Queensland’s Spirit of the Outback

Brisbane to Longreach

It may be a long way to Tipperary, but it’s also a pretty long way to Longreach in Queensland’s central Outback region.  By air, it is just a quick two-hour dash but by train aboard the wonderful Spirit of the Outback, it is over twenty-six hours.

On a recent journey, my train left Brisbane’s Roma Street station on time and arrived a few minutes earlier than scheduled at Longreach, 1325 kilometres later, zapping through the countryside at a dizzying average speed of fifty-nine kmh.

  • At one stage a bird flew parallel to my cabin, lazily flapping its wings as it kept pace with the train … then it got bored and zoomed off leaving us to chug along through dust and scattered and discarded feathers

My journey started with a leisurely gin and tonic in my comfortable private cabin that was to become my home, my bedroom, my reading room and my sitting room for quite a few hours.  The train usually leaves Brisbane twice a week:  2.00 pm on Saturdays and 6.00 pm Saturdays.  Mine was the later departure time so it was daylight up to about Caboolture where two huge security guards and an equally huge German Shepherd diligently protected the train from possible attacks by the KFC or pizza delivery vehicles spotted from my window.

Sunset was at just before 7.00 pm at Narangaba and then we plodded our way through the night until early morning sunlight flooded my cabin.  I awoke to find we were passing through Duaringa and a short while later we hit Dingo:  town names in this country are wonderful!

* Spirit of the Outback en route

Life aboard

A single 1st Class sleeper cabin offers a very comfortable armchair by day.  It converts to a bed about 185 cm x 100 cm at night.  The compact cabin is air-conditioned and there is a washbasin, a mirror and a small wardrobe.  A footstool, a small luggage rack and mono-lingual signs complete the décor:  it would be so easy to make these signs universal and legible by all travellers.

Cabin signs

The double-glazed window has a wind-up / down blind that is effective in shutting out the bright lights of passing towns at night but not very effective in blocking out early morning sunlight.  Passengers are given a small amenities kit of hand lotion etc, a blanket, a blow-up neck pillow, a bath towel and crisp bed linen.  There is a shower with good hot and cold water pressure, and a WC at the end of each carriage.

  • After my early morning shower, I strolled back to my cabin, dried off, and did little naked dance in front of the window … because I could … and to the consternation of cud-chewing populace beyond the double glazing as they whipped by at a dizzying speed of 35 kmh …

There are no side-by-side seats or beds for couples.  During the day one passenger faces the direction of travel … while the other has all the benefits of déja vu, facing the other way.  At night the opposing armchairs become opposing beds.  If I chose to travel on this train again, I would reserve a twin cabin to give me more room and a choice of seating options.

Each cabin door has its own key, so passengers can lock the cabin when they totter off to the dining car or to the Club car.

When I travelled, the price per person in a 1st Class sleeper cabin from Brisbane to Longreach was AU$529 including all meals and selected wines.  For passengers with approved concession cards the price was just $239 … and this may have explained why all but five of the passengers on my train were rather elderly.  A Qantas ticket to fly the same route is about $260.

Wonderful Food

For passengers in the 1st Class / Sleeper carriages, all meals are included in the ticket price.  The Tuckerbox Restaurant car seats about thirty passengers but on this journey there were only sixteen of us and I had a table with no other guests to share forced pleasantries with …

Tuckerbox Restaurant car

Dinner – spread from Mooloolah to Nambour – started with a lemon myrtle damper and chive butter, followed by pork belly in a garlic, ginger and lemongrass plum sauce with crisp vegetables.  Complimentary Sirromet wines from a SE Queensland vineyard or beers are served with the meal, and a range of cold climate Stanthorpe wines was also available.  Dessert was a choice of a sticky opera gateau or a generous cheese board with brie, blue vein and cheddar cheeses served with quince paste, dried fruits and crackers. 

  • Dinner itself was almost worth the whole journey.

More food was to come as we passed Dingo – either a hot breakfast or a continental option – and soon it was time for lunch.

The train was at its slowest as it corkscrewed up the Drummond Range (* featured image, LEFT), part of Australia’s Great Dividing Range and a leisurely lunch was served.  My baked salmon with lemon dill beurre blanc was superb – although the prosciutto-wrapped chicken and the vegetable pies also looked pretty yummy.  Vegetarian and GF meals were available at all times.

Although I had gained twenty kilos by this time, a delightful high tea was served just after Barcaldine:  savoury pastries, mini-quiche, sausage roll and Black Forest gateau, with fresh tea or coffee.  I could not resist.

I spoke to Ivy, the Maître d’, who told me that most of the food is cooked to order on board, although some items such as the lunch-time white chocolate panna cotta were prepared in the Queensland Rail base in Brisbane.

Shearers Rest lounge car
  • Dinner and breakfast and lunch and afternoon tea were all certainly worth the whole journey … and the Shearers’ Rest lounge car offered additional snacks and wines and beers and G&Ts in case passengers were still a little peckish …

More names to drop

The train passed through Gladstone during the night.  It is an important shipping port for the millions of tonnes of coal ripped from Queensland’s heart at Blackwater and Bluff about 300 kilometres away.  The Spirit of the Outback passed several coal trains – up to two kilometres long – with over one hundred wagons each filled with twenty tonnes of coal … all off to China?  Perhaps.

