FNQ: Savannahlander

Cairns to Forsayth and back again

The four-day journey aboard the Savannahlander is sensational

If you are expecting the great speeds of Japan’s Shinkansen or of France’s TGV – forget it.  The Savannahlander reaches a maximum of 70 kmh on a small stretch of rail just outside Cairns … on a good day when the sun is shining and the westerly winds are not too strong.  Its average speed is just 35 kmh and going up steep ranges a blind man and his dog could probably walk more quickly. 

If you are expecting grand overnight stays at Four Seasons resorts or at Sheraton hotels – forget it.  The Savannahlander (www.savannahlander.com.au) pulls in to small country towns and passengers doss down in comfortable but basic country pubs, motels and caravan parks.

Ayurvedic massages are not often found in these parts of FNQ (Far North Queensland) and there are not too many truffle-loaded omelettes or caviar-laden blinis.  But there are plenty of fresh scones dripping with thick whipped cream and strawberry jam, lamb chops served with fresh mint sauce … and chicken parmis with chips that would stop a bullocky drover in his tracks.

Slow rail travel, anything but luxurious accommodation, old-fashioned 2000 Class rail motors designed by Queensland’s Ipswich Rail Yards and built by the Rocklea Commonwealth engineers, no air-con (open the windows, mate!) and rattling rails that gradually become smaller and narrower and more rickety and more wobbly as the train chugs off westward:  what is it about this journey that makes it so good?

It’s not what you know – it’s who you know

The Savannahlander is a Queensland government-owned, but privately operated business since the late 1990s.  The Cairns Kuranda Steam Railway Company no longer operates its steam trains to Kuranda – but it now manages this superb outback jaunt.  The rolling stock is fine … but the train drivers are superb.

Hamish and Will have been running these tours for about a dozen or more years and their knowledge of the region, of First Nation people, of the flora and fauna, of the history of the local railways and the local communities is almost encyclopaedic. 

I have had university lecturers who made The Rape of the Sabine Women seem like an episode of Noddy Meets Big-Ears … and I have had Will and Hamish teach me the sex life of cycads (never look at an innocent plant again without wondering what wanton desires and lusts lie below those leaves), the amounts of iron used in different weight railway lines, and the differences between plains termites, cathedral termites and white ants.

And off we go …

Early morning cane fields near Cairns

The Savannahlander departs on its 850 km journey from Cairns at the ungodly hour of 0630.  This allows it to cross low sunrise-kissed plains and sugar cane fields before creeping up mountain ranges to Stoney Creek Falls and Barron Falls. 

Barron River Falls – with Skytrain gondolas in distance

The railway line, with its fifteen tunnels and forty-seven bridges, was built about 130 years ago to allow the lowland people a cool mountain air respite from the coastal steamy summers. The line passes through a wonderful UNESCO World Heritage-listed tropical rainforest to arrive in the pretty little village of Kuranda on the top of the range. 

Savannahlander at Kuranda Railway station

Savannahlander passengers are offered decadent fresh scones with dollops of jam and lashings of whipped cream as they alight on the garden-decked platforms of the mountaintop station.  I had left my hotel very early – before breakfast – and rather wanted something sharp and savoury … but the scones were pretty good despite not being bacon and eggs.

There be demons here

Well … perhaps not demons or dragons … but the Savannahlander is the only train allowed to travel any further than Kuranda, which is not quite the end of the earth.  Travellers may not see demons, but they are likely to see brolgas, cockatoos, wallabies, wallaroos, kangaroos (what is the difference?  They are all, after all, macropods or gastropods or gourmands or something – sorry Will!), snakes, emus, cockatoos, galahs, an occasional fresh-water crocodile, wild horses and feral pigs but no koalas – sorry Hamish! 

Brahman bull with Samoan-paddle ears

And then there are the regal Brahman cattle of all shapes and sizes.  These superb beasts turn their haughty gaze on the train as it approaches, huge eyes looking disdainfully at this strange and noisy silver monster … until it gets a little too close … Suddenly they toss their mighty heads, flap their Samoan paddle-shaped ears and galloop off into the savannah, waiting for the next train to gaze upon and to show who is really the boss of this country.

