James Cameron’s epic creation, Avatar, was top of mind as I leapt aboard the Kuranda Skyrail like a frisky cocker spaniel. The story goes that his design team were so enthralled by the sensation of delicately drifting over the rainforest canopy, on-board this gondola system, that it single-handedly inspired the opening sequence to the movie blockbuster. But I have got ahead of myself!
First up, there’s a ride to remember simply to reach Kuranda, and that is aboard the Kuranda Scenic Railway from Cairns. Exuding a proud history and ravishing scenery, this vintage rail excursion is a venerable journey back in time. Dutifully collected from my hotel bang on time, my AAT Kings operator whisked me across to Cairns train station.
Boarding this grand old steel-and-sparks beauty, the added frills and benefits of a Gold Class ticket fast soon become self-evident. Enjoy continuous beverages and tasty morsels, high tea-style, in the Heritage Green carriages that are exquisitely handcrafted in Victorian inspired décor. Gold Class exudes the lounge atmosphere of a grand old club – on wheels. Trundling from Cairns to Kuranda village, journey time is a leisurely 1 hour 45mins.
But as I sipped my loose-leaf tea and wolfed down far too many oven-fresh scones, I reflected on what a far cry this idle decadence is, from the railway’s formative years. I quietly raised a toast to those courageous, nuggety pioneers who toiled for five years constructing this back-breaking engineering feat back in the 1880s. The terrain was formidable, the heat sapping and the rainfall drenching. Driven by a pressing need to get their gold from the mountains to the coast, this 37 km track was created by 1500 men and their picks, shovels and dynamite.
Over 2 million metres of earth was removed, while 15 tunnels, 37 bridges and 93 curves were all hewn by hand.
After rattling through well-worked farmland and dense plantations of sugar cane, the train winds through lush, thick rainforest and past plunging ravines. As you approach the tunnels, the forest mysteriously seems to wrap itself around you. I marvelled at the engineering, as the train steadily climbed 328 metres above sea level. The on-board commentary is as absorbing as the scenery, and perfectly weighted so as not too overload you with waffling white noise, for the sake of it.
Cameras and smartphones clicked frenetically from my carriage, as we tootled through the ravishing tropical finery of Barron Gorge National Park, so ancient, unchanged and imposing. As the train meandered around the track’s 93 curves, I became rather OCD about capturing the perfect shot of the train’s arc. Try but try again! And again! A major punctuation point is the whistle-stop at Barron Falls, a welcome chance to stretch the legs and soak up the panorama of plunging, serpentine cascades spilling 260 metres into the Barron River.
Understandably, it’s a gusher of veils in the wet season, but more like lace webbing in the dry season from May to October. This vintage train excursion sets the gold-standard for scenic-rich hospitality on the rail tracks. It’s the ultimate introduction to the forest finery that awaits you in Kuranda. Alighting from the train, the Kuranda Railway Station is the sort of storybook setting you’d half expect to see Thomas and friends saunter into.
Quaintly old-fashioned and swaddled in impeccably tended, tropically-vivid flowers and plants, the gardens alone scoop multiple awards for their unbridled beauty. It’s a five minute walk up to the mountain village of Kuranda, a tourist hotbed of inviting eateries, local art and craft designers and boutique producers. Like all tourist meccas, it’s chocca with retail temptations, so you’ll have to be discerning, if your time in the village is limited.
Terra Nova Gallery showcases a striking range of distinctive local artworks, jewellery and gifts created by Kuranda craftspeople. Don’t miss the taxidermy in the souvenir shop – stuffed crocodiles. How very North Queensland. Just imagine the reaction from Biosecurity if you arrived back home with one of these boys! You’ll be reassured to know the crocs died of natural causes before they were retrieved and stuffed.
Operating since 1886, the Kuranda Hotel offers a hearty welcome within its atmospheric surrounds, a classic Queensland pub with sweeping wooden verandah. Kuranda is studded with a variety of wildlife enclosures – Birdworld, Koala gardens and the Butterfly Sanctuary. The latter is the largest of its kind in Australia, a fluttering wonderland of over 1500 hand reared tropical butterflies.
Many visitors to the North Queensland rainforest dream of glimpsing the local fluttering superstar, Ulysses, which also featured in Avatar. With its iridescent electric blue wings, she’s quite the heart-stealer. And you’re guaranteed to Ulysses up-close, in the Butterfly Sanctuary. After taking in the charms of this bountiful mountain village, a five minute walk will bring you to the Kuranda Skyrail terminal. Strung above the vivid canopy and spanning 7.5km, the cableway provides a spectacular birds-eye perspective on the verdant abundance of the Barron Gorge National Park.
Up to 6 of you can enjoy your own private gondola ride which features two stops as part of the journey, the first at Red Peak Station. At Red Peak I took a walk around the boardwalks, which do include regular complimentary guided by passionate park rangers. True champions of the rainforest, they revel in spilling the secrets of the rainforest to the uninitiated. Stand in awe at the base of the mighty 400 year old Kauri Pine, and learn why a certain vine is called ‘wait-a-while’. Also nicknamed “Lawyer’s Vine”, it’s a disturbingly intuitive plant, studded with a series of barbs used for climbing up other vegetation as well as snaring unsuspecting passers-by.
You literally have to wait a while for it to disengage from you – clever plant. Back in my floating panoramic glass capsule, the next stage of this aerial wonder glided me over the famous Basket Ferns that have made themselves at home in the branches of many trees, including the spectacular Banyans. Other eye-catching rainforest specimens include the king ferns and fan palms, rising proudly from the forest floor. Next stop is Barron Falls Station which stupendous lookouts of the waterfalls (from the other side of the train) and an interactive learning centre.
One of the feature exhibits focuses on the highly endangered Southern Cassowary bird, a rather strange looking bird – a bit like an emu in drag. A smaller version of our extinct moa, these birds weigh in at 85kg, stands two metres tall and are flightless. If provoked, they will chase you and have a nasty kick, accentuated with a powerful claw in the centre of its foot. There are fewer than 1500 of them left in the wild, and sadly they are highly susceptible to end up being road-kill.
On the final sector of the cableway, the rainforest gives way to the sprawling expanse of Cairns and the Coral Sea, as the SkyRail glides you down to its southern terminal at Smithfield. What a day, what a ride, what a rainforest!
You can take the train and skyrail in either direction. AAT Kings bundled the experience together for me, with trusty transfers to and from my hotel in Cairns, effortlessly creating a day of indelible encounters. www.aatkings.com