We reached Bogantungan (336 m above sea level) shortly before hitting Hannan’s Gap (535 m and the highest point on the journey) before travelling, slowly, on to Emerald (famous for semiprecious gems), Anakie (famous perhaps for irresponsible and unlawful actions by its citizens), Mamboo and Alpha (where all men are by definition “Alpha Males” and where all women are terrified …) and so on to Jericho on the banks of the Jordan River:

  • Joshua fought de battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho
  • Joshua fought de battle of Jericho
  • And dem walls come tumblin’ down

In an attempt to stop drivers from tumblin’ down, there is a series of road signs along the very long, very flat and very monotonous road that runs parallel to the Spirit for many kilometres from Alpha to Jericho.  The area is classified as a FATIGUE ZONE and I can imagine drivers nodding off after singing thirteen refrains of Joshua fought de battle … so the signs might provide comic or intellectual relief:

A little museum at Alpha
  • First sign:    What is first letter of the Greek alphabet?
  • Next sign:    Clue:  Next town
  • Last sign:     Alpha

Not quite outback yet …

The Spirit travelled smoothly from Brisbane to Rockhampton.  From there to Emerald the track got a bit more challenging … and heading West from Emerald it became a bit of a roller coaster shaker schtooper of a ride on railway lines that were bolted together (not welded).  In this area, when the thermometer hits 370 Celsius the train is forced to travel slowly because the heat apparently causes the rails to buckle and bend …

Before the Spirit climbed the Drummond Range, the countryside was lush with plenty of fresh grass and brimming waterholes and creeks.  Cattle (Brahmins, Herefords, Angus and others I could not identify) are scattered everywhere, the train passed five emus and a few mobs of wild horses.  Surprisingly we did not see any kangaroos.

Emerald Railway Station

After the Drummonds, the landscape dried out – wider, more open plains with lots of dead trees and sparse grasses – although near Emerald there were surprisingly huge areas of lush irrigated crops and orchards.

All of these lands were neatly contained in hundreds of kilometres of barbed wire fences, keeping the cattle – and the emus – safe from the hurtling steel behemoth that the Spirit of the Outback was.  I knew that rural properties in this part of the country were often many thousands of square kilometres in size and I idly wondered who “owned” all these acres.

Captain Cook – the famous “discoverer” of Australia in the 1700s – declared that the country was terra nullius:  wasteland, nobody’s land.  In doing so he was perhaps ignorant of the fact that traditional owners of all these lands had inhabited the region for thousands of years. 

Australia’s colonial and more recent history has many tragic elements.

First Nations people – Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Straits islanders – were not considered part of the human population of this country and were not granted Australian citizenship until 1948.  They were not permitted voting rights until 1967 and the idea of “terra nullius” shamefully lasted until an Australian High Court decision in 1992.

Hmmm …

Are we there yet dad?

With about 240 km to go to Longreach, the Spirit of the Outback stops briefly at Barcaldine, a small town with just 1500 people, about 6% of whom are indigenous.  There are six pubs in a row along the main road opposite the railway station:  the Union Hotel, the Railway Hotel, the Artesian Hotel, the Shakespeare Hotel and the Commercial Hotel.  People are obviously very thirsty in Barcaldine.

Union Hotel, Barcaldine

Australia has several political parties which seem to merge and blend and separate and come together again as voters or as needs decree.  One of them is the Australian Labor Party – which cannot even spell its own name – but which is the current governing party under the surprisingly good leadership of the country’s Prime Minister Anthony “Albo” Albanese.

Barcaldine – birthplace of the Labor Party

The UK and the USA have both been torn apart by civil wars with brothers fighting and killing each other. 

Australia has seen only two armed insurrections between home-based parties:  the Eureka revolt in Australia’s gold fields in 1854 and the Queensland shearers’ strike in 1891 in Barcaldine.  Wool was – and is – a vitally important element of the Australian economy but in the 1890s pastoralists – those who “owned” all these lands – wanted more labour (with a “u”) and more sheep trimmed of their wool and more sweat and probably just about more of everything.

Disaffected shearers on Barcaldine Downs

The poor blokes clipping away at those sheep wanted a few shillings more for their labours.  A year after the big shearers’ strike, Jack Howe gave haircuts and pedicures to 321 sheep in one day using hand shears.  His record still stands.

The strike lasted four months and a dozen of its leaders were arrested.  The shearers’ demands were not met but the event lead to the formation of the Labor (without a “u”) Party at Barcaldine and now we have “Albo” as our leader.

Scones and jam and whipped cream

* There was a lovely sunset shortly before arriving at Longreach

From Barcaldine – BAR CALL DIN as a street sign informs Spirit travellers – it is a short sprint to the end of the line.  Although scones did not feature on the afternoon tea menu on the train, they were a great feature at the QANTAS museum in Longreach.

Longreach Railway Station

Most hotels and resorts send a courtesy bus to meet the Spirit as it pulls into the lovely old 1916 Longreach railway station, and tired and boozy and well-fed travellers spill off the train, into their taxis and buses and poodle off to their rooms.  My room, I am sure, continued to sway for several hours, until I persuaded my body that the room was stationary and that I was no longer on a buckarooing train galooping over rough rails, that the sway was perhaps a G&T sway, and that the wide and cool and comfortable bed was calling.

And so to bed after a great rail adventure.

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Journey November 2022

Text and photographs © Christopher Hall December 2022

Photographs marked with an asterisk * are borrowed from Internet

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In my blogs I try to present a snapshot of the places I have discovered during a brief visit.   I am not trying to present a detailed picture of the whole city or the whole region or the whole country.

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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.

  • Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship

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4 thoughts on “Queensland’s Spirit of the Outback

  1. Dear Chris, Another great trip report thanks, might get there one day. Did you get to the Qantas museum, something I have always wanted to visit, you could give a report on that. Keep in touch and cheers, John.

    Like

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