The rainforests of far North Queensland, Australia have been home to Aboriginal communities for over ten thousand years. So much of visiting this unique area is about appreciating the beauty, life and utility of the rainforest inside and out – a rare opportunity for most of us from the big cities of the Western world. We were thrilled to have the unique experience of exploring this region from both above and below as we took a tour of Kuranda, the village in the rainforest. Through our outbound journey on the Kuranda Skyrail in Cairns, our self-guided Kuranda tour in the village and our return on the Kuranda railway we got a fun glimpse at life in the area. Read on to find out more!
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Kuranda Skyrail: a once-in-a-lifetime experience
If you’re captivated by nature like our family, a trip on the Kuranda Skyrail is absolutely the best thing to do around Cairns. The stunning aerial tram takes you gliding just meters over the rainforest canopy and even through areas where you can see straight to the understory. We were captivated the whole time!
The experience begins with check-in at the terminal in Smithfield. On the day we visited, during the Chinese New Year holidays, I was grateful for our Diamond View Skyrail carriage – not only did it afford us the most spectacular views, but it also allowed us to skip the massive queue of tour groups waiting for the regular carriages. At check in we received a very important brochure that explained all of the sights along the three sections of the Skyrail path.
The first section ascends to the top of the Tablelands, the historic and current home of the Djabugay people. We exited at the Red Hook station for a ranger-led Kuranda rainforest tour, and I can’t recommend it enough! Our cheeky guide, Jeremy, is a member of the local Djabugay people and he brought to life so many of the rainforest’s secrets – including lawyer cane, “hairy Mary” and more. He introduce us to a 500 year old Kauri pine, the tallest tree species in Queensland, explaining that they have smooth bark and now low branches to avoid death by the ubiquitous strangler figs. The kids were excited to see tons of basket ferns, which they had learned about when we read Race the Wild: Rain Forest Relay!
The next station along the Skyrail is a viewpoint for Barron Falls, a sacred site for the Aboriginal community. The short walk takes you to several different lookouts, complete with information panels. Though we visited in Queensland’s wet season, it was unusually dry in 2018 so the waterfall wasn’t especially gushing but still pretty.
Of course there’s the final stop: Kuranda, the village in the rainforest.
The destination: Kuranda things to do
Kuranda Village has had numerous incarnations: mining town, hippie retreat, and now tourism hot-spot. The villages offerings reflect that path as well. While we didn’t take advantage of all the great things to do in Kuranda Village, there’s plenty to keep you occupied all day on your Kuranda tour regardless of your interests.
Kuranda animal parks
At the back of Kuranda Village, accessible by a free shuttle from the Skyrail and train stations or by a pleasant 15 minute stroll, you’ll find Kuranda’s three animal parks: Kuranda Koala Gardens, Birdworld Kuranda and Butterfly House. You can visit one or all three – discounted tickets are available if you want to see them all. Allow roughly an hour for each park you choose to visit. We had just been to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures the day before and it operates the Kuranda Koala Gardens, so we opted to explore the Butterfly House. We’ve been to many butterfly exhibits and the unique feature of this one is the breeding area – you can see some very unique species up-close, observe their unusual chrysalises and even ask the resident biologist any questions. It was a great complement to our worldschooling efforts and fit nicely with all of the other Queensland wildlife encounters we had during the week!
Aboriginal art galleries
Perhaps our top thing to do in Kuranda Village is explore the numerous Aboriginal art galleries. You’ll find a range of styles, themes and media… each more captivating than the last! We fell hard for so many pieces and would have bought several if we had a wall to hang them on somewhere. But alas. You’ll find several galleries along the main street, and also some very cool street art all around town. Be advised that the galleries do not permit photography (though murals are obviously fair game). One thing we didn’t buy that I wish we had are these cool Aboriginal coloring books for kids, which the shopkeeper says he photocopies for his kids so they can use the pages over and over. Smart!
Tourists, tourists everywhere!
There’s no escaping the fact that tourism drives Kuranda’s economy, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But you’ll have to dig between the dime-a-dozen souvenirs shops and generic eateries to find the gems. There are a few unique shops specializing in handmade products from the local Aboriginal community and other crafts that would make lovely keepsakes. We brought a picnic lunch with us (#budgettravel) and enjoyed a great fresh-pressed juice while we waited out the brief afternoon rain that is so typical of life in the rainforest.
Chugging through history on the Kuranda Scenic Railway
For as modern and nature-oriented as the Kuranda Skyrail feels, a return ride on the Kuranda Scenic Railway is an entirely different experience! Step back in time to the region’s early days of development during the gold rush of the late 19th century. The railway was very complicated to build, including 15 hand-carved tunnels, 55 bridges, 98 curves and 325m of total elevation change. The Kuranda train cars themselves have been restored to their early 20th century glory.
We hopped the last train of the day, which departed at 3:30pm since it was the low season (though the Chinese New Year crowds would indicate anything but low season). The ride includes a quick stop to view Barron falls almost immediately after departure. After leaving the gorge, there are amazing views of the coastline and flatlands, with Green Island off in the distance. The curve at Jungara gives a great view of nearly the whole train if you’re seated in the back like we were. The narration along the way gives a glimpse into the train’s extensive history over more than a century and also provides tips on where to get the best photos. Handy! It was a little tough to hear the narrator over the din of the crowd at times, so we were grateful for the brochure we received. There’s even an app you can download in advance to follow on the ride.
How is it inside the train cars? We were seated in the regular service class and the experience was vintage (open windows, wooden benches), reflecting the train having been restored to its original accommodations. Our train was particularly crowded so it was warm and sometimes difficult to hear. A better choice? Gold Class, baby!
Our friend Allison from Flights to Fancy got to ride in luxury and had this to share:
If you are looking to amp up your ride why not try Kuranda Scenic Railway’s Gold Class. KSR Gold Class passengers are treated to mocktails on arrival at Freshwater Station before boarding their dedicated carriages with comfy lounge chairs. Beer and wine are served on board as well as a delicious morning or afternoon tea. The cost to upgrade is a mere $50pp and well worth the investment. Go on! You know you’re worth it!
Since we were driving ourselves, we exited the train at the Freshwater station and transferred back to the Skyrail car park at Smithfield on the free shuttle. Pro tip: Be speedy getting off the train, as some folks had to wait around for the next round of shuttles!
Kuranda Skyrail prices and Kuranda Scenic Railway price
We definitely recommend booking the Kuranda Railway and Skyrail as a package to save on costs and ensure a smooth transition upon return. A family package Kuranda tour is currently priced at $281.25 AUD – not a cheap experience, but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! As of early April 2018, the Kuranda Scenic Railway is closed due to landslides after the heavy rains. As such, it’s worth considering visiting Kuranda via a round trip on the Skyrail rainforest cableway near Cairns, which also costs considerably less at $197.50 AUD for a family.
Planning your visit to Kuranda Railway and Skyrail
Overall our day visiting Kuranda Village was a fun and unique experience. I don’t know when else we’ll get to soar over the rainforest and steam back on a vintage coach! The village itself is an interesting hamlet and offers a break from the usual coastal vacation spots of far north tropical Queensland, but in our estimation it’s the journey that makes the destination worthwhile. Book your visit today!
Many thanks to Kuranda Skyrail and Kuranda Scenic Railway for hosting our visit; all opinions are our own.