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Year visited: 2016
Time of year: January
I had a layover in the Sydney Airport on our way to New Zealand, just so I could say I’ve been to Australia (for 2 hours…)!
My sister, on the other hand, actually lived in Papua New Guinea (an island just above Australia) for a year and a half. So she had a layover (for a few days, rather than a few hours) in Australia before they went PNG, on the way home from PNG, and in between PNG and New Zealand!
I’ve partnered up with her to put together this guide on things to do in Kuranda, a unique village near Cairns, Australia.
Kuranda: Village in the Rainforest
Why Visit Kuranda
What is the must-do item on your list for Australia?
For me, it was holding a koala. There are a few places in Australia that will let you hold a koala, albeit briefly.
Initially I intended to visit Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane, the closest major city to my ultimate destination, Papua New Guinea (PNG). I have a few friends who visited there and had a good experience, but I ultimately chose to visit Kuranda, a rainforest village north of Cairns (pronounced “cans”)–a smaller city, but the closest Australian airport to PNG.
Kuranda is a quintessential tourist village set in the rainforest of northern Australia, so if touristy spots are not your thing, you might want to skip Kuranda.
However, the variety of unique experiences available in Kuranda may be cause to reconsider. In addition to holding a koala, you can hold an exotic bird or butterfly, take a riverboat tour, participate in an interactive aboriginal experience, walk in the rainforest, shop at the market, and more.
Know Before You Go
To travel to Australia, you need to apply for an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA). It is easy to apply for, and it is electronically attached to your passport—you don’t need to print anything or put anything in your passport.
The first time I did this, I was nervous because there is nothing physical to say you have it (other than the email you get saying your application is approved), so I printed the approval email to have with me. It wasn’t necessary though; once you’re approved (usually immediately after applying), it will be in the system so they’ll know you have it when your passport is scanned at the airport.
It costs 20 Australian dollars (about $13 USD), and it is good for 12 months. You can stay in Australia for up to three months at a time and can enter as many times as you want during the 12 months. You need to have this before you get to the airport, though, or they won’t let you on the plane!
When to Go
What Time of Year to Visit Kuranda
When traveling to the southern hemisphere (in which Australia is located), remember that the seasons are reversed from the northern hemisphere. Cairns and Kuranda are in a tropical climate, so really they only have two seasons—wet (November to March) and dry (April to October).
However, it will be cooler during the dry season (when it is typically summer in the US), which might be more conducive for a trip spent largely outdoors.
I like the hot weather so I enjoyed visiting Kuranda during the hottest part of the year, but if you don’t like the heat, you would probably enjoy a visit more during the cooler months between April and October. Keep in mind that it IS the tropics, so even the cooler months will be quite warm!
How Long Do You Need in Kuranda?
On our trip to Kuranda, we took the earliest train from Cairns (8:30 departure, arrival at 10:30) and the early afternoon return train (2:00).
We had time to visit Kuranda Koala Gardens, the market, a few shops, eat lunch, take a short walk, and go on a riverboat tour, all at an unrushed pace. It was a good amount of time for us to spend there, although there was certainly more we could have done.
Overall, with beautiful weather and many unique things to do, I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to the rainforest village.
How to Get to Kuranda from Cairns
There are a number of ways for how to get to Kuranda from Cairns, the nearest big city. Some are even adventurous and part of the fun of visiting Kuranda:
Kuranda Scenic Railway
Kuranda Scenic Railway
For our trip, we took the Kuranda Scenic Railway. As the name suggests, this is a scenic (and leisurely) trip through the tropical landscape between Cairns and Kuranda.
You can board the train at Cairns Railway station in downtown Cairns, which is easily accessible from the greater Cairns area.
We took a bus from our hotel to the station. The central bus terminus is right around the corner from the train station, so it is easy to find.
The train also stops at Freshwater Station, a bit north of Cairns. From Freshwater, you wind through the jungle to Kuranda, making one last stop at Barron Falls.
If you are in Australia during rainy season (typically November through March), you may get to see a gushing waterfall at this stop. If there has not been as much rain, the falls won’t be as spectacular; the gorge is still a beautiful sight, no matter the time of year.
The train ride is about two hours in total, including the ten minute stop at Barron Falls, and departs from Cairns twice daily in the morning, making two return trips in the afternoon.
I would recommend taking the train trip once, as it is a beautiful journey starting at sea level in Cairns and ascending to the mountainous village.
It is possible to book a round-trip ticket to return to Cairns by train; however, I would suggest using a different means of transportation one way because the trip becomes tedious the second time.
There are faster ways to get to and from Cairns, and even the scenic stop at Barron Falls grated on my patience the second time because I had already seen it, and the stop added to the length of the trip. It was fun taking the train in the morning with the expectation of the day ahead, but after a full day of activities, I found the return trip monotonous and slow.
Another travel option for those more adventurous is to take the Skyrail. The Skyrail is a cable car that gives you an aerial view of the trip between Kuranda and Cairns.
It is possible to take the Skyrail both ways or to book it with your Kuranda Scenic Railway ticket to travel one way by train and make the return journey by cable car. You can also upgrade your ticket to Diamond View to get a gondola with a glass floor to get the full bird’s eye effect.
This journey takes about an hour and a half one way. The Cairns station is actually in Smithfield, north of the city. To reach it, or to return to your lodging if you depart from Kuranda on the Skyrail, you can take a bus, taxi or ride share, or drive yourself to the Skyrail terminal.
