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31 hours of a moving postcard

Memories of riding Queensland’s historic train, The Sunlander

By JJ Rose

A TRAIN DRAWS around the corner, dramatically heavy and ponderous, and pulls into arguably the Sunshine Coast’s buzziest little town, Cooroy.

This train, The Sunlander celebrated more than 60 years on the 1067mm standard gauge tracks running between Brisbane and Cairns in 2014, when it was retired.

As it lumbers into the quaint little station – all weather-board and cream and red paint – the sun rolls just off the horizon like a gold coin, and 60 years seems a drop in a timeless bucket.  That’s how I remember it.

I was supposed to be there as it left grand old Roma Street Station in the heart of Brisbane, but traffic snarls on the Bruce Highway from the Sunshine Coast held me up. Sitting here on the dusk-time platform with the smell of diesel in the air the sound of creaking carriages in my ears, I'm kind of glad of that.

The Sunlander lends itself to country moments under vast blue skies, to sunsets and chilly bush afternoons. Travel was meant to be this way.

My cabin speaks of history. The old emergency pull handle is embossed with a warning ‘Penalty for misuse $10’. Next to it another newer sign reads, ‘Penalty for misuse $3000’.

There’s 60 years of inflation.

A label over the rubbish bin advises ‘Dry Refuse Only’. Who discards ‘Refuse’ any more?

A tongue and groove panelled cupboard, a creaky wooden stow table, a hand basin that looks like Nan's old enamel pots, and a smell of age, recalling images of men in hats with fags dangling from John Brack faces and of gloved and purse-lipped women herding unruly kids in their Sunday best. My parents, my family, ghosting down the corridors. 

Life on the rails

Outside the window, things probably have changed a bit more. Sixty years ago, Cooroy was more country than town, Brisbane had less than one-third the population of today, The Queen had just been coronated, Hillary and Norgay had just climbed Everest. As the many markers along the way remind us, Telstra was once the PMG (which stood for Post Master General), and sugar cane was a major crop, not a reminder of an industry’s decline.

Heading north, the darkness envelopes the scenery. A brighter flurry of lights outside the only window herald a big centre as the 'Lander lumbers to a halt. A gentle lurch to stop. Still and silent.

Dinner conversations over gourmet meals in the restaurant car tail off with the change of atmosphere.

“Where's this?” is heard, and other dinner guests offer guesses. Eyes peer into the gloom through the glass, searching for clues. But there’s only rail yard junk, weeds in the spotlights and simple houses off in the darkness with hints of life through curtains. Does it matter where we are? We are here: On The Way.

Good morning, Mackay, Proserpine, Tully …

Night passes and Mackay reveals at first light, roos framed in dawn haloes outside town. Spreading morning reveals shadowed fields dipped in sunlight, rimmed by mountains.

Breakfast features Proserpine through the windows, with its sugar mill filling the view, heaving into life, the incense of sugar processing rising from huge stacks. Caged carriages of burnt cane, like dark limbs, are jostling and waiting in the pure light of 7am.

Cane is everywhere, stalks three and four metres high, crowding into almost every view, dense ranks of sweetness waving in the unfelt breeze. The mauve flowers that signal harvest time rise above the grassy leaves like the quills of arrows darted into the crops from a distant bow.

One square meter of sunshine soaked cane yields enough sugar to fill around seven 2kg bags of supermarket product. Most of the country's 4000 sugar farmers are here, lining The Sunlander route. Hanging on.

Once a booming industry it's now worth less than one percent of Australia's total output. Some mills, like Proserpine, are gearing up for another season. Others, like the one at Tully, are in pieces, gaping holes and spilling machinery, like the carcasses of former giants eviscerated by economics.

Morning tea, we cross the Burdekin, more rivers than river, divided by hectares of silt. The bridge is bigger than Sydney’s ‘Coathanger’ and our rattling progress scatters some water-birds who leave pock-marks on the mirror surface as they lift off. Ayr is a line of molasses storage carriages on the adjacent tracks.

Through Bowen, with its lines of mango trees, and by lunch we’re in far North Queensland’s biggest centre, Townsville.

With afternoon sun blasting into the cabin, Ingham and Cardwell offer beach glimpses, providing a view to the beaches that bore the brunt of cyclone Yasi in 2011.

The little beach-side town of Home Hill seems populated by caravans and Winnebagos more than people, and some of their occupants stand white-legged and thong-footed, gazing at the passing train like it was the high point of their day. A royal wave seems appropriate.

It’s all about the journey

As the afternoon closes in, the sub-tropical vegetation thickens into tropical, leaves are bigger, fatter. On the central coastal plains, lone trees seemed to deter closeness, arboreal loners.

As the tropics gather, trees seem to invite everything to grow on and around them. The plains trees are unsocial old bush cockies and the tropical trees are gregarious hippies. Each environment seems embodied by the people it attracts.

It's a relief to glide into Cairns Central. Yes, it's been a long time locked in a moving cylinder – I could have flown the same trip 16 times by now – but the weariness is from actual travelling, not from the annoyances of travel, like airport queues and grumpy flight attendants.

It's a rare thing to have the feeling you've moved through large pieces of time and space at something approaching an appropriate speed, being able to walk about, feel the sun, get a bit of air and enjoy an endless view at more or less ground level.

The food is superb, the conversation interesting and you’re presented with what is essentially a 31-hour, 1700km-long postcard all the way.

Flying home is a rush back to reality. Ironic that being in the air brings you back to earth. With a bump.

We fly over the route we’ve just come and are poorer for missing it. I am fortunate I just have, but there's still so much to see. Maybe next time.


Sadly, The Sunlander no longer runs this exotic train route between Brisbane and Cairns (in this archival story, JJ Rose joined the journey from the still quaint station of Cooroy in the Sunshine Coast hinterland). The Sunlander’s 1953 launch came to a much-lamented finale for historic train lovers on December 31, 2014. But all is not lost for avid rail travellers. The route, on new upgraded track, is now graced by a faster and more comfortable tilt train, the Spirit of Queensland. And the passing postcard scenery? Well, it remains pretty much the same.



JJ Rose

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