Words by Tim Richards
It’s easy to fly around this Great Southern Land of ours but experiencing the size and diversity of Australia by rail is a sight to behold.
Start an epic round-nation train trek in Normanton, near the Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland. A package tour combines the Gulflander, known as “the train from nowhere to nowhere”, with the Savannahlander, which winds from savannah country to Pacific coast, including side-trips to attractions such as the Undara Lava Tubes.
From Cairns, the modern Spirit of Queensland train heads south to Brisbane, offering lie-flat RailBeds on its overnight journey.
When departing Brisbane, NSW TrainLink takes over. Its XPT train is scheduled each morning for Sydney, taking in sunrise over the Border Ranges and skimming the coast near Coffs Harbour. Onwards from Sydney, there are twice daily XPT services to Melbourne. The night train has two-berth sleeper compartments so you can snooze your way across the Murray.
Great Southern Rail’s Overland train is a daytime service from Melbourne to Adelaide, passing through the attractive Adelaide Hills.
Then it’s time to hope aboard the most impressive train of all: the Indian Pacific. A two-night journey west to Perth includes top-quality dining, stark desert scenery, and dinner in a remote ghost town. It’s a fitting finale to an almost 8,000-kilometre rail odyssey.
You’d need 10 days back-to-back for the rail elements of this journey, but that would leave you exhausted. Add two nights in each major city, and that approximates to a three-week trip.
Best time to travel
The wet season can play havoc with the trains in Far North Queensland, so it’s safer to travel within the dry months of May to October.
Normanton to Croydon Railway
Built from 1888 to 1891, this 151-kilometre line in remote North West Queensland must be Australia’s oddest railway. Originally linking the river port of Normanton to the goldfields of inland Croydon, it was built with unusual arched steel sleepers that sank into the earth and anchored the track. This protected the rails from the region’s frequent floods, a useful quality that ensured its survival amongst the closure of other lines.
With the north of Australia under threat in World War ll, Queensland’s railways played a major part in moving troops and material. This museum in the US General Douglas MacArthur’s former Brisbane offices tells the dramatic story of that era, when the city was a locked-down garrison town and the nerve centre of the Pacific war. It also reveals how Macarthur first proclaimed, “I shall return!” after stepping off a train.
The Sydney suburb of Redfern has always been a major railway hub and this sprawling former industrial site proves it. The enormous interior of the 19th century railway workshop has been repurposed as a spectacular arts venue. In addition to a regularly changing calendar of visual art exhibitions, Carriageworks hosts performing arts shows and a popular farmer’s market each Saturday morning.