The Trains of Oz

by Johnny Lucas

Oonoomurra, Pymurra, Undina, Oorindi, Tibarri, and then you come to Gilliat. The strange rolling aboriginal place names throughout the strange rolling landscape are interrupted only occasionally with names chosen by homesick Europeans.

This is the Outback of Western Queensland, the stuff of legends. If exposed out here a man could become a dehydrated shell after just one day.

The train is The Inlander, an overnight crossing of the Outback from Mt. Isa to Townsville. "Thee Oisa", as Mt. Isa is known in the local parlance, is a no nonsense mining town surrounded by a red brown and rocky no nonsense landscape. At the other end of the line, on the edge of the lush coastal rainforest is Townsville, a primary point of departure for visits to the Great Barrier Reef. It is everything Mt. Isa isn't: relaxed, touristy, green, and wet.

Between those two cities is a space so vast, that it seems to strain against the limitations of what can be seen through a big train window. The people who know this territory, people who have lived with it for a long time, especially Aboriginals, will see the signs and details which make each rock and scrub bush unique. Those signs point them to water holes and safe refuges. To the uninitiated it looks repetitive and endless.

The Inlander is neither the newest nor the "flashest" of trains, but it is dearly loved by Queenslanders. It is a link to the days before the road was passable, and therefore a link to the romance and adventure of the pioneers and explorers of this very young country.

The honour of being the "flashest" train in Australia would have to go "The Ghan", the train between Adelaide and Alice Springs. All long distant trains in Australia are well equipped with showers, restaurants, bar cars and an abundance of character and characters, but the new art deco Ghan is the latest word in luxury on rails.

Chrome and brass appointed roomettes, each double room with its own shower, toilet and specially designed sheets and towels, bar cars which look like elegant lounges in some sophisticated world capital, an entertainment car with poker machines and videos, even a hairdressing salon. This is The Ghan.

It crosses country which Burke & Wills crossed in the 1860s with their imported Afghani camels. Their final expedition ended when most of the members died from exposure. The camels survived, their descendants helped to build the original Ghan which began its bi weekly run in 1929. Today 30,000 wild camels are prospering in Central Australia, and live on in the name "The Ghan": a derivation of Afghani.

Despite the success of the 1929 Ghan, punctuality and comfort had to wait until 1980 for the "New Ghan".

The New Ghan takes 22 hours to cover its 1555 kilometre route, the Old Ghan took anywhere from three days to three weeks.

One of the legends associated with the old train is about the time it was stranded at the Finke River. The Finke, at its present age of 600,000,000 years, is the world's oldest river. But it's usually dry.

This time, however, it was bursting its banks when the Ghan arrived. Unable to go forward or backwards, the chef had to get out and shoot feral goats for supper in order to provide sustenance for his passengers.

Quite a few of the New Ghan's crew worked on the old train. They have had to exchange hunting rifles for the cummerbunds they wear in the dining car. Since its reincarnation in 1980, The Ghan has operated on a new railbed, and goat is not on the menu. But the scenery out the window has not changed much since the close of the last ice age: heat mirages, pink salt lakes, red baked earth of the Simpson desert. The 20th century has added the occasional sorry looking group of livestock.

From the bleakest outback to the lushest rainforest there are trains all over Australia. From the Indian Pacific, on the Sydney to Perth run, the second longest rail trip in the world, to the shortest commuter run they are firmly embedded in Australia's past, present and future.

One of the shortest and most pleasant journeys in Australia is the trip over the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Sydney, the biggest of Australian cities, has a city rail network as part of its commuter system. This stretches to the suburban lines and then out into the state and inter state systems.

Thousands of commuters in Sydney have the everyday pleasure of riding in underground darkness from Wynyard Station, then bursting out into bright daylight just in time to see the bridge's pylons and adjust their eyes to the ever sparkling harbour view.

And from Sydney it is only a two hour trip to the Blue Mountains. The opening up of this beautiful recreation area is very much a part of railway history.

Until 1867, the Blue Mountains were a place which no one could get to, and no one really wanted to live. Then came the railway. The elite of Sydney were able to build summer homes along the rail line at their private stations.

Today, many of the great houses are open for viewing or accommodation, and the clear air draws Sydneysiders up for summer weekends to escape the heat of the coast, to walk in the bush, or just to sit at any of the thousands of viewpoints and look out across the blueness of distant horizons.

One of the few man made attractions in the Blue Mountains is the Zig Zag Railway. So called because of the backwards and forwards motion it uses to get up the hills, it began life servicing a coal mine, and now gives tourists the thrill of steaming through the mountains.

In a seeming proof of "getting there is all the fun", Australia has preserved and developed a good number of its historic stream trains. Melbourne has the "Puffing Billy" running through the fern gullies and views of the Dandenong Ranges 40km from the city, from Cairns there's the Kuranda Railway though the tropical rainforests, past waterfalls and gorges.

Alice Springs, not content with the distinction of being the destination of the luxurious new Ghan, has kept some of the carriages of the old Ghan and a section of the old narrow gauge line along which to run them.

The rail lines are as diverse as Australia and Australians. From commuter lines getting people to work, to chartered old trains such as the Rutherglen Red which takes wine connoisseurs to the premium vineyards of Victoria, to the convenience of the overnight train between Sydney and Melbourne, to the three day trip on the Indian Pacific connecting the east coast with the west, trains are part of the Australian identity.

My favourite memory of train trips in Australia is of a moonlit night between Mt. Isa and Townsville. The window sill was about the same height as my berth, I left the window shade open all night. The strange countryside was bathed in cool bright moonlight.

My gaze wandered over prickly clumps of grass and solitary, twisting gum trees. After a while I couldn't tell if I was awake or in a dream. It was nice to find a vehicle on which my imagination and sleepy body could travel together. We went through Monda, Mumu, Burra, Kimburra, Mungunburra and Oononba before arriving in Townsville.

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Page maintained by Johnny Lucas, © J.P.Lucas. Created: June 24, 1996 Updated: January 11, 1997