Some­where along the line

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - SU­SAN KURO­SAWA

I have to ad­mit, I’m mildly ad­dicted to the pay-TV show Rail­road Aus­tralia, a doco-style se­ries set mostly in the red-earth Out­back, where blokes are blokes and the kan­ga­roos keep get­ting in the way of ex­tra­or­di­nary lo­co­mo­tives that seem to stretch to the hori­zon, or at least across the Pil­bara.

Some of the men of iron (ore) are as weath­ered as the land­scape and have a stony prag­ma­tism about life and lo­co­mo­tives. “That’s Aus­tralia, mate,” they say when yet an­other track has buck­led in 45C heat, hold­ing up the trains from New­man while the Port Hed­land con­tainer ships wait to be loaded as the clock ticks like a batty thing. The cin­e­matog­ra­phy is fan­tas­tic and cam­eras are some­times fixed un­der the trains, which fas­ci­nates me no end.

I was wor­ried about this fix­a­tion un­til a taxi driver in Bath, Eng­land, told me he was con­cerned about the lateafter­noon traf­fic and if there was enough time to drop me at the sta­tion and get home for his favourite telly show. “The mis­sus won’t like it if I’m late for Rail­road Aus­tralia,” he told me. “She’ll have the ket­tle steam­ing al­ready.”

Also on the show are jour­neys on sight­see­ing trains, from Ku­randa in Queens­land to Mel­bourne’s Dan­de­nong Ranges, and in­trastate ser­vices in re­mote ar­eas.

It re­minds me of the joys of train travel: the voyeuris­tic win­dows into people’s lives along the tracks; the pos­si­bil­ity for con­tem­pla­tion; chatty min­gling with fel­low passengers; and the al­ways en­joy­able ex­cuse to reread Paul Th­er­oux’s The Great Rail­way Bazaar, although now per­haps de rigueur rail reading is The Girl on the Train.

Modern lovers of train travel are spoilt for choice. There is a spa car­riage, for ex­am­ple, on the Royal Scots­man, op­er­ated by Bel­mond (for­merly Ori­ent-Ex­press) on var­i­ous itin­er­ar­ies from Ed­in­burgh. So a mas­sage on wheels no longer means a bumpy ride along poorly main­tained tracks but the gen­tly rock­ing min­is­tra­tions of a ther­a­pist and the aro­matic in­dul­gence of botan­i­cal unguents such as laven­der, pep­per­mint and gera­nium.

Ja­pan’s lat­est ho­tel on wheels is Train Suite Shik­ishima, a 10-car, 34-pas­sen­ger af­fair with Miche­lin­starred chefs, but­lers on call and, un­be­liev­ably, win­dow­side cy­press tubs in its top two suites and tatami-mat­ted re­lax­ation ar­eas. Bel­mond has also launched An­dean Ex­plorer, a sleeper train in Peru, all fine al­paca wool blan­kets and gath­er­ings by a piano.

All of which is a long way from my back­packer era in In­dia, when my third-class train bed­ding was courtesy of com­pressed copies of The Times of In­dia (the mat­ri­mo­nial ad­ver­tis­ing sup­ple­ment in the week­end edi­tion was as thick as a mat­tress) and en­ter­tain­ment meant flick­ing off the fleas.

I loved those long rail jour­neys across the sub­con­ti­nent, the sur­pris­ing empti­ness of the land­scape be­yond the cities and il­lu­mi­nat­ing en­coun­ters with trav­el­ling sales­men. Some­where I still have a busi­ness card for Mr Naren­dra Ram, Rub­ber Outer­wear­ings Spe­cial­ist, who asked for my hand in mar­riage some­where out­side Jodh­pur. Such things don’t hap­pen on posh-pants trains and it seemed a bit of a shame, ac­tu­ally, to give him the boot.

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