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The adventure has already started and I haven't even reached
Central Station. "The country platforms?" the cab driver asks.
"Yes," I reply, trying to hide the excitement in my voice. "The
Not today the suburban predictability of a normal week. This
morning I'm heading off on a railway adventure - even if I won't
actually be leaving NSW. I've been meaning to do this for 18
months, since I dropped off the backpacking daughter of an English
friend at Central so she could continue her journey around the
I was far more excited about her impending train journey than
she was. For her, the trip was a cheap way of being reunited with
fellow backpackers in Byron Bay. For me, it was a reminder of
voluntarily relinquished liberties - the freedom to jump on a train
to distant places whenever the fancy took me. That's the thing
about trains: they appeal to the hobo in us as much as the
Fortunately, I have an excuse for escape today. Though it has so
far gone largely unheralded, 2004 marks the 150th anniversary of
the railway in Australia. The reason it is largely unnoticed - at
least in NSW - is that the first railway in Australia was laid in
Melbourne, not Sydney. We're celebrating our own anniversary next
year, 150 years since the line was opened between Sydney and
I know what you're thinking. Yes, I'm a trainspotter. Or at
least I was as a boy, growing up in a Thomas The Tank Engine
village in England. We were all Railway Children back then. Our
village, Cheddington, even briefly became world-famous one morning
in 1963 when we woke to the news that the Great Train Robbery had
taken place on our doorstep - though Fleet Street upset the parish
council by describing us as "a hamlet" when anyone knew we'd been a
proper village since the Domesday Book.
Since then, I've travelled as many of the world's railways as I
could: India, Canada, Russia, the US, South America, Egypt, South
Africa, China, Eastern Europe, Vietnam. Yet my longest Australian
rail excursion has only been as far as Lithgow. Of course I always
meant to do the Ghan, the Indian Pacific and the Gulflander, but
This morning there are no buts. I've had a look at the rail map
of NSW and made my own idiosyncratic itinerary. First I'll take the
Explorer to Moree, as far north-west as I can go, to sample rural
Australia. Then I'll make my way by road to Casino, the nothernmost
NSW staging post of the XPT, which links Brisbane and Sydney, to
experience the great coastal tourist line. Two railway adventures
for the price of one.
Actually, my companion for this trip is a new book, All
Aboard! Tales of Australian Railways by Jim Haynes and Russell
Hannah (ABC Books, $29.95). It's thanks to them that the first
thing I do at Central Station is find the bronze bust of John
Whitton, the 19th-century Yorkshireman, largely forgotten now, who
was once one of the most respected figures in the state,
universally honoured as "the father of NSW railways".
Whitton didn't build the first railway in the state - by 1856,
when he arrived, aged 36, to take up the post of engineer-in-chief
of the NSW Government Railways, the line to Parramatta was already
open and another was being constructed in the Hunter Valley from
East to West Maitland. But, as Haynes points out in his chapter
about the blunt Yorkshireman, it was Whitton who superimposed his
lines on the map of NSW.
Fortunately for us, he was as far-sighted as he was stubborn. He
resisted the clamour of politicians who seriously proposed that
horses, not locomotives, should pull carriages in the bush. He
warned them they were making a terrible mistake by not sticking to
a standard gauge across all the rival colonies. He refused to opt
for a cheaper, narrow gauge network, correctly seeing that the
future of the railway in Australia depended on its ability to
transport huge quantities of wool, timber, and livestock over vast
distances. In short, it was Whitton who built the steel links
between the city and the bush - and in so doing, not only ended the
isolation of the outback but provided the means of transporting our
inland riches to the ports and markets of the world.
Whatever you may think of our rail network today, there's no
disputing that trains are as much a part of our national heritage
as the drover or the bushranger. Where was Clancy headed with his
mobs of cattle if not for the nearest railhead? And what finally
ended the reign of the bushranger - in Ned Kelly's case, literally
- if not the switch from stagecoach to train?
Having paid my homage to Whitton, I locate my seat on the
10.05am to Moree, and start sipping my takeaway latte, having
already established that the two buffet cars on the train will be
closed until after we leave the station. Two buffet cars on a train
that is only five carriages long? That's because this train will
self-divide like some kind of asexual worm at Werris Creek.
