Cairns-Kuranda Defence Road No.47

Kennedy Highway

Civil defence facility

Between Smithfield and Kuranda, Kuranda 4881

The Cairns-Kuranda road No.47 was officially opened to traffic on 15 June 1942, providing an alternative access route to the Atherton Tableland to the Gillies Highway, built in 1926 from Gordonvale to Atherton. One of the most difficult mountain roads that the Queensland Main Roads Commission (MRC) had undertaken with the roughest sections built to one-way traffic standard only, the route zig-zagged up the old Smithfield track through rainforest and dense tropical jungle. From Kuranda the roadworks continued to Mareeba by way of pre-war forestry tracks constructed by the Public Estates Improvement Branch of the Lands Department.


With the increase in motor traffic in the early 1920s, surveys were conducted to find a suitable vehicle route from Cairns to the Atherton Tableland. This led to the opening in 1926 of the tortuous Gillies Highway linking Atherton to Gordonvale. A coastal road connecting Cairns and Port Douglas was completed in 1933 as a Depression employment project while to the south, the unsealed Palmerston Highway ascended the range, providing a link between Innisfail and Millaa Millaa. By 1940 construction of a more direct defence road from Cairns to the Tableland was essential. Railway construction across the Kuranda Range from Cairns to Herberton had commenced in 1886. Until the railway, there was almost no way of getting anything larger than a dray up the range by way of the old Smithfield track.

In late November 1942, almost a year after Japan’s entry into World War II, the Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Military Forces, Lieutenant-General Thomas Blamey ordered a survey of the Atherton Tableland with the intention of developing facilities for a rehabilitation and training area for volunteer army troops of the Second Australian Imperial Force recently returned from the Middle East. Key purposes of the scheme were-recuperate troops in a cooler climate while engaged in jungle warfare training; provide suitable hospitalization for malaria and tropical disease cases; and locate personnel and maintenance installations close to the New Guinea frontline with access to railway and port facilities.

Units of the Australian 6th and 7th Divisions began arriving on the Tableland in January 1943 and started occupying tent encampments around the settlements of Wongabel, Wondecla and Ravenshoe. Units of the 9th Division returned to Australia from North Africa during February and by April had begun reforming at camps around Kairi, Danbulla and Barrine. Improved road access from Cairns to the Tableland was urgently needed.

The MRC built the Cairns-Kuranda road, opening it to military traffic in June 1942. Continuous use soon necessitated widening and sealing of the road. The Cairns-Kuranda road and railway became vital links in the military build-up on the Tableland. In recent decades t he road has been largely responsible for the economic development of the Atherton Tablelands and the growth of tourism in the district.


Pearce, Howard (contributing author).
Peter Nielsen. Diary of WWII North Queensland, Nielsen Publishing, Gordonvale, 1993.

Howard Pearce (Ed.). Heritage Trails of the Tropical North: A heritage tour guide to far north Queensland, Environmental Protection Agency, Brisbane, 2001.

Howard Pearce. WWII: NQ: A cultural heritage overview of significant places in the defence of north Queensland during World War II. Environmental Protection Agency, Brisbane, 2009.