Best of the west
On the rails from Brisbane to the great green yonder
THE waiter can’t believe we are bound for Cunnamulla. Weare at Tank, a groovy wine bar around the corner from Brisbane’s Roma Street station, having been advised to grab a bite to eat before we choof west on a five-day Queensland Rail Outback Adventure. We will spend two nights at the Club Boutique Hotel in Cunnamulla and a night either side on the Westlander train.
For weeks now, whenever I have thought about the impending train trip, a collection of songs has popped into my head — Morningtown Ride, Folsom Prison Blues and even Chattanooga Choo Choo. Likewise a few scenes from Murder on the Orient Express and a particularly thrilling episode of the Phryne Fisher detective series, making romance and danger seem all but guaranteed.
The reality is different. I’ve not had the sleeper experience before. The fold-down bunk is OK and long enough for my lanky companion. The facilities? The shower and loo have seen better days. The eat-before-we-board tip was a good one. The television in the dining carriage has a VHS player but no videos to play. So we chat, read and hop into our bunks for an early night.
Pulling up the blind in the morning, my heart leaps. A flat, broad and endless plain is out there and the night of wriggling and wondering what we are doing here dissolves. It is so beautiful. We scurry off to claim a table under a large window in the dining car and set ourselves up to watch the world go by.
The difference between morning and night on the train is (sorry) daylight. Rarely do we glance outside and not see a kangaroo or 10 as we breakfast on toast and Vegemite. After 7am we stop at Mitchell, then later at Morven for 20 minutes. Time enough to buy a paper at the newsagent and go next door to the sell-everythingelse shop, where we spy a coffee machine. Near the front door of the shop are labelled racks for mail and supplies — one is for Yvonne, Shep and Rabbit.
Outside fellow rail riders are enjoying the winter sun and admiring a stand of what we take as boab trees. Our friendly conductor tells us they are actually Queensland bottle trees, or kurrajongs.
Charleville is the end of the line. Here we board a minibus for a two-hour trip to Cunnamulla, stopping briefly at Wyandra, where a wire fence supports more than 1450 bras. We are told it is a fundraiser for breast cancer.
Twenty-four hours after leaving home, we pull into Cunnamulla. The lanky one says we could have made Iceland in that time. We are, however, firmly in Australia. Peieta Mills from Out the Back Australia is here to greet us. Mills is hotelier, tour guide, cook and a fourthgeneration local.
Information about our accommodation at the Boutique Club Hotel had been sketchy. ‘‘Should be finished renovation by the time you get there,’’ we were told. It is not. We are the second guests. It is difficult to get some trades out here. The tired traveller in me wants the promised ensuite and television, and some heating would be nice. But the charm of the building, built in 1936, is clear. My companion draws The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel analogy and in a terrible Indian accent says: ‘‘This is a building of utmost character, which means perhaps not everything will function the way you expect it to.’’ My snarl softens. A high tea of scones, cakes and sandwiches also helps.
Our first activity is a sunset cruise on the Warrego River with Trev Wighton, boat driver, ex-pilot, head of the local State Emergency Service unit and plumber. He charms us with his gentle commentary on river gums, coolibahs, mulga, sulphur-crested and Major Mitchell’s cockatoos — words that belong to no other place.
Wighton’s love of the landscape and his knowledge of its bird life and history overcome what now seem churlish citified expectations.
Around a campfire at the back of the hotel, dinner is served. Spicy pumpkin soup, roast lamb and vegetables are followed by bread and butter pudding. Les Capewell, a drover for more than 65 years, joins us. Capewell cracks whips and jokes. The hotel’s new beds and quality linen feel luxurious as we drift off, imagining the thousands of nights that Capewell, his wife and seven children must have spent camping under the stars.
After a hearty breakfast we head to Charlotte Plains station, a 29,000ha property described as half the size of Singapore. Robyn Russell, whose grandfather bought the place in 1925, welcomes us with morning tea and a tour. Shearing is in full swing in the lovely circa 1887 woolshed, picturesquely situated next to a dam. There are echoes of Tom Roberts’s Shearing the Rams in the soft light smiles from the men (and women) working in the shed, though there is also doof-doof music blaring.
Charlotte Plains also boasts a water feature that in its own quiet way is astonishing. In 1892, the Turnworth artesian bore was sunk to a depth of 561m. It still gushes more than 2.2 million litres of water each day at a temperature of 47C.
It has become a tourist attraction; people enjoy wallowing in the nearby (cooler) channels and locals claim the natural minerals in the water make for a relaxing spa. When we arrive three pairs of grey nomads are comfortably settled, complete with solar-powered caravans. An undisclosed number of years ago the men played footy together in Newcastle. One of the blokes claims the water is good for his arthritis.
On Mills’s tour of the town and district next morning we find out what makes the place tick. We learn that the area is home to five tribes of Aborigines, that the weatherboard houses in the town are readily moved from one block to another and that doctors are in frighteningly short supply. Mills tells us that one-third of Australia’s native birds can be found here, that there is trade in feral goats to Muslim countries, and that grape picking creates a mini-tourist season with jobs for grey nomads and backpackers. She adds that cotton farming is a massive industry and that Slim Dusty’s song Cunnamulla Fella inspired a festival in the town.
Back aboard the Westlander, we wake to different country just before Toowoomba. We wind our way down to sea level. It is a pretty trip in the morning light, through the occasional tunnel and, when the track curves, we see the engine up front. The pace is satisfyingly slow and unexpectedly pleasurable. Helen McKenzie was a guest of Queensland Rail and Out the Back Australia Tours.
top Shearing shed at Charlotte Plains
far left Quintessential Australian scenery, Cunnamulla
above On track in outback Queensland with the Westlander train