Although I came to Cairns for the Great Barrier Reef, I knew that there is another natural ecosystem nearby that is also a UNESCO Heritage Site. The Wet Tropics rainforest of north Queensland is just west of Cairns. Daintree, for example, is within this UNESCO Site.

However, I had ruled out going to Daintree for my trip because it was a little too much out of the way. Besides, Malaysia also has rainforests – including the second oldest one.

But then I found out about Kuranda.

Kuranda Rainforest Village is also within the Wet Tropics World Heritage Site, and is closer to Cairns compared to Daintree. The fact that it’s not completely about the rainforest, but has a market identity, was a plus for me, considering I come from a rainforest country. The market was supposed to have a hippie vibe, and I learned you could go there as a day trip. Not only that, you could go via the Kuranda Scenic Railway, which is more than 100 years old.

I was sold.

How to take the Kuranda Scenic Railway

As with a lot of other tours in Cairns, you can easily get analysis paralysis trying to pick the right package for Kuranda. There’s the Kuranda Scenic Railway option, but then there’s also the Skyrail cable car option. You could combine them, coming in with the train, and back on the cableway. Or vice versa. There are add-ons to make different package options, and then there are coach upgrades for the train.

In the end, I decided to keep it simple and just get a day return train journey. After all, all I wanted was to look around Kuranda village itself. I didn’t really want to squeeze in too many things in one day. The thing I hate most about most tours is the way you get rushed from one place to another.

I went to the Cairns railway station, which is also where the old Cairns station is for the railway to Kuranda. There is a specific lobby for the Kuranda Scenic Railway, and you can buy tickets and tour packages here. It’s also handy if you want to ask a person for advice on the many tour options.

Logo of the Kuranda Scenic Railway over the entrance to the Cairns station
Kuranda Scenic Railway station in Cairns

Boarding the Cairns to Kuranda train

The Kuranda scenic train has an old-world charm. The vintage style carriages preserve a sense of heritage. You get a trip guide that provides a history of the railway, a map of its route through the Barron Gorge, and the Aboriginal Dreamtime legend that is associated with the Barron River. Barron Gorge itself is a National Park, and is also within the Wet Tropics UNESCO Heritage Site.

According to Djabugay legend, the Carpet Snake Buda-Dji carved out Barron Gorge. So the locomotive pulling the Kuranda Scenic Railway train depicts the Carpet Snake on its sides.

Buda-dji carpet snake Aboriginal myth markings against blue background on the Kuranda locomotive
The Carpet Snake decal on the locomotive

Barron Gorge National Park returned to its traditional owners, the Djabuganydji tribe, in 2004. It was the first national park in Queensland to receive a native title.

The train set off on time, and the onboard narration began, pointing out attractions we were passing by.

I didn’t really pay attention at the beginning, watching the landscape go past. But then the narrator mentioned the Pioneer Cemetery, which I had previously noticed on a bus ride to Tanks Art Centre near the Botanical Gardens. That was when I made a point to visit the cemetery of Cairns’ diverse pioneers before I left for Melbourne.

You can also board at the Freshwater Station

Today, the locomotive pulling the scenic railway train is a modern diesel electric engine. So the significance of the freshwater station is gone. But, of course, the original locomotive from Cairns to Kuranda was a steam engine. Such trains didn’t just need a supply of coal, but also of water. Since the steam goes out of the train as it continues on its journey, the train would run out of water and need to re-supply along the way.

The Kuranda Range railway has a freshwater station literally named ‘Freshwater Station’. This was the first point when the railway could obtain fresh water on the way up the Kuranda range. Today it’s a cute railway station with a restaurant and souvenir shop. You can also embark on the scenic railway here instead of Cairns. Depending on your tour package, this station would be the first/last point of the tour.

Agricultural field with hills on the horizon
Farmlands before the train ascends into Kuranda range

Jungara Malaria Research Unit

The Kuranda Scenic Railway doesn’t stop at any of the intermediate stations until Barron Falls. But there are a bunch of little stations along the way that are no longer in use. One of them, Jungara, is a couple of stations from Freshwater Station.

I remember this station because the narration included an anecdote that gave some insight to the kind of people who were the Greatest Generation. The Malaria Research Unit at Jungara Hospital dates from the wartime period. Malaria was a particular hazard of war in the tropics, a lot of which happened in rainforest and jungle. Researching a cure was a high priority; Allied soldiers literally volunteered to be infected with malaria to help researchers find a cure.

The marvellous Kuranda Range railway

Along the way at some of these little stations, there were sometimes people waiting for the train to pass by. When we passed, they waved at us. Somebody told us that these were Queensland rail workers, who would come to the platform whether or not they’re on duty, just to wave at the train passengers. Clearly, I thought, they saw their job as more than just a job.

