There are few more memorable ways to travel in tropical Queensland than by train, writes Ben Groundwater.
It’s not what you get with train travel; it’s what you don’t get. That’s the appeal.
Sunday evening at six o’clock, and you prepare yourself for the worst. A long check-in queue, then more of the same at the security scan. Probably one of those random explosives tests, a nice little rub down with a fuzzy stick. There’ll be a flight delay, of course, at this time of night, with all the little glitches of the day backed up on top of each other.
Then you remember: you’re not going to the airport; you’re on the train. None of that applies.
My train’s due to pull away from the station at 6.30pm, which in Aeroplane Land would mean leaving the hostel in Brisbane by about five o’clock. Latest.
No such hassles today, though – as the escalator eases me up onto the platform at Roma Street Station the clock is just ticking past 6.20. I left the hostel 10 minutes ago. There’s no queue to get on the train, no security screening to make it through. My laptop stays in my bag, my hat stays on my head, and my bag goes unmolested. It’s almost strange.
This isn’t the way most people get to Airlie Beach. It’s miles to the north, thousands of kilometres, and most people choose to fly that sort of distance these days. However, I’ve got the time to slow things down a little; to take out the hassles of air travel and replace it with the ease and romance of the train. It’s no short trip – I’ve got 14 hours ahead of me on the QR Tilt Train, Australia’s version of high-speed rail. But I plan to enjoy it.
The sun is gradually setting as I climb aboard, throw my bag into an overhead locker and settle into a seat. Somewhere in the back of my brain are the vaguely ticking remnants of a hangover from last night’s frivolities – an evening at the rooftop social area at the Brisbane YHA on a warm Queensland night that’s beginning to catch up. This current lack of stress couldn’t be any more welcome. Fourteen hours in one spot? Fine with me.
Train travel has a romance to it that seems to be best appreciated by the older vintage of traveller. They’re packing the seats around me, some playing with the in-seat entertainment systems, others chatting, one fretting about a pair of glasses that have been sadly left on the table next to the armchair. At home. No movies for her, then.
For the rest of us it’s a chance to sit back and relax as the brakes are let out and the Roma Street platform glides slowly past our window and into the distance. Pretty soon the familiar click-clack, click-clack of train travel becomes the soundtrack to the journey, an oddly soothing rhythm for a beer-frazzled brain. It’s all I can do to keep my eyes open until the dinners are brought around. That scarfed, it’s time to find a comfortable position, tune in to a movie – Sucker Punch for me – and let the gentle roll of the train ease my way into a slumber.
There are vague snatches of action during the night: someone coming past with a hot drink from the restaurant car; the lights from a station somewhere deep into Central Queensland; a couple of new passengers dragging their suitcases past.
Soon the sun is coming up, and the buildings of Brisbane have long been replaced by the endless sugar cane fields that surround Mackay. I can hear one of my fellow passengers pointing out the crops that are no doubt farmed by hardy local Queenslanders. “For all their whinging,” she’s saying to her companion, “there must be money in sugar cane. I mean, they’re planting enough of it.”
Breakfast is brought around soon after we leave Mackay. My iPod is dying a pitiful, battery-related death, but there’s a solution: the power point next to my seat. Thank you, train travel. A quick search for the right cord, and I’m musically sorted all the way to Proserpine, the jump-off point for Airlie Beach visitors.