by Keith Kellett
Kuranda is a mountain town in the coastal hills beyond Cairns, in northern Queensland. It’s a rather arty-crafty, ethnic-sandals-and-incense sort of place, a hangover from the Sixties, when there was a thriving hippy colony here. However, although you could spend all day browsing the markets, if you wished, there’s a lot more besides.
There’s a bird sanctuary, a butterfly sanctuary, a snake zoo and two wildlife parks, one devoted to indigenous; the other to exotic animals. Or, you can ride on a horse, an amphibious ex-Army DUKW or an ATV through the rain forest. Or just take a leisurely cruise on the Barron River.
But, what draws most people are the ways of getting up … or down … from Kuranda. If you have a car, you can, of course, drive up, but, compared with the other two methods, that’s rather ordinary.
Kuranda was originally a mining town. In 1873, gold was discovered, but other valuable minerals were already being won from the area. In 1882, an unprecedented wet season made the roads from the coast impassable, and thousands of people came close to starvation, because essential supplies couldn’t get through.
So, the people in the area began calling for a regular, reliable supply route, preferably a railway, so a bushman named Christie Palmerston was commissioned to find a suitable route. In fact, he suggested several, and the one which was chosen led down the precipitous but spectacular Barron Gorge, following the track of the Buda-dji, the carpet snake of Aboriginal Dreamtime legend. The legend, is re-told by the artwork decorating the engines, painted by Aboriginal artist George Riley.
The most difficult section was built under the supervision of engineer John Robb. Up to 1500 men had to lay the track almost by hand; they moved almost three million cubic meters 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 100 feet at Kuranda to sea level at Cairns, and the railway rightly takes its place as a National Engineering Landmark.
And, as a by-product of this difficult terrain, the ‘Scenic’ in the title of the Kuranda Scenic Railway is well deserved.
The other leg of the journey is to descend … or ascend … on the Skyrail, a stunning cable-car ride through the canopy of the rain forest. The driver of the bus which picked us up from Cairns said it was the longest cableway in the world. The guides wouldn’t stick their necks out so far … some said they couldn’t make that claim, because there were two changes of car involved; another said she thought there was now a longer one in Canada, anyway … the best we’d had was ‘it may be one of the longest’.
It lifts you up the mountains only a few feet from the tree-tops, which, even if you don’t spot
much wildlife, turns a mere ‘ride’ into an ‘experience’.
And, you’ll probably marvel when you’re told that every last part was airlifted to its location, to make as little impact as possible on the environment. That’s something the operators care passionately about. They were the first tourist attraction in the world to receive Green Globe certification, and they’ve also been awarded Eco Australia’s Advanced Ecotourism certificate.
Passengers have to change cars at Red Peak Station, and can break their journey at this point, to take a walk through the forest conducted by a ranger. The other point is the Barron Falls; passengers have a magnificent aerial view of the falls approaching this station, and are allowed out again, to take a short walk for a more leisurely look
In my opinion, the best way is to go up on the Skyrail, and down on the railway. There’s a good view of the Barron Falls from the car … an even better one if you get off at the Barron Falls station, and walk a short way to the lookout. Here, there’s a display board, with a photograph showing the river in full spate, making the falls much bigger and angrier than they normally are.
But, there’s an even better one from the railway, on the other side of the gorge … and I believe in keeping the best for the last. The train stops at the Barron Falls station forr quite a while, so you can dismount, take your photos and get back on the same train. I don’t know if this is a regular thing, but, at Barron Falls, the staff re-distributed the passengers so everyone got a window seat.
That was much appreciated, for the forest scenery really makes the ride. There’s another waterfall to be seen; the Stoney Creek falls are an icon of the railway. 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.
But, the train slows to a walking pace here … to negotiate a tight turn, rather than to accommodate the photographers, Nevertheless, we’re given plenty of warning over the PA system that it’s to happen.
The waterfalls, the engineering of the track and the ever-changing views make this a ride to remember, and I’m surprised that the Kuranda Scenic Railway doesn’t make it on to the lists of the ‘World’s Top Ten Railway Journeys’ more often. If they ever take a vote on that, this one’s got mine.