And indeed, the Kuranda Range railway has a lot to marvel at. It was an ambitious undertaking, to build a railway through such difficult terrain. Kilometres of tunnels and bridges had to blasted and built across a ravine several hundred metres deep. The Barron Gorge is steep, providing few reasonable work sites. And by ‘reasonable’, we’re talking 19th century standards, which is dire.

The terrain meant that the railway was built manually. Quite a few of the European migrants died building it, and some were rumoured to be buried beneath the tracks.

But the railway was built in the first place so that the mining towns beyond could be supplied. The previous supply route was a precarious one by road, which proved impassable during a prolonged wet season in 1882. It brought the townspeople to the brink of starvation, and so the ambitious railway project began.

Kuranda range railway over a rainforest gorge with a waterfall cascade in the background
Crossing the Gorge

Panoramic stop at Barron Falls Station

The train makes just one other stop before Kuranda itself. The Barron Falls station has viewing decks overlooking the spectacular Barron Falls. You only get 10 minutes to look around, which isn’t that long if you ask me. However, if you took the return train ticket, you would have a second chance to look at the falls.

The lookout platform is quite a long one. The best angle to capture the falls is not necessarily where most people instinctively gather. There are information boards here; this was where I learned that the Barron Gorge area is Djabuganydji territory.

There is also a hydroelectric power station behind the mountain. It has been providing renewable energy to Queensland since 1935.

Barron Falls waterfall cascading down the cliff into Barron Gorge
Barron Falls

Barron Falls begins at 329 metres above sea level, and falls for a distance of 265 metres!

Reflecting on (ironically) a less unequal period

Looking out across the vertigo-inducing gorge, I thought about what I read in the trip guide. Back in the day, people used to transport supplies – and even livestock and people! – across this gorge via a flying fox system.

It reminded me of a video I watched not too long ago, about a place with a similar difficulty. Except that the video is about the present day.

Thinking back, I have a similar feeling as the one I had in the Panorama Mesdag museum in the Netherlands. As someone from a country formerly colonised by Britain, the irony is not lost on me. Living standards around the world have improved since then, and the median class of the world’s nations are not too different from each other anymore. But the range between top and bottom in society have become very different between nations. It’s much narrower in some countries, and stayed wide in others.

Ironically, this meant that the bottom part of every nation back then could better relate to each other compared to now, whether they were ‘coloniser’ or ‘colonised’. Just as the very top could likewise do so, whether they successfully seized the right to write history, or lost it.

But today, some of us watch videos like the one above, and forgot that it’s in living memory to know what that’s like. It only takes a couple of generations to forget that we were ever similar to people who can relate to our grandparents.

‘Village in the Rainforest’

The terminus of the journey is Kuranda station. It can be slightly disorienting because it isn’t obvious where the rainforest village is. You cross over the tracks on an overhead bridge, where a sign gives you two main options: continue on to Kuranda Village and the Skyrail station, or cross the opposite way to Barron River where you could take a boat cruise.

I was intrigued by the boat cruise (mainly because I’m easily intrigued by anything involving water activities). But it was in the opposite direction to the Kuranda village markets which I had come to see. So I decided to go towards the village first, and investigate the cruise later if I had enough time.

Kuranda train station sign and railway memorial
Kuranda train station

Kuranda is known as Ngunbay (pronounced Noon-bi) to the local Djabugay people. It means ‘place of the platypus’.

Where are the Kuranda markets?

It wasn’t difficult to find Kuranda markets. To find the Kuranda markets whose pictures had captured my fancy, now that’s the trick.

Literally the first thing you see when you exit the train station area are long rows of shops. They’re orderly, diverse, and interspersed with cafes. There were semiprecious stones, which I guess reflected the mining heritage of the area. There were all manner of souvenir products that featured Aboriginal culture and ingredients. I bought candy at a handmade artisan candy store, which I gave as gifts and hoarded for months later.

But, excellent though the products were, these shops were too modern and orderly to be the market that I had in mind.

As I went further along, not wanting to be distracted by the shops to find my target, I found even more market areas. One was next to the modern rows of shops. Another was actually called Heritage Market and was across the road. But these were more of the same.

You have to go way past these before you’d encounter the original Kuranda market. It is an assortment of shacks rambling down the rainforest slope, with steps that break around trees. The offerings were varied and kind of random, from boho fashion to massages, Japanese tea houses and Japanese pizza, reiki and spiritual healing.

Whether or not you’re interested to buy anything in this market, the ‘market in rainforest’ atmosphere is worth experiencing.

Touristy attractions in Kuranda

Kuranda is actually quite touristy. There are other things you can do in Kuranda besides the markets. There’s apparently an aviary, a butterfly sanctuary, and a koala attraction. It’s also a town in its own right, so it has non-touristy shops as well. The Kuranda website has the full range of attractions.

