A RAIL JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY
IT’S 5.20am and the train has just pulled out of Rockhampton.
It’s one of the oldest cities in the state and the self-styled beef capital of Australia.
Rocky is one of those places you see at night if you are on a train journey or long-distance coach trip.
It’s on the central coast of Queensland, about half-way on the 1300km trip from the state capital of Brisbane and Townsville, the financial hub of North Queensland.
Back in 1890 the large amounts of money coming out of Mt Morgan gold mine saw a push to create a central Queensland state, based in Rockhampton.
But today the gold has run out and although it is the fourth largest city in the state outside of the South East corner, it relies on tourism to support the industry and agriculture.
We are aboard the Spirit of the Outback, one of Australia’s more distinctive rail journeys.
Not as famous as the Indian Pacific that spans the continent from east to west, or The Ghan that travels from north to south through the Red Centre. Yet it is Queensland Rail’s last remaining rail service to provide sleeper cabins.
It runs 1325km between Brisbane and Longreach, regarded as the capital of Outback Queensland. And after almost 12 hours of travel overnight we are about half way into the journey.
The journey takes about 27 hours through ever-changing scenery.
I watch the urban landscape and street lights slip away then pull the covers of the bed up to catch another 20 minutes of sleep before the sun rises.
How long has it been since I have been on a long-distance train trip?
Those early days back-packing through Europe, when you caught a night train so you didn’t have to pay for a hostel or cheap pension.
Then there was the old Ghan that rocked and rolled its way into the centre of Australia, north from Port Augusta to Alice Springs.
These days The Ghan is a world-class journey on new railway track all the way to Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory.
That’s the beauty of dozing just before dawn – you are not sure if you are dreaming or whether you are half awake.
So I make the decision to have a shower and head for the Shearer’s Rest lounge for a coffee, not miss a moment of the colours at the start of day.
Just like the softness of the break of day on the edge of the Tanami Desert in the Top End, where I worked all those years ago. Before the heat that came as the sun got above the range.
That’s the beauty of the outback, the colours … and the people you get to meet.
They say there is no colour quite like that seen in Australia.
On the journey today it’s double track all the way to Emerald but then it changes back to 80kilometre an hour on the run to Longreach.
Coal trains and those hauling livestock whoosh past in the opposite direction.
Looming out of the darkness like some ghostly battleship cutting its way through a sea of scrub and grassland.
We are at the Tropic of Capricorn and the trip opens up. We have left the feel of city life behind and will be travelling close to latitude 23 degrees 26 minutes south for the rest of the day.
I love that first light of the day. The hint of purple, above the oranges, soft pink then the pale yellow and into the different shades of blue of the sky.
It’s 6.15 and we are somewhere around Duaringa. I’m going to search for a coffee.
We are travelling through light scrub grazing country and I find the kitchen crew starting their day with a cuppa.
A bit like a butcher’s breakfast I suppose, the way they have a cook-up after they have cut up the meat ready for the day’s trade … all the off-cuts are fried up and enjoyed before the shop opens.
That’s what it’s like in the kitchen on the train.
The crew love the work on board, and how beautiful the countryside is.
It’s good to see the whisp of steam rise from the hot cups of tea and coffee. And other passengers stir to life.
John, a fellow traveller, tells us about his journey on the Dirrinbandi Mail, a mixed train of general freight and a passenger carriage that ran to the furthest parts of South west Queensland.
On that particular run he was the only passenger.
The guard had asked John if he would be having dinner that night.
“I said, alright. So he got on phone to the Thallon to pub and ordered one counter meal for tonight.
“And there it was, waiting for me when the train pulled in.’’
Dingo is one of the many historic towns we pass through. That’s where an uncle grew up and he told me stories of returning on leave from the war. And, wearing jungle greens and bare feet, he would be ready to ride in the rodeo.
It must have been such a welcome change from the trenches of New Guinea.
Dingo sits on two major roadways that service beef, coal and timber industries. It is nothing for up to 1000 vehicles to pass through in a day.
Yet where we are headed today, the road trains are up to 60m in length.
It’s easy to see why they call it Bluff, just look out to the south. Initially called Duckworth Creek with sparse pastoral settlement but after the railway reached there in 1877 was renamed after Arthur’s Bluff, a long range rising from the grassland.
Now it is a major interchange for coal trains due to its location between some of Queensland’s largest mines.
Blackwater earns its title as the coal mining capital of the state by its substantial coal deposits. The black water is from the ti-tree residue in the waterhole and black sand in the area.
Comet was one of the earliest towns in the region and at the junction of three rivers … the Nogoa, Mackenzie and the Comet, named by explorer Ludwig Leichardt and his observations of Haley’s comet during his adventures into central Queensland in the late 1800s.