Gallooping on to the Atherton Tablelands, passengers aboard the chugging and grunting Savannahlander leave the beautiful World Heritage rainforests and enter the great savannah that stretches from west of Cairns to the west coast of Western Australia.  This is a vast area of open lands with grasses and low trees and the spindly and dramatic black and green grass trees we used to call in non-PC days blackboys.  The sweeping plains are interrupted rather rudely by rugged mountains that seem to say –

  • Sorry – no more of this wide-open Oklahoma stuff.  This is Queensland after all and we do it rough here mate.  Cobber. Compadre.  Amigo.

But before we get to Oklahoma and its corn that is as high as an elephant’s eye, travellers pass though Atherton and Mareeba.  I was born in Atherton and my elder brother was born in Mareeba on the Tablelands. 

In those days tobacco was the main crop apart from the David and Christopher Hall boys. These days no-one seems to smoke any more and although the occasional tobacco-curing barn may still be seen, the tobacco fields have been ploughed and replanted with mangos, cotton, limes, potatoes, avocados (although almost everywhere up here they are called AVO’S with a bit of a plumber’s crack of a misplaced apostrophe), peanuts, table grapes, coffee, melaleuca trees for their tea tree oil, and even some experimental rice fields.

Sugar cane is still an important crop and we passed huge cane trucks and occasional mini sugar cane trains creeping by on their two-foot narrow gauge tracks to the local sugar mill.  At the time of my journey, the Tableland Sugar Mill had crushed 52,000 tonnes of cane (just 9% of the total local cop):  an awful amount of sugar for my morning cappuccino.

Mareeba had just held its 2022 rodeo and the local newspaper – The Express – devoted ten of its forty or so pages to reports of rodeo queens, prize winning bulls and other rodeo-linked excitements.  The area has seen considerable migration over the years and its diverse population is seen in the names of some of the hopefuls for the Rodeo Queen crown:  Shiloe Chong, Alannah Falvo, Maia Gambino, Mia Gonzales … and Abby Chapman.

Local names

The First Nation – or aboriginal – dialects and local languages are numerous and today Australia is trying belatedly to recognise the ownership of the land by these people.  International Rugby Union football matches and many other events now almost always start with a Welcome to Country and an acknowledgement of the traditional and emerging and future leaders.

Australia is a bit of a pastiche with its names.  We have Victoria and Queensland both named for HRH Queen Victoria … but also Wagga Wagga, Goombungee, Dimbulah, Dimboolah, Mutchilba, Mareeba … and so many more local names that continue today.

At Mutchilba the school kids and their teacher wait every Wednesday for the sound of the Savannahlander horn and they run out to the school gate to wave at the train and the passengers aboard.  At Forsayth the local kids line up to board to train as it goes through its turning circle to start the trek back to the east coast.

I really liked the tiny town of Dimbulah.

Waiting for the train at Dimbulah

The outback Queensland town of Dimbulah has, in its main street, a butcher, a baker and – yes – I am told – a candlestick maker. 

I did not meet her, but I chatted to Mark at Camp 64 – named for the worst campsite Owen Davies, the owner of the café, endured on his 1000 km trek through Queensland’s and the Northern Territory’s deserts accompanied only by a pack of goats and two dingoes.  Camp 64 today serves about a dozen people inside and half a dozen on pavement tables with an extensive menu including some pretty sensational roast beef and salad sandwiches.


The train chugged across to Almaden – a bustling city of one railway station building, a rusting water tank and one pub – where some guests were greeted by Roberto – tour guide, chef, hotel owner and driver – who took his guests thirty or so km to the Chillagoe Cockatoo Motel and Hotel.

Limestone range with Royal Arch caves near Chillagoe

Part of the Savannahlander experience is to spend an afternoon with Roberto as he proudly shares the local limestone caves, the open-cut marble mine and the old smelters used to refine copper and gold and other precious metals in the early 1900s.  See featured image, left. A recent lighting bolt knocked the top few metres off one of the tall smokestacks, and another has some serious decay eating away at its outer layers and may not be here for too many more monsoons.

Flooded marble quarry

Food Glorious Food

Yes – it was worth waiting for. 

The meals cooked by Roberto at his outback pub were excellent and, in keeping with local traditions, huge servings.  Other meals at other country pubs or campsites were also good, but sharing a crisp morning at Barwidgi with other travellers as Hamish and Will brewed local coffee – and Bonox – and served slabs of fruit cake and Anzac biscuits was a real treat.

