Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail

Trains! Again!

Cairns’ most iconic image is probably the Kuranda Scenic Railway (KSR) train on the bridge by Stoney Creek Falls. I rode the train decades ago, but of course it’s time for the rest of the family as well.

The Cairns Railway Station is basically a couple of platforms buried under a shopping centre. The Spirit of Queensland, a modern diesel tilt train set, is parked one platform when we arrive. Then, in comes the KSR, fifteen historic wooden carriages hauled by a couple of 1720 class diesel locomotives.

We climb aboard our carriage. The leather seats are four across arranged in rows facing each other, the aisle to one side, with passengers seated in the direction of travel.

The windows are kept open and barred. With the temperature in the mid twenties it’s not too hot and the fresh air is welcome.

The line, which once ran all the way to Herberton, was built to serve the goldfields and agricultural settlements in and beyond the Atherton Tablelands. It is considered a feat of engineering, with 1,500 men taking years to carve the track from the side of the mountains by hand. When you see the muddy soil and shattered rock you can appreciate both the difficult task faced by the builders and in keeping the track open today.

We begin by passing through the suburbs of Cairns. At one point we see police cars and a crowd gathered and wondered if we were witnessing a major accident or crime scene. But no, it was an ANZAC Day ceremony.

Past Freshwater Station, the cane fields and into then we beginning our ascent of the ranges. This is a slow train, especially in contrast to our recent experiences in Japan. It gives us time to admire the rainforest and, as we get higher, the spectacular views of Cairns and the ranges.

The only mountain stop before the Kuranda terminus is at Barron Falls, where the recent wet season and rains means that there is an incredible cascade of water down the dam. The stop has wonderful views and ten minutes to stretch your legs before we continue.

Kuranda Station would have to be Australia’s prettiest, with the platform planted with tropical plants. There’s a working signal box and tea rooms that serve delicious mango smoothies (we return later to try one).

Kuranda is an interesting town. The public holiday means that many venues are closed, but there is a surprising amount to see and eat hidden away in the town. Much of it is tourist junk or hippy weirdness or both. But there are things like a Japanese teahouse and little cafes in the crazy Rainforest Market.

Everyone is hungry. B orders a whole baby coconut, still in its husk, to drink and the two of them get hamburgers from Suzi’s cafe. I didn’t feel like typical Australian takeaway food and had a really nice chicken katsudon bowl from a tiny Japanese eatery that I thought was pretty good. I wished I’d waited because I saw an interesting Sri Lankan curry place and the Hayabusa Japanese cafe that looked even quirkier.

We decide to head back towards Cairns a bit earlier than booked, which poses no problem. Rather than the scenic railway, we are catching the even more scenic Skyrail.

If I hadn’t caught quite a few of these “ropeway” or cable ways before in numerous places across Asia then I might be more terrified of this one. It was once the longest in the world and the vertical elevation is over half a kilometre.

These are just statistics that don’t capture how amazing the views are, cruising amongst the rainforest treetops with sights both inland and to the coast, of rivers, waterfalls and mountains.

We start in Kuranda, rising up to the Barron Falls stop at 340 metres, where we get off and catch a view of the falls from the opposite side of the gorge to the train. In fact, the afternoon train back to Cairns pulls up as we arrive. There are rainbows visible in the mist rising up from the thundering falls.

There is also a CSIRO rainforest centre with a few older interactive displays about the science of the rainforest.

The next stop is the longest interval, with Red Peak at 545 metres elevation. A short signposted boardwalk has interesting information and examples of rainforest vegetation, including an incredible very tall kauri pine, its bark so clean and smooth compared to the vine and parasitic plants growing on most trees.

The discovery zone has some excellent information about the vegetation and animal species found the Far North Queensland rainforests.

The final leg down to the Smithfield terminus is actually a separate line from the rest of the Skyrail. It is a very steep run down the mountainside, but the views of the coast are spectacular.

We have about half an hour to kill at the cafe before our bus arrives. I thought I had discovered a Victorian jelly slice in FNQ, but it turned out to be regular cheesecake with a thin raspberry top rather than a jelly.

Back at the hotel, we take a swim in the hotel lagoon pool. It’s a bit cold, but fun. We walk down to the night markets for dinner. It’s bustling and feels like fun. The other two order food court Chinese, I have a Thai laksa that, whilst not a real Malaysian laksa, hits the spot tonight.

The water feels warmer in the Esplanade pool, perhaps we should have swum there instead. The Moon rise is beautiful, there are planes taking off an turning into the night, a brightly lit Ferris wheel turns and a street performer is doing a fire show.

I like Cairns. As a tourist mind you, but it somehow combines a languid sensibility with an energy of activities and visitors enjoying themselves.

We end the day by returning to Japan, watching Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo, inspired by Tomonoura, on Netflix in the hotel room.

Tomorrow our holiday comes to an end.

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