For a quicker (and cheaper) option, you can take a bus from Cairns to Kuranda. Buses operate on a regular time schedule and are easy to navigate.
The quickest way to get there is to drive yourself (just over half an hour) or take a taxi or ride share. There is on-street parking by most main attractions, as well as a parking lot by the post office.
Things to Do in Kuranda
There are so many amazing things to do in Kuranda! From experiencing the local culture to getting up close to wildlife, hiking through the rainforest or cruising down the river, there is something for everyone in this rainforest village.
Kuranda Koala Gardens
The big draw for me was Kuranda Koala Gardens, where you can visit a variety of animals in addition to koalas.
To enter this area, you need to pay an entrance fee. If you want to hold a koala, you pay an additional fee, which includes a souvenir photo.
Koala Photo Op
The photo op does not include a digital copy, so if you want a digital copy, bring someone else along with you to take a photo while the professional photo is being taken. You can stand in line together even if not everyone has purchased a photo.
The whole reason I went to Kuranda was to hold a koala, so I bought the photo for myself, though my husband chose not to purchase this add-on. He did not get to hold a koala, but after they had taken their professional photo of me, they let him stand next to me and took a photo of the two of us with the koala on my own camera.
We happened to arrive just after a large tour group queued up to get their photos taken, so at first I was disappointed at our luck; however, you don’t get to hold the koala very long–essentially just long enough for them to take your picture–so the line moved quickly.
Because I was at the end of the line and no one had lined up behind me, I didn’t get rushed through quite as quickly on my turn. Perhaps that is why they offered to take a picture of my husband with me.
Before you are handed the koala, the handler gives you a brief summary of how to hold and support the animal. It is then placed in your arms and you cradle it for your picture before the handler takes the koala back. And that’s the end of your koala experience (unless you buy another picture)!
It is not the end, however, of the wildlife to see within Kuranda Koala Gardens. Next we visited the wallaby enclosure, where you can feed wallabies by hand–if you can get them to come to you!
At first, we were unsuccessful in luring a wallaby to our outstretched hands. After watching another visitor having success, however, we were able to get a wallaby to eat from our hands.
In this case, I believe it was a specific wallaby that was open to eating from strangers’ hands on that particular day. The food for the wallabies is included in the entry cost.
Other animals in the Koala Gardens include crocodiles (observed from a distance), wombats, kangaroos, lizards, and snakes. It has a bit of a small zoo feel.
Bird World is another place you can get up close and personal with wildlife in Kuranda. It requires an entrance fee of similar price as entry to the Koala Gardens.
At Bird World, the birds are tame and quite used to human interaction, so they are likely to alight on your shoulder, arm, head, etc. Among the species you’ll see are the native cassowary, Amazonian macaws, rainbow lorikeets, parrots, galahs, cockatoos, and more.
Admission includes a printed bird guide and a guided tour.
Australian Butterfly Sanctuary
A third place where you can meet wildlife in Kuranda is the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary. The entrance fee is similar to that of Bird World and the Koala Gardens.
Visiting the butterfly sanctuary may yield up-close encounters with the creatures as over 1500 butterflies flutter around you. The website suggests wearing bright colors to attract the butterflies to you.
Rainforestation Nature Park
Another place you can visit to see wildlife, as well as experience indigenous culture, is Rainforestation Nature Park, a short distance from Kuranda.
Many of the same activities are available at Rainforestation, including koala holding and wallaby feeding.
There is also opportunity to engage in a Dreamtime Walk, which involves boomerang and spear throwing and the native didgeridoo, as well as learning about other traditional indigenous customs.
Experiences are available for purchase a la carte, or you can buy a package that includes all major attractions. Shuttles are available to Rainforestation from Kuranda, and you can also book a day tour from Cairns.
Kuranda Heritage Markets
Before heading to the river for a guided riverboat tour, we stopped at the Kuranda Heritage Markets, just outside the entrance to the Koala Gardens.
A big draw of the market is souvenirs (I bought a magnet made out of kangaroo fur), but they also have clothing, local arts and crafts, and food.
There are also restaurants and shops lining Coondoo Street, which goes from the bus and Skyrail terminals to the market. I suggest trying a mango smoothie, which is as fresh and tasty as it gets!
There are several walking trails through the rainforest, so you can explore whether you’re short on time and just want a quick stroll, or if you’re an avid walker looking to burn off some calories from that mango smoothie you just consumed!
Our last stop was a relaxing tour on the Barron River.
For the Koala Garden, I had bought tickets ahead of time, but the riverboat tour was a spur of the moment activity for us because we had time to kill before our return train. We just paid (Australian) cash to the boat operator as we boarded.
If you don’t plan to have cash on you, the boat tour needs to be booked online ahead of time as it is cash-only on the boat. The tour lasts about 45 minutes and is offered five times a day.
You will see wildlife in and around the water, the Skyrail gondolas as they cross over the river, and the flora of the surrounding jungle as your tour guide regales you with history and interesting facts about Kuranda.
Other Things to Do
The Great Barrier Reef
Cairns is famous as the “gateway to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.” This is definitely something you should visit if you are in the city. There are many different ways to visit the Great Barrier Reef, including a snorkeling tour or a glass bottom boat tour.
There are so many unique things to do in Kuranda, Australia! I hope you have a wonderful trip and enjoy your time down under.
Any more questions?
If you have any questions about visiting Kuranda, Australia, don’t hesitate to email me.
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