On the return journey the train stopped again at Barwidgi to allow keen photographers and videographers to clamber up a small rocky mound to take images of the Savannahlander as it reversed behind a convenient shrub then came slowly forward through the bush cheekily tooting its horn to scare away stray Brahman cattle that may have arrived hoping for a warming cup of coffee.

I had been looking forward to another great sandwich at Camp 64 when we got back to Dimbulah … but Mark had closed the café and was working as a volunteer with others who have preserved this tiny historic railway station and who now serve train guests an afternoon tea of scones and papaw and cupcakes, with dried mango slices for sale inside.

Passengers spend quite a while walking to see different attractions, but they also spend a lot of time sitting down and almost even more time eating!  Perhaps future Savannahlander journeys could incorporate a gym car.

Or perhaps a swimming pool on wheels?


Will with the head of a beautiful Coral Taipan snake killed by our train … on 16 July: International Snake Day

Hamish and Will are the centres of attractions on the train – apart from the great food and the attractions outside the train.  On my journey the train had just thirty or so travellers when it pulled out of Cairns, but over the following four days people came and went as they joined us from other tours or left to find new excitements elsewhere.  At one stage we had about 120 people on board.

There was a group of people from New Zealand on this train – about a dozen or so including a family of grandparents, parents, teenagers and Young Jack – just eight years of age.  I was delighted to hear from the younger members of the tour that, despite being cooped up with a bunch of oldies, they were enjoying their travels.

Old Jack and fellow travellers

Young Jack was probably the youngest traveller of this journey, but undoubtedly the oldest was Old Jack – a permanently blind ninety-four year old man from Central Queensland.  Despite his limited vision and limited mobility, Jack is an intrepid traveller who has recently been on The Ghan as well as a cruise to Vanuatu and who is soon to fly on a day tour to Antarctica.  I asked him what he expected to see there:

  • Probably just white – just as here all I see is green

I have always disliked the idea of ocean cruises, with pre-arranged seating for dinners and the forced camaraderie of close quarters and instant BFFs popping out from every porthole, but to my surprise this curmudgeonly old critter (me) really enjoyed meeting and spending time with Old Jack and with a couple from Sydney.

Money Money Money

The Savannahlander – like most long rail journeys – is not an inexpensive excursion.  For singles there is an additional AU$500 single supplement but overall it is worth every penny.  There are numerous tiny local economies – Forsayth, Einasleigh, Mt Surprise, Almaden, Chillagoe, Dimbulah – for whom this train is an important source of income.

Rail bridge and old road bridge at Copperfield Gorge, Einasleigh

Savannahlander passengers visit the region about thirty or forty times each year and pay for meals, accommodation, a few drinks here and there, and a wobbly stuffed Antilopine Wallaroo or two.  Other travellers certainly visit the area, and they, plus the train passengers, make it possible for small schools and their teachers to survive, for local nurses to operate, for Park Rangers and tour guides to lead unsuspecting wanderers deep into underground caves, for tea shops to continue serving cream scones and for hotel cleaners to have rooms to clean.

Better Homes and Garden house near Petford – now owned by a wealthy retired Townsville couple

There is something ironic in the fact that cream scones are now an important part of the local economy.  In earlier years, when the line from Cairns to Forsayth was built, these railways carried goods, passengers, thousands of cattle, millions of tonnes of ore-bearing earth, mail, milk and perhaps molasses, and were a crucial part of linking remote communities with the larger cities and ports on the east coast.

And back to Cairns

The return trip down the Kuranda Ranges was almost an anti-climax – yes – we were heading for a larger city on the east coast, but it meant that the Savannahlander journey was almost at an end.  We stopped again at the Stoney Creek Falls to allow videographers another chance to film the train as it crawled over the mighty curved bridge with the waterfall in the background.

Savannahlander at Stoney Creek Falls

There is a lot of savannah to be seen on this tour as well as some UNESCO World Heritage Wet Tropics rainforests, and a lot of time to enjoy the slow chug-a-lug motion of the lovely old rail motors, time for a quiet doze or to read a few pages of your latest Agatha Christie novel.

I am glad the Savannahlander is not a Shinkansen or a TGV, and I am glad we did not get treated to vintage bubbles at a Four Seasons resort anywhere along the way.  They are for another journey.  This one is about learning to connect with the country and its people and its activities and its history … and I am so glad I have been able to do it.


Text and photographs © Christopher Hall July 2022

Brahman bull photograph from Internet


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