I believe I am on one of the great unheralded rail journeys of the world – The Innlander. The train leaves from beneath the smoke stacks of the Mt Isa mine, in northwest Queensland; in fact, the station is part of the mine and the line is integral to that venture in the northern outback. It runs for almost a thousand kilometres, west to east, until one reaches Townsville a day later. And yes, given the distance and the time, it is a slow train, rolling contentedly across the arid landscape.
We board as two of thirteen passengers, at a nondescript corner of the mine. The train has an engine and four carriages: one for luggage and freight, one for staff and two for passengers. Many seats will be filled at the stops on the way.
We have seats only for the overnight journey, but comfortable and wide seats they are – three only across the width of the carriage. Two toilets at one end and a shower at the other, spacious and, again, comfortable.
We are greeted in that curiously warm northern way, with an offer of free sandwiches, tea and coffee, and, should the need arise, a request to press the call button in the event of any ‘emergency’ – such as the need for chocolate. Dinner packs too seem to be complimentary, as is breakfast. So much for the pile of food we had brought for the journey (based on experiences from other trains).
I am mesmerised by much all at once, the cares of the world falling away in a moment. The arid land out of the window, with its ant piles, tough trees and bushes, rough hills and red dirt constantly drawing my gaze. But then I find the lounge area – completely unexpected, for this is usually granted to first class passengers.
Except that there is no first class on this train. Or rather, we are all first class as a matter of course. At discount prices. So here I sit, trying to look out of all windows at once, amazed that more people do not travel on this train. Perhaps they will, as we stop at station after station on the way.
I talk with one of the attendants and find out that less than twelve months ago, the former conservative state government had cut out the dining car and sleepers, which attracted more to travel on the long journey. The logic is baffling unless aforesaid (and rather unpopular) government’s agenda was to close the line completely. Fortunately he and his minions are gone and the railway people are struggling successfully to have services restored. The lounge section is one such example, as are the free meals. An old couple follow me into the lounge, regular travellers on the service. He is stone deaf and would do well with an ear-horn; she is unable to make the hot water work for her tea. As she ponders what to do, we talk about the train – at some length. The sleepers, they tell me, should be back in a few months, for they have been fighting for them.
I am unable to determine whether the scenery or the people on board are more intriguing. While I continue the relish the desert, its dust storms and bare hills, I become involved with the passengers. Some alight at Cloncurry, while others join us. A few solo men in search of work or adventure set off on the few streets of the town. One has a work shirt on, the other an old pair of jeans and pack with nothing but a book and a toothbrush. But the greater number are local Aboriginal people: a mother and two children, a triple of younger people, a few men and women travelling alone. At first there is relatively little interaction, but interact we do after a while. One woman with a weathered face discusses power options for recharging a phone or a computer. I offer to watch her phone while I sit in the lounge car. A large man waits while I take a photo, before we discuss toiletry needs.
Night eventually falls and weary do I become. Time to finish writing, brush teeth and put my feet up with a book to read until sleep comes upon me. Such is the arrangement of seats that I am able to stretch out my legs horizontally, recline the seat and fall into a deep slumber. Other passengers take different options. The large man I had met earlier opts to sleep on the floor, right across the aisle. He does so for about half an hour, with some of us simply stepping over him to make our way through. A conductor comes along and wakes him. Unlike most trains, she does not scold him and tell him to get back in his seat. Instead, she takes him to the other passenger carriage where he can stretch out in a similar fashion. A teenage Aboriginal boy stretches out beneath the single line of seats and sleeps well into the morning. During the night we creak into quiet stations across the north of Queensland, pass through a dry bush full of nightlife, and stop for more than an hour due to an electricity pole that has fallen over the track. Police and electricity maintenance vehicles light up the night sky as they deal with the pole.
I wake after more than eight hours of good sleep and make my way to the end of the carriage for a highlight: the train shower. Towels and soap are present and the hot water flows freely. For some reason, beginning a shower at one place and completing it at another – in motion – never ceases to give me a thrill. I return to my seat to find a breakfast package waiting for me. A new conductor, who has joined us through the night, walks by and lets us know we will be an hour or so late, due to the electricity pole. We’ll get there, she says, at some time. As with previous announcements, no loudspeaker system is used, but rather quiet announcements to each group of passengers.
After breakfast, I return to the lounge car and my spot of the previous day. Now I am joined by some more Aboriginal people, who snooze, talk in their local language and identify sights along the way. The laughing deaf man and his dapper wife soon appear, full of jokes and their ubiquitous cups of tea. Given their knowledge of the train, my sense is that on any journey on this train they will be here.
Too soon does the journey come to an end, with the now unfamiliar sights of buildings and human occupation. Townsville it is, one place in the massive tropical parts of Australia. We haul our untouched food supplies along in the sun, soon enough sweating away. We will eat it, some time soon.
As we walk, I wonder: how can this rail journey be so unknown? Why do train travellers coming to Australia opt only for the overpriced Indian-Pacific and The Ghan? They are missing one of the quiet gems of rail travel.