Last Ride on the Sunlander

‘Hurry up!’ The door handle jolted up and down, up and down, while the door itself banged and rattled with the pressure.

‘It’s locked!’ said the same young vocal chords to no one in particular.

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Without a shred of clothing on me, I opened the shower door a crack and peered out. Before me was small, curly-haired Aboriginal boy of about six, somewhat startled at the naked apparition before him.

‘I won’t be long’, I said and closed the door again.

As I emerged from my morning shower, someone yelled, ‘Shower’s free’. The boy grabbed his backpack and raced up the aisle.

‘Coming through’, he yelled, with his father following in his wake at a more sedate pace.

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Everyone smiled. Apparently, he had been running up and down the aisle, climbing on the seats, retrieving his small backpack from the overhead luggage rack, and busting for one of the great experiences on a long-haul train – a travel wash.

He was but one in a carriage full of Aboriginal people from the north – curly-haired and wearing variations of the black, red and yellow, the colours of the Aboriginal flag. Already in Brisbane, a number had joined the train heading north: a mother with four little children, a solitary man or two with magnificent grey and black beards, a young handsome couple. But by the time I woke from my lengthy slumber, our carriage in particular was full of Aboriginal people. At some time in the early hours of the morning they had joined our journey north.

By this time, we had already been on the Sunlander, the old and sturdy train between Brisbane and Cairns, for most of the previous day. With the night past, we had another day to go. The train trundles along at a little over 50 kilometres per hour, covering the distance of 1700 kilometres more than 30 hours. Generous stops along the way – 27 in all – allowed the smokers to get a breath of nicotine and tar and the rest of us to stretch our legs. And those stops are legendary: Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Mackay, Proserpine, Townsville, and on. The Sunlander may not be as well-known as other long distance trains in Australia, but it is a journey that rivals the best.

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For a change, we had opted for the economy seats. Since the train was in its last year of travel after more than half a century of service, the seats were heavily discounted. At $61 each, it was an option hard to refuse (the sleepers were over $600 for a cabin). It was to be one of the last rides on the Sunlander.

Back at the beginning, as we waited at Brisbane’s Roma Street Station, she said, ‘Won’t it be romantic’.

‘Let’s see how we feel after sleeping a night in the seats’. I said.

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The train rolled into the station. Paint peeled from the carriages and rust holes poked through at alarming points. Each little movement was accompanied by clunks and groans and squeals. Between the carriages, you could peer directly onto the tracks slipping by beneath the train. Inside, the carpet had clearly known better times and the seats bore the stains of ten thousand travellers. If you are going to ‘retire’ a train, then it makes little sense to spend money on sprucing it up. Yet it still bore plenty of signs of its former glory: the toilets were spacious in the way of bygone assumptions; each ‘sitting car’ had a glorious shower with full running water at one end; and the seats themselves reclined forty degrees back so you could rest your head without it lolling about when asleep.

To be sure, we had asked if any late cancellations for the sleeper carriages had come in at the last minute. It was not to be, even though the sleepers made up two-thirds of the train. A ‘sitting car’ it was, for the long, slow haul north. I did manage to persuade the conductors to re-allocate us seats in the last carriage, where the two-plus-one formation gave us wider seats and more leg room. But we were to share what was essentially a large dormitory with a bunch of fellow travellers for the next day and half.

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The result was one of the best rail journeys we have had for some time. But the big question is: what do you do for those long hours, especially in a ‘sitting car’ seat? To begin with, bring your own food. We could have opted for the microwave-warmed items of the buffet in the ‘lounge car’ (aka. mobile bar) or the overpriced fast food of the dining car with its variations on hamburgers. We could have brought on overflowing bags of chocolates and sweets, as some of our fellow passengers did. Or we could have gone Russian, and smuggled on endless bottles of vodka to wash down sliced sausage and cheese. But we did none of the sort. Instead, we went for bags stuffed with loaves of bread, oranges, apples, cucumber, mushrooms, bunches of celery, bags of nuts, cans of beans and a travel favourite of mine, processed cheese. At regular intervals from our seats, the sound of crunching could be heard as we devoured yet another meal of relatively fresh stuff.

And we made sure we brought plenty of material to pass the time. For me that included my Chinese workbooks and a few volumes of Stalin’s works – as one does on a long rail journey. More often I would put my feet up on the back of the seat in front of me and watch the land roll by slowly. Or hike the train: it was long enough for a serious expedition on foot, with its endless carriages strung together. At one end was the baggage car, which I could see through the window of the last carriage, and at the other end were the sleepers, into which I slipped on my explorations towards the front of the train.

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On those hikes, I engaged in studying the most intriguing part of the whole journey: other people. What do they do? Now the real advantage of travelling in the economy seats became clear. The seats in the various carriages were full of doddery old fogies, the down-and-outs using the cheapest form of transport available, the families with children who could not afford a sleeper, the couples who had struck up a relationship from the time we left Brisbane, and the odd backpacker. The two drinkers fidgeted, waiting impatiently for the bar to open. One in particular was obviously driven by his multiple addictions. Diminutive, with grey hair and a ragged red face, he was either dashing out at each stop for hasty puffs on a cigarette, or to the bar in his quest to empty their stocks single-handed. Meanwhile, the old fogeys snoozed and read and stayed put, amazing me by their ability to sit for hours on end without needing to go to the toilet. The children fidgeted and clambered over the seats, especially in the ‘lounge car’. One woman avidly read a massive book while chewing through endless packets of confectionary shaped like ‘bananas’. A plump couple sat and knitted for the whole journey – producing enough to clothe all of their grandchildren. Young couples pretended to sleep under the cover of checked blankets.

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At last, we arrived in Cairns, deep in the tropical north. Now it seemed like ages ago since we had left the relatively familiar (and for me alienating) surrounds of Brisbane and the reaches of the Sunshine Coast. There we had been farewelled by a big kangaroo that lazily scratched its belly as we passed – as if indicating that we would have plenty of time on our hands on the journey to come. Soon enough mango and palm trees grew freely among the eucalypts, with banana plantations and then swathes of sugar cane the further north we pushed. Alongside the cane fields ran the narrow tracks of the cane trains – really toy trains with tiny engines and oversized carriages for hauling their loads of cut cane. Even further north, the mountains begin to hug the coast. Here they trap the topical rains of the wet season, so they are covered with a jungle of vines and thorny plants and the towering trees of the rainforest canopy. Yet, on the other side of the rain shadow, the dry tropics soon appear. On the border between the wet and the dry snakes love to gather: the deadly taipans, innocent tree snakes, and massive pythons with a love for small animals, birds and especially chickens (which have the unfortunate combination of being both incredibly stupid and incredibly delicious for so many). And in the hinterland of Cairns, one finds the lands of old and not-so-old hippies, who had acquired land cheaply some years ago and were now sitting on real-estate gold mines. Long ago, they had made the jungle their home, amongst the pythons and bandicoots and cassowaries. To one such place we headed for a few days, the highlight being the open-air toilet.

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But as I sat and the pondered the universe on my throne, watched by a chicken and a couple of horses, my thoughts were already moving towards another journey: westward of the coast, the dry sclerophyll forest passes into the open grassland of the plains and then the arid zones of the interior. In this direction too does a train run, all the way to the mining town of Mount Isa. The Innlander, it is called, and it takes one across to the Northern Territory border. Next time.

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