It’s interesting to see Emerald in the daylight this time, instead of at night when I drove through on my road trip to Darwin.
It’s also the gateway to some of the largest sapphire fields in the southern hemisphere, but originally named after the Emerald Downs grazing property.
That was in 1879 and it has since become a centre for agriculture as well as cattle.
It is also a large sunflower producing area, thanks to irrigation from the Fairbairn Dam that benefits citrus, cotton and other horticulture.
Tourism is a growing as the dam can hold up to five times the Sydney Harbour.
The heritage-listed Emerald Railway station is more than a century old and features cast iron lacework as well as iron columns.
From here on we travel at a much more sedate pace … the traditional clickety-clack of the rails instead of the grinding of the higher speed on the main line.
Everyone seems to have settled into the rhythm of the journey.
Anakie is one of four small towns that make up the gemfields, along with Rubyvale, Sapphire and Willows.
Bogantungan was once the terminus for the railway, with all freight having to be carried over the Drummond Range by horse and carriage.
In the 1880s it had 28 hotels, flourishing market gardens, a public hall and racecourse.
After the line was put across the range, most of the town moved on to greener pastures.
You become aware of the changes … from farmland to scrub and treed undulating country to the spectacular Drummond Range and Hannams Gap.
The climb over the range reaches 535m above sea level.
Willoughby Hannam surveyed the line to Barcaldine, in 1908. Cuttings and curves were named after men who were in charge of the work – Doolans Straight, Skinners Cutting, Daveys Cutting and the like. There are even curves called the Big Horse Shoe and the Iceberg.
Lunch is served and on the day there was the choice of grilled barramundi seasoned with lemon pepper then served with salad and honey roasted sweet potato. Otherwise there was the bushman’s beef salad, grilled chicken salad or spinach, ricotta and roasted capsicum quiche.
To finish with? A tropical fruit medley layered with smashed meringue and vanilla custard.
Alpha is the gateway to the west, named after Alpha Station that was established in 1863.
Like Emerald, it has seen its share of fire and flood with the resulting mix of historic and modern buildings. It is also known for the 28 murals painted through the town to illustrate the day-to-day life of people in the bush and the pioneering spirit.
Jericho is situated on the banks of the Jordan River, south of Lake Galilee and the start of the run into Barcaldine.
You’re now in Outback Queensland, where the rivers run inland and where agriculture gives way to grazing.
You are entering the overflow, where rivers break their banks in the wet and spread out like many fingers many miles wide. It’s where three rivers flow into a creek … Coopers Creek and finally into Lake Eyre, the remains of the mystic inland sea.
Barcaldine, named after a region in Scotland, sits at the crossroads of the Landsborough and Capricorn Highways. Providing direct access to Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide, west to Longreach, Mt Isa and Darwin or north to Townsville, Cairns, Mareeba and Cape York.
It is named the Garden City of the West due to its sandy soil and pure water that comes from the Great Artesian Basin,
Barci is home to the famous Tree of Knowledge, said to be the foundation site of the Australian Labor Party in 1891 as a result of the shearer’s strike.
Ilfracombe is on the original Wellshot Station that by 1890 had become the largest sheep station in the world with a flock of 460,000.
It would take three months to cart the wool to the port of Rockhampton by horse-drawn wagon.
The Wellshot Hotel is a goldmine of memorabilia and collection of hats, the stockman’s tool of trade.
Ilfracombe was the first place to have a motorised mail service. That was in 1910 when a former Cobb & Co coach driver took on the run to Isisford.
Langenbaker House is heritage listed, named after Harry Langenbaker one of the early teamsters. Along the railway, indeed, right the length of the town and main street, is the folk museum centred around machinery, equipment, farm implements, vehicles and wagons that form a timeline of pastoral development in the region.
There are even the remains of the wool scouring mill on the northern outskirts of town. The scouring or cleaning of the wool before going to market made for a better price.
As the harshness of the dry landscape softens with the pinks, violets and blues of evening, we look forward to arriving at Longreach.
It’s a darkening sky as we come over that last rise before the lights of the town twinkle ahead.
There is the well-lit red tail with flying kangaroo of the Boeing 747 at the Qantas Founders Museum to guide us.
The Longreach railway station is more than 100 years old. And there is the same noise and excitement as friends and relatives greet passengers, just as it must have been back then.
Yet tonight it’s dinner at the Albert Park restaurant, not far from the station, and the softest bed at the 4 and 4.5-star Outback Stables & Pioneer Slab Huts.
But not before a bath under the stars … a time to relax and reflect on how far we have come on this journey and what new adventures are ahead.