A cheery saviour at journey’s end
TOOWONG, QUEENSLAND IT was January 1943, Australia was at war, Brisbane had become a garrison city and I was an 18-year-old girl, just appointed as a primary teacher to the state school at Quilpie, 620 miles (990km) from home. At 3pm on a hot Friday, I boarded a steam train from Roma Street Station to travel to the far, far west.
It was my first solo trip and my mother farewelled me with a timetable showing every station, especially the Railway Refreshment Rooms, vital information for 32 hours on a train without a dining car.
I had a first-class ticket as I was newly appointed to my job, but sleepers were non-existent in wartime. My seat was in a crowded compartment as the steam engine chuffed up the range and in and out of tunnels to our first stop at Toowoomba. I had a large ham sandwich and a very big cup of tea. If the tea wasn’t finished, I could hand the heavy cup in at the next Refreshment Rooms for a refund of my deposit. Every penny counted in those wartime years.
I slept sitting up and when I woke next morning we were at a station with the weird name of Muckadilla. The countryside was flat and dry, covered with red soil and the occasional stunted bush. About 3pm we rattled into Charleville, the largest town in the west. Most passengers left the train and I was shown into a very small carriage where I was quite alone, the only first-class passenger for the last eight hours of my journey.
I stretched out on the bench seat, grateful to have a fat book with me. I tried to ignore the searing heat and the engine’s black soot. Near midnight we arrived at Quilpie. It seemed the whole town was on the platform meeting the train. Ten minutes later I was alone with my two large suitcases, one of clothes and one of books. Surely someone should be meeting me?
Suddenly help arrived. The local carter greeted me: ‘‘You must be the new schoolie. Follow me.’’ Hethrew my cases on to his truck and ordered me to hop in, which was easy as there was no door. No knight in shining armour was ever a more welcome sight than that old bushman, flannel shirt, hanging moustache, big boots and all. My epic journey had ended and I had met my first outback gent, just 70 years ago. Send your 400-word contribution to Follow the Reader: travel@ theaustralian.com.au. Columnists receive a Logitech UE Mobile Boombox, a portable, wireless speaker that lets you stream music from your phone, tablet or laptop, and doubles as a speakerphone for hands-free phone calls. $99.95. More: logitech.com/en-au/.