Interstate train travel in Australia isn’t usually undertaken for convenience or because it is the cheap option. It is neither. Australia’s geography means long haul train trips are too time consuming to appeal to most and a trip on the Ghan or Indian-Pacific is ten times what it would cost to fly. Train travel in Australia is undertaken because that is the manner in which one prefers to travel.
The thought of train travel conjures thoughts of a traveling demographic confined to backpackers and the elderly with the occasional pteromerhanophobe thrown in for good measure. It is a world where men sport well-groomed moustaches and wear high cut pants or dress shorts with knee-high socks, gold rimmed glasses and comfortable shoes. Women opt for matching travel ensemble, scarfs, cardies and slacks. There isn’t a natural fibre in sight. Grumpy stooped back farmers smoke rollies, stay at The Vic Hotel and don’t drive in the big smoke. For long-term migrants – refugees from Northumberland, Newfoundland or Naples – stepping onto the platform brings back to memories of constant drizzle and warm beer.
I arrive at the Adelaide Parklands Rail Terminal in the pre-dawn gloom. It is two hours to departure but when one travels by rail ensuring it is prudent that you have time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast. A big day lies ahead of me, I am traveling from Adelaide to Melbourne on The Overland. With that thought in mind, I order a Full English breakfast and an Earl Grey from Choo Choo’s Cafe.
I sit with the morning paper and watch. Adelaide is the epicentre of Australian interstate train travel. It is mid-point of the Indian-Pacific (Sydney to Perth), the beginning of the Ghan (Adelaide to Darwin) and the end of the Great Southern (Brisbane to Adelaide via Melbourne).
The station has all the hallmarks of an airport: a sales and enquiries counter, luggage and check-in counter and copious seating but the atmosphere in the departure lounge is far more congenital. Maybe it’s the floral carpets or the elderly demographic but strangers interact, trade advice on blood pressure medication and reminisce about train journeys past.
As we inch towards the scheduled departure time people’s preparations for the journey ahead begin in earnest. A visit to the Train Shop is inevitable. A copy of the The Australian or Woman’s Day and a book of crossword puzzles is standard issue.
The Overland departs Adelaide for Melbourne every other day. The route has been operational since 1887. The original train is long gone but stepping onto the platform I am quite taken by our silver bullet with its Emu insignia, purple roof and blue racing stripe.
People find their seats and Rebecca from Great Southern Rail delivers an enthusiastic induction covering the blanket smoking ban, the drinks cart schedule, manual toilet operation (an electrical fault means you have to snib the door or risk exposure) and the bountiful fare available in the buffet car – the Matilda Café.
The PA falls silent as the train jolts to life. The slow rolling start elicits surprised excitement and collective calls of, “And we’re off”. A flurry of chatter about the joy of train travel follows, “This is all about the experience. You know… chug-a-chug-a-chug!”
We roll out of Adelaide under a blue morning sky. The gentle shores of Glenelg recede from view during the slow climb into the bush of the Adelaide hills. Relaxing to the gentle rocking and rhythmic thud, squeak and grind it isn’t long before I have a decent snooze going.
I wake to the arrival of the morning tea trolley. White coffee was in high demand. I order a cup and glance out the window. The terrain has flattened out. Dry, rocky earth is only interrupted by the occasional tree or detention centre.
We rattle toward Murray Bridge. The town, imaginatively named after the first bridge built over the Murray River, hugs the river. Although it’s not the one we use, the original bridge still spans the river.
Mid-morning we move into a more densely wooded landscape. Gums, eucalyptus, stockyards and silos roll by. A small town comes and goes. Anywhere else Keith would be your uncle or a bloke you meet at the pub but in the South Australian bush it is a town like so many the others – pub, servo, shop, school, church and oval.
The railway, road and power lines run parallel in a trifecta of straight lines. A seemingly endless series of farms rush by as we head into the wheat belt. I take a walk to stretch my legs and I stop to stare out the window. I try to imagine what it would be like live in sheep country beholden to the whims of nature.
The passage from South Australia to Victoria at Bordertown wipes 30 minutes off our lives and brings us in line with Eastern Standard Time. My fellow travellers pass the time on a crossword, book or sleeping. Others stare wishfully at the dry fields and blue skies of southern Australia.
The rusted corrugated iron roofs and frontages of Nhill slip past before we stop at Dimboola. A two-minute pause allows a driver change. People flood off the train for half a cigarette. There isn’t too many more obvious expressions of relief than a pack-a-day smoker drawing back on their first cigarette in five hours.
Sweet clouds of stale smoke are left in behind as we head deeper into the wheat belt. Brown patterned fields of wheat, oats and barely are punctuated by a lone tree or the occasional paddock of spiky black fallow.
Lunchtime triggers a constant stream of travellers to and from the buffet car but plenty of packed lunches also emerge. Cheese and pickle sandwiches with the crusts cut off wrapped in baking paper, ripe bananas, Yo-Yos, Anzacs and thermos full of steaming black tea.
We rattle through the gold field towns of Horsham, Stawell and Ararat in a post food slumber. The stunning forested peaks of the Grampians fill the horizon before the country opens out into wide plains with undulating gum and eucalyptus bush. The vastness of it all provides a constant reminder of the magnitude of this land of ours.
The late afternoon breeze carries the first whispers of saltwater and it isn’t long before first signs of the urban sprawl begin to appear. Victoria’s second largest city is big enough to justify two stops. We pass the factories and industry on Geelong’s North Shore. Just after Newport we glimpse the Westgate and pass a Met train heading the other way. A heartbeat later we roll into the hustle and bustle of Melbourne.
After 10.5 hours and 828km the Overland arrives at Southern Cross Station. Adelaide is a distant memory but one supplemented by a truly memorable train ride.