The train is rattling along at a pace somewhere near Porcupine Flats and I’m sitting comfortably in the Shearers Rest Lounge, gazing at the sunlit plains extended when suddenly I spy a vision splendid. No, not a host of golden daffodils, but a mob of bloody emus racing along beside the train. It seemed like they had decided that the train was going somewhere good and they had better get there first. They were right about the former but wrong about the latter – the train was the winner.
But I’d say that everyone aboard the Spirit of the Outback is a winner. This is one of the iconic rail journeys in Australia, travelling 1,325 kilometres from Brisbane to Longreach in 25 hours through country with a rich history and an ever-changing landscape. The rail line from Rockhampton was started in 1867 and as it progressed westward, roughly along the line of the Tropic of Capricorn, new towns opened up and European settlement grew. It finally reached Longreach in 1892 and that is still the end of the line. Visitors must travel by road to explore the dinosaur country of Winton and the fascination of the ancient land beyond.
Just as it did for the pioneers of yesteryear, the train opens up the Queensland outback for the modern day visitor. As the sun is setting in Brisbane, it travels up the coast from Brisbane through Nambour, Gympie, Bundaberg and Gladstone, till it swings west at Rockhampton through Blackwater, Emerald, Anakie, Alpha, Jericho, Barcaldine, Ilfracombe, arriving in Longreach about 7.15 the following evening.
You can travel first class with your own cabin, economy with a sleeper or economy sitting up. Whichever way you do it, there are toilets, showers and all the amenities. You can even get an entertainment tablet on board with movies, TV shows and music as well as a self-guided audio giving the history, stories and background to the towns and regions as you move through them. If you’re travelling First Class, then the meals in the Tucker Box Dining Carriage really are first class with some tasty options for every palate.
On the way up or back on the train you can stop off at Barcaldine, where in 1891, during the shearer’s strike, the Tree of Knowledge outside the railway station became the meeting place for news, planning and socialising. To see the tree lit up at night is an emotional and special experience for any true believer. Barcaldine is also home to the Australian Workers Heritage Centre with fascinating stories, exhibits and history of the men and women who created Australia. With a permanent water supply from the Artesian Basin, Barcaldine is like a green oasis with tree-lined streets and beautiful gardens.
I felt a bit disappointed when we reached Longreach and had to disembark, but it’s not the end of the adventure. In Longreach, Kinnon & Co run the Cobb & Co Experience, travelling in the original restored stage coaches. Part of that 45-minute trip is a full-tilt gallop along a stretch of the original mail route. The drivers are the Kinnon boys, Jeremy and Lane, real characters, real showmen and very accomplished horsemen. After that if you want to shake off the dust and get some refreshments, there’s nothing like the tea and scones at their café.
One of the big attractions for visitors in Longreach is the Qantas Founders Museum where the story of the birth of our iconic airline unfolds, you can explore a 707 and a 747 and even get a photo standing in the engine. Longreach is also home to the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and the Outback Stockman’s Show with very skilful and very funny performances by both man and animal.
Just up the road at Winton, it’s Banjo Patterson country, where at the North Gregory Hotel in 1895, Waltzing Matilda was performed publicly for the first time. You certainly won’t be the first to leave your footprint in Winton because about 95 million years ago a whole lot of dinosaurs stampeded and you can still see the evidence of that at Lark Quarry.
Not too far away on top of one of the red dirt mesas, or ‘jump-ups’ as they call them in outback Queensland, you’ll find the Australian Age of Dinosaurs museum with Australia’s largest dinosaur fossil collection. Many people from around the world and Australia come and stay here and volunteer to be part of the digs and the clean-up and preservation of fossils. The striking landscape around Winton has been the setting for a number of feature films, including Mystery Road and The Proposition, and Winton is now home to the annual outback film festival, Vision Splendid.
The Spirit of the Outback departs Brisbane every Tuesday and Saturday and departs Longreach every Monday and Thursday and you can base yourself at Barcaldine, Longreach or Winton and pick up some local tours from those places or book a package deal through Queensland Rail or Outback Queensland Tourism.
There’s a lot of interest and a lot of surprises in the region and companies like Red Dirt Tours and Outback Aussie Tours have some great affordable options. With Outback Aussie Tours you can take the Drovers Sunset Cruise on the Thomson River followed by Smithy’s Outback Dinner and Show in the cool of the riverbank coolabahs.
For prices, itineraries, packages, options and more info on destinations and points of interest go to:
Listen to Maurie talk on Travel Writers Radio about Outback Queensland and the Spirit of the Outback train trip.
Maurie was a guest of Queensland Rail and the Outback Queensland Tourism Association.