The journey on Queensland’s historic Cairns to Kuranda train is one you’ll never forget. Passing through one of the world’s oldest rainforests, you’ll see breathtaking views, sites of cultural significance and maybe even feel the mist of a rushing waterfall.
The Kuranda Scenic Railway has been on my bucket list for years, so I jumped at the chance to experience it on my recent trip to Cairns. The train ride is a 2-hour rail journey between Cairns and the village of Kuranda, and takes you through the breathtaking rainforests of the UNESCO-listed Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. Though Kuranda is a great place to spend several hours exploring, the train ride itself makes the trip worthwhile.
I picked up my Scenic Railway ticket at Freshwater Station. The train station is a lovely building which was built in 1984 and refurbished in 2018; the railway line itself dates back to the late 1800’s. I arrived with enough time to grab a coffee and watch the train arrive at the platform, however I later found out there was more to see at the station and regret not arriving with more time. The tropical decor and nostalgic vibe are beautiful, but the station also features a small museum, a gift shop and a restaurant with seating in adorable railway carts. I highly recommend arriving with more time than you think you’ll need so you can have a walk around.
As the train pulls into the station, you’ll be able to see the colourful locomotive, painted by Australian artist George Riley (also known by his tribal name Jillimablu). The painting depicts the Carpet Snake Buda-dji, who is an important figure in the Dreamtime stories of the local Djabugay people.
Each guest is assigned to a specific carriage and seat number, which are located on the bottom of your ticket. Carriage numbers can be seen next to the doors of each railway car. The seat numbers are located on top of each seat. Each row has a safety card and there’s plenty of room under the seats to stash bags. Please note that I can only comment on the experience traveling as a Heritage Class passenger. The experience may be a bit different for those traveling Gold Class.
The Heritage Class carriages are bright and roomy. I didn’t feel uncomfortable at any point during the trip, though this was also because I had a whole section to myself. The seats line one side of the train; on the other is a standing area next to the windows, where you can get a great view of Stoney Creek Falls, and even feel the mist from it as you pass by. The audio commentary during the trip was great – it wasn’t obnoxiously loud and gave some good information about the history of the railway, even telling us the best spots to snap pictures. An attendant passed through the cabin several times, and even offered to take a photo, which was great as a solo traveler.
Near the end of the journey, there was a brief stop at Barron Falls Station, where we could exit the train and take photos from the lookout. If the platform is crowded, I suggest heading towards car #9, where you can get a nice view of the falls with less people.
How to get to the Kuranda Scenic Railway
You can book a ticket on the Kuranda Scenic Railway departing or arriving at one of three stations: the Cairns Railway Station, which is located in the centre of the city, Freshwater Railway Station, located a bit further north of the city centre, and Kuranda Station, which is beside the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway terminal at Kuranda Village. Timetables for each station serviced by the Kuranda Railway can be found here.
Cairns Railway Station is the best departure point for anyone staying within the Cairns CBD. It’s located on Bunda Street beside the Cairns Central Shopping Centre. It’s a short walk from the Gilligans and Cairns Central YHA hostels, and many of the other downtown hotels. If you’re driving, you can take advantage of the free parking at the shopping centre (remember to validate your ticket). The Kuranda Scenic Railway has its own platform inside the train station.
Freshwater Railway Station is the only other railway station in Cairns that the Kuranda Scenic Railway stops at. This train station is located in the suburb of Freshwater, north of Cairns CBD; it’s the station I travelled from as I was staying in the nearby suburb of Machan’s Beach. Freshwater train station has a lovely historic building design and a large patio located on the platform. There is free parking here, and shuttles can be pre-arranged from the Skyrail if you’re making a return journey on the cable car.
Kuranda Station is located in Kuranda Village, just a short walk from the markets and restaurants. Though the train journey is amazing, I highly recommend you combine your trip to Kuranda with a ride on the Skyrail. You can read about my experience on the Kuranda cable car here.
Kuranda Scenic Railway Class Options
There are two main class options for those traveling on the train between Cairns and Kuranda: Heritage Class and Gold Class. There’s also the option to book Royale Class, which is designed for groups of 15 or more people, and allows your party to travel in your own private carriage with a dedicated attendant.
Heritage Class is the most basic experience, and the one I travelled in. It offers the cheapest fare, though the experience still feels luxurious. The bench seats are comfortable, lining only one side of the train car, which prevents any feeling of the cabin being overcrowded. A washroom is located at the back of each carriage, and filtered water is also available onboard. During hot summer months, an attendant hands out cold towels to refresh guests. An audio commentary is also provided over the speaker system.
Gold Class is a more premium offering available to those traveling between Cairns Station and Kuranda. Though it’s double the price of Heritage Class, it provides guests with an even more luxurious experience, including locally sourced snacks, welcome drinks and a souvenir gift pack. Seats are also a bit more comfortable, with individual chairs instead of bench seats.
Culturally significant sights on the Kuranda Railway
The Kuranda Scenic Railway line runs through an area known to the Djabugay traditional land owners as Djirri Nyundu Nyrrumba. This place is significant to the Djabugay, so it’s important that we, as visitors, respect it. The first step is trying as best we can to understand why these places have so much significance to the native tribes who own the land.
Glacier Rock, or Bunda Bulurru, is a granite peak rising approximately 400 meters high, and is visible between Barron Falls and Stoney Creek Falls. This place was an important meeting spot for the local tribes before the construction of the railway.
Near Glacier Rock is Robb’s Monument, known to the Djabugay as Mayula. Though this natural rock formation is more famously known as a tribute to the railway engineer John Robb, it has a much older significance to the local people. Legend tells of a man and a woman who had a forbidden love affair. This angered the gods, and they turned the lovers into stone as punishment, creating what is now known as Robb’s Monument and a second rock beside it.
The legend of the Carpet Snake Buda-dji is printed in the trip guide that you’ll be given when you pick up your tickets at the railway station. As the Dreamtime story goes, Buda-dji danced in the waters of Stoney Falls Creek naming it Diwunga before he was ambushed near Kuranda. Pieces of his body were scattered around the region, and each place was named for the part of his body that landed there. The story of Buda-dji is shared by several different tribes in the area, though it’s slightly different for each one.
Things to know
- Food and drinks are allowed on the train, but if you’re traveling in a Heritage Class cabin, they will not be available on board. If you think you’ll be hungry during the trip, I suggest bringing something on the train with you. As mentioned above, filtered water is available in each railway carriage.
- Uber is available in Cairns, and is a good option for those staying in areas where bus service isn’t great.
- You will likely be given a travel guide brochure when you purchase your ticket – however, most of the same information, as well as an audio commentary, can be found on the Kuranda Scenic Railway app. If you’d like to go paper-free, you can download the free app here in English, Japanese, Mandarin or German languages.
- Smoking is not permitted onboard, or at any station, including during the stop at Barron Falls.
- Luggage brought onboard needs to fit under the seat during the journey. Unfortunately luggage storage is not available at any of the railway stations, but if you’re also traveling on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, lockers (measuring 87 x 61 x 49 cm) are available at Smithfield Station.
You can find current information and book your own memorable journey on the Kuranda Scenic Railway through the official KSR website.
Are you planning a trip to Australia?
You can check out my guide to the best backpackers hostels in Australia. It has tips on how to choose a good hostel and lists some great ones in every state to check out. I’ve also written a post all about staying at YHA Australia hostels.
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*Please note that this article was written prior to the Covid-19 pandemic so some information may have changed. Queensland Rail was kind enough to provide me with a complimentary heritage class trip on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. All my opinions remain honest ones.