You can do a lot by doing very little on a 25-hour train trip.
My family has just clickety-clacked from Brisbane to Longreach on a sleeper train, which is like travelling back in time. The Spirit of the Outback is a silver passenger line that you board at Roma Street Station and somehow it takes you back several decades. Watermelon-coloured carpet curves along carriage hallways that lead you to a cabin furnished with everything you need for an overnight train trip. Seat, sink and a window. Pull the right lever and you get a fold-down bed. All aboard!
Twenty-five hours is just about the perfect length of time to force you to put your phone down and watch the world rush past yet strangely slow down. Over the course of a day and a night of travel, your brain unravels in a very healthy way. The grip of the city loosens as you head northwest and internet reception wanes. How spoilt I am to welcome the disconnection.
Inside the twin cabin, there’s a seat at either end – one faces forward, one back – and both convert to beds. You choose your perspective on the world depending on where you sit. Are you looking forward or looking back? Aren’t we always asking that question in life?
I lay watching the tail of the train swish behind and reflected on where we’d been. My youngest son faced the opposite direction and watched the engine navigate new twists and turns.
It’s hard not to be in awe of this line built by railwaymen whose vision and grit carved through increasingly hostile territory. Lush green hinterland quickly gave way to dusty, clay-coloured bush streaked with caramel rivers, the change in landscape so swift it’s difficult to believe it’s all the same state. Politically it’s fascinating.
We fell asleep streaking through central Queensland under the stars and woke to an impossibly perfect golden glow. Glorious.
As Slim sang… looking forward, looking back 🧡 pic.twitter.com/k6Ats9NHeP
— Rebecca Levingston (@reblev) September 29, 2020
Eventually, the creek beds were dry. The trees looked thirsty. The sheep were skinny. Anthills emerged like tiny Australian pyramids and small mobs of cattle swaggered towards shrinking billabongs. Banjo Paterson is still alive in this country. I marvel at the determination of families who live and work on the land.
Longreach greeted us with kids in oversized cowboy hats and jeans held up on their tiny hips by thick leather belts. The main street was wide, pristine and proud. It was busy but locals tell me that’s rare. I played pool at the pub and got beaten by a ten-year-old who was wearing crocodile teeth around the brim of his hat. He had a firmer handshake than some politicians I’ve met.
The next morning a family of brolgas teetered past as we made our way into Eagle Street in the centre of town. My husband, who looked every bit the city slicker in Birkenstocks, wandered through a store of hats and boots.
“Thirteen rabbits,” the shop attendant said. “That’s how many it takes to make one hat. Thirteen rabbits.”
You can’t be squeamish when you’re in outback Queensland.
We hired a car and hit the road. The playlist was full of classic country tunes we were unashamedly keen to play to our sons. We sang ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ and ‘The Gambler’ as the landscape changed again.
Go west, life is peaceful there. Not if you’re a kangaroo. On the highway heading to Winton, there’s a skippy carcass every 50 fatal metres. Our national emblem is carnage on the long straight stretch of bitumen.
I wonder what international tourists make of the roo graveyard. Eventually you just comment on the really bloated ones that prove to be obstacles on the road. Then you look up and remark on the beautiful big sky. The contrast in conversation is wild, like the next town, where we find some helpful dining advice stuck on the entrance to a local restaurant.
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