If you’re doing a day trip with Kuranda Scenic Railway, there definitely isn’t enough time to do all of them. You’d have time for maybe, two things. Three, if you don’t mind rushing through them.

I decided to skip all of the attractions in the village side in favour of the Kuranda rainforest river cruise. I had lunch within the charming ramble of the original market, then retraced my steps back to the train station, stopping at specific shops I’d marked earlier for some shopping.

Sign for other Kuranda attractions over one of the Kuranda markets
The Heritage Market. But this is not the same as the original hillside markets of Kuranda.

Barron River boat tour

The river cruise comes with an introduction to wildlife in the Kuranda rainforest. This being Australia, such wildlife included 8-metre long pythons and deadly spiders (including one called quite literally, ‘bird eating spider’), which you could expect to infiltrate your home at some point if you decide to live in the rainforest. I also learned about tree kangaroos, which as the name suggests, is a kangaroo that can literally climb trees. I have decided to remember them as ninja kangaroos.

Nor are ruthless species restricted to animals. There’s also the strangler fig, which climbs over a host tree to access light, strangling it to death over time.

I couldn’t help but think back to the German couple I met on the liveaboard a couple of weeks earlier, who told me about how danger-free their forests are. No wolves anymore, or even bears. Deforestation notwithstanding, I don’t think there are any tropical peoples who can relate to that.

But Tennyson’s verse ‘nature is red in tooth and claw’? Yes, that’s natural.

However, not all the wildlife are out to get you. There are also resident river turtles and fish. They came quite readily to the boat, and I wonder if they’re sometimes fed.

River turtle and fish in Barron River while on the river boat tour in Kuranda
Semi-domesticated river turtles?

The boat cruise went all the way to the weir, obviously turning back so we don’t fall over it. The guide pointed out a post office to the left of the weir, incongruously in the rainforest. Apparently, that was the old Kuranda post office. It kept getting washed away by flood, so they built another one in the relocated Kuranda Village. But they still keep rebuilding the old one! 

Is Kuranda worth a visit?

I think if you’re in the area, it’s an easy tourist thing to do. As far as tourist markets go, I think the Kuranda markets were good, in the sense that you could re-supply your homewares and personal care products here quite easily. As in, there are many souvenirs that are useful and high quality, not just souvenirs for its own sake.

Is a day trip enough to explore Kuranda?

A day trip is enough time to wander around the village. But it isn’t enough time to actually do the attractions. Additionally, there are also hikes that you can do, which you would definitely not have time to do if your day trip is with the Scenic Railway (unless that’s the only thing you do).

Sign for the Kuranda rainforest village circuit walk via two different routes

Should you visit Kuranda via the Kuranda Scenic Railway?

I think Kuranda Scenic Railway is worth doing for its own sake. This goes double if you’re in any way interested in history, trains, or engineering. However, I guess it isn’t necessary to take the train both ways.

What would I change about my Kuranda visit?

Which brings me to how I would do this trip differently, if it wasn’t just an afterthought to the Great Barrier Reef.

The Rainforest Cableway Skyrail over Barron river and the Wet Tropics Rainforest
The Skyrail cable cars, as seen from the Barron River boat tour

First, I would take the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway to Kuranda, and return to Cairns with Kuranda Scenic Railway. Now, you could buy this combination package, but I have the impression that it’s a day trip. This is not what I’d have in mind, so I’d have to buy the tickets separately. Weirdly, this would be cheaper than buying them both as a day package.

Secondly, I’d probably spend one or two nights in Kuranda itself. This would give me the peace of mind to browse the markets and explore, plus do the hiking trails. I have the feeling that it’s the kind of place that probably comes with stories, considering its interesting historical milestones. But of course, for that you need time.

Carbon offsetting information to Cairns, Australia

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Cairns via Singapore produces carbon emissions of approximately 4,383 lbs CO2e. It costs about $22 to offset this. 

Are you planning to visit Kuranda? Don’t miss the Scenic Railway!

4 panel pin image for travel guide about visiting Kuranda Rainforest village in Queensland, Australia by taking the Kuranda Scenic Railway
Pin image for a travel article about a day trip to Kuranda in the Wet Tropics UNESCO Heritage Site via the historical Scenic Railway

28 Responses

  1. Joanna says:

    I’ve only been to Queensland once, and that was to take my daughter to uni in Townsville. Your post has made me realise there is more to Qld than touristy beaches. I really must get up there.

    • Teja says:

      Oh definitely! I also didn’t know what might be interesting in Queensland aside from the Great Barrier Reef (so far I’ve not been inspired to come to the Gold Coast or Brisbane), but turns out it might actually be an interesting state to explore.

  2. Reading your post brought back some great memories of my trip on this railway in 2019. It was one of the first things I did on my 6 week trip in Australia, and still one of my highlights. Thanks for sharing!

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