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Up and Down in Kuranda: Scenic Railway and Skyrail

The town of Kuranda, in the coastal hills beyond Cairns, in northern Queensland is a rather arty-crafty sort of place, a holdover from the Sixties, when there was a thriving hippy colony here. But it was originally founded in 1873 by miners in search of the gold that had been discovered in those thickly forested hills. Other valuable minerals were also found nearby. Kuranda is the place to go to find an interesting, off-beat present for the ‘person who has everything’, but even if you didn’t go for the shopping, there’s still plenty to do there. You can choose from rainforest walks, horse riding, river cruises, an amphibious DUKW or ATV ride, or visit a bird or butterfly sanctuary. But there was something else that really put Kuranda on tourism map.
What makes Kuranda special are the ways of getting up or down from there, the Skyrail and the Kuranda Scenic Railway. You could, of course, just use a car, but that's rather ordinary, compared with these great rides, which I guarantee you'll be talking about for years to come.

The Kuranda Skyrail

When the town was first established, it was served only by primitive tracks from the coast, and in the winter of 1882, unprecedented heavy rain rendered these tracks impassable. The people of Kuranda and nearby settlements almost starved because essential supplies couldn’t get through

A regular, reliable supply route, preferably a railway, was called for, so the Queensland Government ordered a survey to find a suitable route. From several suggested, the one chosen led down the precipitous but spectacular Barron Gorge, almost following the legendary track of Buda-dji, the carpet snake from the Aboriginal Dreamtime song.

Those who know the song can follow his trail even today. It's doubtful, though, that John Robb, the engineer responsible for supervising construction of the railway knew of the song. But, the locomotives drawing the trains on what is now the Kuranda Scenic Railway are brightly painted with paintings telling his story, designed by Aboriginal artist George Riley.

Up to 1500 men laid the 3’6" gauge track almost by hand; they moved almost three million cubic metres of earth, and built 15 tunnels and 55 bridges in the 23 miles from Cairns. This was a stupendous feat of engineering, winding away down the gorges from over 3000 feet at Kuranda to sea level at Cairns, and the railway rightly takes its place as a National Engineering Landmark.

I’d recommend the descent down the gorge for the best views, especially that of the Barron Falls, as the Barron River leaps over the edge of a precipitous cliff. The train stops here to allow photography, and, if the train isn’t too crowded, the staff take advantage of the stop to redistribute the passengers, so everyone gets a window seat. Then, the train sets off again to wind its way down the gorge.

Just as majestic are the Stony Creek falls ... they're on the logo of the railway and most souvenirs show the train passing them. It's a pity, though, that there's no stop here, and any photography has to be done out of the train window. They do give you plenty of warning when they're approaching it, though.

Take the Skyrail Up

Although you could, of course, just buy a round-trip ticket on the train, and ascend by it also, the Skyrail offers an equally spectacular way up … and, in this case, I think I'd prefer the ascent to the trip down. It's a long cable car ride that lifts you from the foot of the hills in three stages through the rain forest canopy up to the town. It will give you yet another excellent view of the Barron Falls from another angle.

There are two intermediate stations, where you have to change cars, and it's possible to take advantage of these to leave the cableway for a short while, and take a short guided walk through the rainforest at the first one, Red Peak.

At the second, Barron Falls, you can walk a short distance to a lookout, where there's an even better view of the Falls. There’s a photo display here, showing the frantic tumult of the falls when the river is in spate … and really angry.

You might be asking what's so special about the Skyrail? There are, after all, many other cable cars throughout the world, and this is by no means the longest. But, the forest below it was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1988, and the route also takes you over the Barron Falls National Park, which was established as far back as 1940.

Of course, these factors weren’t a consideration for John Robb and his engineers when they built the railway. They had, however, to be observed when the Skyrail was built in the early 1990s. To minimise the impact on the fragile environment, every piece was positioned by helicopter, to keep contact with the surface to a minimum.

It certainly paid off, for the Skyrail was the first tourist attraction in the word to receive the coveted Green Globe environmental award, as well as gaining other certifications for sustainable and eco-friendly tourism.


Having written as a hobby for many years while serving in the Royal Air Force, Keith Kellett saw no reason to discontinue his hobby when he retired to a village in the south of England, near Stonehenge. With time on his hands, he produced more work, and found, to his surprise, it 'grew and grew' and was good enough to finance his other hobbies; travelling, photography and computers. He is trying hard to prevent it from becoming a full-time job.

© 2012