( Mike’s travel notes from Newstalk ZB’s Jack Tame Show.)
Queensland has Australia’s greatest offering of scenic train trips? And they’re booming?
I’m sure when most people think of Australia and trains, its those big, long yawning transcontinental trips from Darwin to Adelaide, or Sydney to Perth that come to mind. But it’s the sunshine state, that has the biggest range of train trips, and some very scenic trips. So, if you’re like me, a bit of a closet train-spotter, and enjoy discovering towns and admiring landscapes by rail, Queensland has a wealth of offerings.
What are some of the lesser known rail trips?
Spirit of the Outback is a 24 hour journey from Brisbane to Longreach, where Qantas airways was founded. Longreach is home to the Qantas Heritage Museum and also boasts the Outback Heritage Centre. Spirit of the Outback is becoming an increasingly popular rail trip.
Another option is The Westlander, which takes you from Brisbane across the Great Dividing Range and out to Charleville, in the heart of mulga country. Charleville is a very historic Australian town, building many of the coaches for Cobb & Cos celebrated fleet.
And then there’s The Inlander, which connects Townsville with the mining powerhouse of Mount Isa. The rugged outback terrain of the area is often referred to as dinosaur country, because all manner of fossilised relics are frequently unearthed. In fact, the train is often packed with amateur fossil-hunters, who head out to Mount Isa for a bit of a fossicking and foraging for fossils.
The most famous trip is The Sunlander, which is celebrating its 60th birthday, right?
Yes, The Sunlander is the superstar of the Queensland train tracks, and repeatedly voted as one of the world’s best train trips. It is celebrating its 60th anniversary this month. It’s an epic 31 hour journey, between Brisbane and Cairns, spanning over 16 hundred k. That is the same distance as travelling between Auckland and Invercargill. You could actually fly between Brisbane and Cairns 15 times, in the time that it takes on the The Sunlander. The train is a throwback to the fifties. The sixty year old carriages include ensuite private cabins with couches that convert into beds. I love the old enamel wash basins that flip into the wall, sloshing its contents on the track below. The on-board dining is top-knotch restaurant standard, with the accent on Queensland seafood.
What are the highlights of The Sunlander?
Well even though it’s a coastal train, the route takes in a kaleidoscope of landscapes. Vast swathes of sugar cane farms, banana plantations, pineapple plantations, mountains loom on the horizon then shuffle out of frame. And the country town train stations look like they have fallen off a charm bracelet. So, it’s a great overview of the sunburnt soul of Queensland, beyond the beaches.
And a bit of controversy has greeted its birthday?
Well, the cash-strapped state government has decided the maintenance costs of the old Sunlander carriages is not sustainable. So the service is going to be replaced with a brand new fleet of carriages with all the contemporary comforts, including in-seat entertainment screens. But a lot of train buffs are fuming, because they argue the Sunlander’s charm is its connection to the past. So, if you do want to ride the rails on-board the old Sunlander, do it within the next 12 months, because it will be gone this time next year.
Is it a rest home on rails?
I think this is one of the most fascinating travel dynamics at play, around the world.
Train travel is enjoying a huge renaissance, across all demographs. And The Sunlander attracts travellers of all ages. And compared to The Ghan, its decidedly cheaper.
What about the Kuranda Scenic Railway?
Once you get to Cairns, this knock-out excursion is an absolute must-do. The 2 hour journey takes you through Barron Gorge National Park into the world-heritage listed tropical rainforests around Kuranda. Driven by a need to get their gold from the mountains to the coast, this 37 km track was created by 1500 men and their picks, shovels and dynamite! Sit back and have your cameras at the ready as you travel through the Barron Gorge National Park. Interspersed with 15 tunnels and 55 bridge crossings, this is a thrilling rendezvous with ravines, waterfalls and expansive views as you ascend 327 metres. Wonderful commentary is provided by knowledgeable, friendly attendants ensuring you will be absorbed in this timeless journey. As the train meanders around the 98 curves, you may well fine-tune the art a capturing the perfect shot of the train’s arc. A short stop at the Barron Falls is a welcome chance to stretch the legs and appreciate the tropical rainforest panoramas. Visitors from all around the world make a point of experiencing this trip and the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. The Kuranda Scenic Railway is an amazing experience for train-buffs of all ages. To make it even more special, book the Gold Class and enjoy continuous beverages and tasty delights in the Heritage Green carriages, exquisitely handcrafted in Victorian inspired décor.
Best time to hit the Queensland tracks?
Tropical North Queensland is a far more pleasant place to visit in the dry season, when the humidity is low and the daily mercury tops out around 28C. June to October is the optimum time to go.
The world-famous Kuranda SkyRail is a sublime rainforest experience. For sightseeing details, check out the website, http://www.skyrail.com.au
Train-buffs should set aside time to enjoy the historic service from Cairns to Kuranda on the Kuranda Scenic Rail. This vintage train excursion sets the gold-standard for hospitality on the rail tracks. http://www.ksr.com.au
For further information on The Sunlander, The Inlander, The Westlander & The Spirit of the Outback, jump to http://www.queenslandrail.com.au