And where is Werris Creek? Ah, well, that's one of the joys of
taking a train trip you've never done before. Obviously it is
somewhere south of Tamworth, as the front three carriages are going
on to Tamworth and Armidale, whereas those of us in the final two
carriages are heading to Gunnedah and Narrabri.
A few minutes later, we're off. Exactly on time. I look around
at the other passengers. They're a curious bunch. I'd been
expecting a lot of bush characters, but these all seem to be
elderly tourists. At Strathfield, even more elderly tourists get
Our carriage is now at least three-quarters full, and most of my
fellow travellers have sun-lined, agricultural, Mediterranean
faces. The tongues are various: from Macedonian and Croatian to
Hungarian and Portuguese, even Chinese. As the hours roll by and I
engage a few in conversation, I find they're all "new" Australians,
most of them having lived here for decades. The carriage feels
utterly exotic, completely "foreign". Only the landscape rolling by
outside says "Australia".
For most, this train trip is an annual - or half-yearly -
pilgrimage to Moree for the therapeutic hot springs. I knew Moree
had some spa baths, but before getting on the train I had no idea
they were so popular (see box opposite).
I settle back to watch the scenery. There's that dramatic
section heading down to Brooklyn before crossing the Hawkesbury and
its oyster beds. Then the huge waratahs hidden in the forests south
At Singleton, I head to the buffet car. Earlier, the cheery
staff had handed out the coloured cards for lunch. Today's choices
were roast chicken $9, lasagne $8, beef casserole with rice $8, and
Singapore noodles $7. Feeling 12.15am was too early for lunch, I
had asked if I could leave it an hour. Now the ladies who do the
lunch persuade me to go for today's special: the roast, a hot
drink, and a chocolate pudding; a bargain at $12 plus $6 for the
red wine to go with it. Verdict? You wouldn't let Matthew Evans
near it. But for the price, it's decent enough.
While I'm eating, I view the deep scars of open-cut mining
around Singleton. You don't see this industry from the road, but
the rail line cuts through the heart of it, servicing the coal
deposits and the power station. Then, just a few minutes later, the
sun starts shining on the romantic green pastures and horse
paddocks leading up to Scone. In the foreground, neat traditional
weatherboard houses face the railway line as proudly as children in
a school parade.
Soon we arrive at mysterious Werris Creek. According to All
Aboard!, Werris Creek was the quintessential railway town,
devoted almost entirely to servicing trains, "and so had some of
the most prestigious railway buildings in the state, including a
magnificent refreshment room with overnight hotel-style
Our train pulls in on the eastern side of the platform and we're
allowed off the train for five minutes to watch the decoupling. A
whistle sounds, and those of us heading west to Moree find our
two-carriage train going backwards for 100 metres until the points
are changed and we speed off into the sun.
Soon, my elderly fellow European passengers are unpacking their
home-made salads while the Chinese are settling into noisy
discussion. I buy a can of gin and tonic, settling back into my
seat to watch the drawn-out sunset over the flatlands. Is this a
genuine travel experience? Too true it is.
Two days later I'm back on the rails, taking the return trip to
Sydney from Casino. Things haven't started well. The XPT is 45
minutes late getting into Casino from Brisbane (though we almost
make up that time, arriving at Central Station just five minutes
behind schedule, 11 hours later).
This was the leg I was expecting to be brimming with tourist
credentials, and sure enough there are plenty of young backpackers
aboard, plus some families returning from holidays in Queensland.
But it is obviously a working train, largely for the working poor.
Behind me is a clearly disturbed man, wearing headphones, who
swears to himself for much of the journey.
Alongside are an Aboriginal version of Lennie and George from
Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men. The larger one is silent and
simple; the smaller one vociferous and street-smart. Every hour or
so, "Lennie" asks how long it will be before he can have a smoke.
Every hour, "George" gives the same answer: "We've got a country
mile to go yet, bro'. We'll have a quick puff at the next
Clearly George fancies himself as a ladykiller, good-naturedly
chatting up the Maori mother-of-five in front of me. "I wish we'd
met 20 years ago," he tells her at one point. "But at least you can
tell your old man that some silly skinny coot was cracking on to
you on the train."
