We were going on holiday, with plan to head north out of Canberra’s winter cold to the far north of Queensland, to FNQ, and then work our way south, stopping at places of interest, finding places to chill and relax, to swim in the ocean and feel human again.
We could have driven both ways, but on the way north we decided to save ourselves two or three days of driving by driving to Brisbane, and putting our car on the train for the long haul up to Cairns.
As NSW’s railways are standard gauge (1485mm) and Queensland’s are all Cape Gauge – 1067mm or 3’6” in old money, the break of gauge meant we first had to spend a couple of days driving north through interminable roadworks on what will eventually be the Pacific freeway to Brisbane.
The deal was that you drove to Roma street station, they put your car on the train, and you had a sleeper compartment for the thirty hour journey to Cairns. You could book a luxy compartment, but being cheapskates at heart we opted for a standard three berth compartment and paid the supplement to have it for our exclusive use.
The last time we had been on a sleeper was in Thailand when we caught the night train frpm Bangkok to Nong Khai on the Thai/Lao border when travelling to Vientiane. Previously our experience had consisted of a second class sleeper in India, plus some trips on pre-privatisation British Rail in the early eighties before the discount airlines turned the London to Edinburgh service into something for nostalgia buffs.
The Sunlander is also about to be replaced by a newer, faster train, and some time soon the motorail service will stop along with the sleeper service, but for the moment the Sunlander is Queensland’s answer to the Trans Siberian, rattling north at an average speed of not much more than 60 km/h, past small coastal towns and through increasingly exuberant tropical vegetation and sugar cane fields, stopping at small towns, and in a couple of places appearing to run down the main street of the town.
The train was very much in the mode of British Rail, except no one offered us complimentary tea and biscuits, and the blankets were an unimaginative brown/beige rather than BR’s cheerful acrylic check.
And unlike Thai railways there was no cheerful man selling Singha beer and taking your order for food to be cooked at some restaurant up ahead and delivered when the train rattled through. Instead it was instant coffee, fatty chicken roasts and Thai fishcakes that were more your classic English potato based fishcake with a dash of Thai spice than anything produced by your neighbourhood asian takeway. In truth the catering was terrible, beating even American Airlines for producing food that looked and tasted like it had been made from roadkill.
But the journey was fun, like all train journeys letting you see into people’s lives by way of their back yards, and pretty restful. The train was pretty lo-tech, no wifi or cell phone coverage so for entertainment we read, wrote, or just looked out the window, and like the old British Rail sleeper trains, the rocking motion ensured a good nights sleep. Definitely a journey back to travel as it used to be, and all the more fun for that.