Best of the west

On the rails from Bris­bane to the great green yon­der

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Australia - HE­LEN McKEN­ZIE

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.

HE­LEN McKEN­ZIE

top Shear­ing shed at Char­lotte Plains

far left Quintessen­tial Aus­tralian scenery, Cun­na­mulla

above On track in out­back Queens­land with the West­lander train

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