With so much human drama going on around, it's a relief to
concentrate on the scenery. The first part of the trip is not as
picturesque as I had expected. From Casino to Sawtell and beyond,
the track mainly passes through forest, occasionally punctuated by
a river. I'm surprised that, even at some of the larger stations -
such as Grafton and Coffs Harbour - the platforms are too short to
take the train, which means we have to deposit passengers in two
Every so often, we cross one of those really wide estuaries
which were so eagerly sought by early explorers such as Matthew
Flinders. And when we get to Urunga and start hugging the Pacific
coast, I realise my good fortune in sitting on the eastern side of
By the time we reach Taree, Lennie is asking: "Are we there
yet?" every 10 minutes. But we've made up half an hour and now are
only 10 minutes behind schedule. Even better, the countryside south
of Taree is, in my opinion, the most pleasing - particularly as we
glide through Gloucester and Dungog in the late afternoon light,
reinforcing my opinion that the area surrounding the Barrington
Tops National Park is the most underrated in Australia.
With the final section of the trip conducted in the dark, the
journey is all over bar the shouting. By the time we pull into
Central, it's 10pm.
I hail a taxi. "Good trip?" asks the driver. "Very good, thanks.
But it's good to be home." Even as I say the words, I realise it
makes it sound as if I've been abroad.
POINTS TO NOTE
* All CountryLink trains are non-smoking.
* Buffet cars operate on all CountryLink services, offering a range
of hot and cold meals, wines and light beers. Special dietary
requirements are catered for with a minimum of 48 hours'
* Overnight sleepers available on some routes.
* Passengers can check in one item of luggage weighing up to 20
kilograms, along with one 5-kilogram item of hand luggage.
* Significant savings can be made by booking seven or, better
still, 14 days ahead. For example, my trip cost less than $100
return for 22 hours of train travel. Call the CountryLink
reservations line on 13 22 32. Also check special fares. For
example, CountryLink is offering a $69 fare to both Melbourne or
Brisbane from Sydney until December 15.
* For information or bookings, see http://www.countrylink.info, visit any
CountryLink Travel Centre, or ring 13 22 32.
TAKING THE WATERS
You want to know the most European, cosmopolitan destination in
NSW? Leichhardt? Double Bay? Marrickville? None of them is within a
euro of one much-derided outback town near the border with
At least, that's my view, as I soak in the public spa baths at
Moree at 7.30am. It feels like the Hotel Gellert in Budapest. My
fellow bathers are mostly over 65, and mostly from Mediterranean
Europe: Italy, Spain, Portugal, Croatia, Greece, Macedonia, plus a
smattering of Russians, Poles, Hungarians and Ukrainians.
Of course, we're all Australians now, wherever we've come from.
But as we soak and chat together I realise this is an aquatic
example of multiculturalism at work.
By coincidence, the front-page picture of the Moree Champion
that week shows a similar bunch of septuagenarian sojourners, along
with a story about how the community-owned baths are proving even
more of a tourist attraction than usual. The baths are now more
than 100 years old, having been created by accident in 1895 when a
government bore was drilled into the Great Artesian Basin to
provide water for cattle and crops. What came gushing up instead
was mineral-rich (mainly sodium carbonate and sodium chloride) hot
water, flooding many of the hotel cellars.
The original baths complex opened in 1898, but the current
complex dates from 1977 and consists of two hot-spa pools - one
kept at a "natural" 41.6 degrees, the other cooled to 38 degrees -
and an Olympic-sized swimming pool kept at a constant 27 degrees.
Single entry is a bargain $5, but most of my fellow bathers are
here for up to 16 days and so have bought passes that allow them
multiple entry throughout the day. Spring and autumn are the
busiest periods, with about 900 people a day clicking through the
turnstiles in October and November, and the real aficionados
booking specialist treatments such as deep-tissue massage.
Clearly, Moree is cashing in on its mineral good fortune - a
number of the newer motel complexes even have their own mineral
spas. The people I spoke to all said the public complex was the
best - not least because it's open-air.
For details, ring Tourism Moree on 6757 3350 or visit http://www.moreetourism.com
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