short loop to view the forest from this vantage point. It’s several degrees cooler at this altitude and we were kind of regretting not bringing our jackets. We were sure there’d be an opportunity to buy some in Kuranda, and we really had no option but to brave it. There’s a 400-year-old Kauri Pine up there, it’s broad straight trunk rising about sixty metres from the ground and palm trees that date back to dinosaurs… maybe not the actual trees themselves, but the genus is prehistoric.


The next loop continues on to Kuranda with an opportunity to stop at Barron Falls. If you take the Skyrail, make sure you hop off here for a look as well. The stretch from Red Peak to Barron Falls is the longest and I’m not going to lie, we did feel a little bit concerned when the gondola stopped about half way across a couple of times for no apparent reason, but we got moving pretty quickly again as the escarpment below unfolded to reveal small creek, then quite a wide river, with the ultimate reveal: Barron Falls.

Barron falls is 125 metres of cascading waterfalls and is a sight to savour as you approach the second stop. The force of the water was sufficient to inspire Australia’s first underground hydro-electric power station. The large pools each falls drops into look frighteningly tempting, and some hikers in swimmers were on top of the falls contemplating a dive in. I don’t know whether that’s safe or allowed, but this little brain says NOPE and moves on from considering it. Stepping of the gondola, we walked towards the lookout for a better view of the falls. What possesses engineers to think people like to walk out on a glass ledge over a sheer drop I’ll never understand, but there we were, gingerly hanging on the the rail to get our happy snaps. The rest of the walkway was wood or concrete and very easy walking. The concrete sections had imprints of local foliage, which was a nice decorative touch.


We hopped on to the gondola again to travel the final leg to Kuranda. The gondola rides were a bit like speed dating. We met three other families on each leg: a young couple with a toddler who had driven from Adelaide, a mother and her two sons from Brisbane, and a couple from Wagga. The nice thing about holidays is that everyone’s friendly and up for a chat. The nice thing about gondola rides is they’re short, so you don’t have to keep up the small talk for long.

As we arrived at Kuranda, we were invited to look up to the camera on the wall in front which flashed and took our photo, strangers and all. We bought the photo, mainly because of the startled face of one of the other gondola companions. When on holiday…

Kuranda is a small village and pretty easy to get around. The main street has a variety of souvenir shops, small markets and galleries, and we have a few hours to spend so took our time having a bo-peep, then sat for lunch at the Frog cafe. Chris had the barramundi with chips, which he’s officially rated as the best fish he’s had. Ever. The batter wasn’t too think, which is the winning factor in his books. I had the crocodile curry, which satisfied my gustatory craving. Croc tastes just as I remember it- a bit of a cross between chicken and fish.


There are a few animal attractions in Kuranda to explore. W figured we’d seen birds before and we can always cuddle a koala at home, so we decided to visit the butterfly aviary. Being a little bit colder than normal (we didn’t have to buy jumpers in the end – it was fine!) the butterflies were being lazy and probably wouldn’t be as busy today. It was thoughtful of them to tell us this after we’d paid, but we’d never been to a butterfly aviary before so in we went.

The place was pretty busy. Several prams being pushed about, grandparents with their kids’ kids in toe, and parents with their own kids, all looking ceiling-ward for the magical butterflies. There were one or two resting high up on the walls and we spotted a couple amongst the plants, but the prophesy of dormant lepidoptera appeared to be accurate.

Chris and I stepped into the fairy garden.

The fairy garden is a little nook at the back of the main aviary where they keep the little butterflies; not the babies, just smaller types. We saw some fluttering about, mainly buttercup yellow in colour. Some were feeding from the nectar trays provided, others were slipping their proboscis into flowers on a shrub growing in the garden.

Chris and I exited the fairy garden.


We did another loop of the main aviary and suddenly butterflies started to appear. I don’t know if someone poked them with a stick to wake them up or if there was a change in ambient temperature with the number of visitors, but we were suddenly surrounded by large colourful butterflies, ready to put on a show.

Carins birdwing butterflies look big enough to carry off a small child, and have beautiful green and yellow markings. Other butterflies I didn’t see the names of zoomed about, their colourfully marked wings bringing smiles to everyone looking at them. A couple of them mistook me for food, disappointed to find the large blue flower they thought they were going to feast on was actually my shirt. Ir maybe they just like my vibe, which is how I’d prefer to see it.


After our visit with the butterflies we headed back in the direction of the train station, stopping at a couple of shops along the way. We bought a nice artwork from one of the local Indigenous artists and I got myself a nice handcrafted leather belt, relieved my pants would now stay in place.

The Kuranda Scenic Railway is about 33 kilometres in length, has fifteen tunnels and ninety-eight bends. It’s amazing the trivia my brain holds at times. The seats are comfy, which is lucky, because they really fill those carriages up! Allocated seating with four to a seat (although I suspect it would be a bit roomier in first class) and we seemed to be surrounded by the fellow speed daters we met in the gondolas earlier in the day. Kuranda railway station is also beautifully kept and evokes all of the imaes you’ve ever seen of a classic tropical railway station, filled with greenery against the well kept weatherboard structures. The signal box with it hand controls is one of only nine still operating in all of Queensland.



The train rolls at a slow pace, giving plenty of time to take in the views on descent, taking about an hours and half to make it trip from Kuranda to Freshwater. On-board commentary tells the story of the rail line, which was commissioned after the wet of 1892 when supplies were cut off from the then gold-mining villages and the inhabitants almost starved to death. A mixture of about 1500, mostly migrant workers constructed the line, with all of the tunnels cut with hand tools after some preparatory blasts. The workers had to provide their own tools and lived in camps along the emerging line as they built it, sometimes with the wife and children living in tents or bark huts with them.

As the train makes its way back towards Cairns, it stops briefly at Barron Falls, giving a photo opportunity from the opposite angle we’d seen it on the morning ascent. Other landmarks and features we saw along the way were a stone monument the Europeans appropriated and named Robb’s Monument in honour of John Robb, the railway’s builder. One of the rocks was originally taller, but damaged during construction. In local Aboriginal culture, the rocks refer to the story of a man and a woman who were in an illegal relationship and were punished by the ancestors by being turned to stone.


Stoney Creek bridge is another unique feature of the railway, which follows a tight bend and takes you right beside a waterfall. The perfect photo opp, as is horseshoe bend which is further down the line, offering the opportunity to see both ends of the train at once. The bed was made to help engines pick up speed to help with their steep climb. Glacier Rock and Red Bluff are natural landmarks amidst the expanse of green mountainside either side of the gorge.



Before long we were back where we started, heading for the pony club.. well the car parked next to it at least ready for the lengthy drive back, happy with a day well spent.

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