My well-travelled friend asked for a trip report of our journey by train from Cairns to Brisbane. We took the Sunlander train which takes a leisurely approach with an average speed of around 60km/h. We went Queenslander class which is the luxury way to go with fine dining and accommodation. If you like the sound of that, book now as the Sunlander trains finish this year with the last trip on New Year’s Eve – a trip that is if not fully booked, pretty close.
It often takes me a bit to get into the holiday groove, particularly after a busy week at work with a combination of awkward problems, interesting challenges and exciting news. In some ways it was probably best that we took the train back from Cairns after I was relaxed enough to enjoy it properly.
The 30 hour journey from Cairns to Brisbane started with a 6am alarm. Peta and I had sorted pretty much everything the night before, so for once we were ready to leave earlier than planned. Which was handy when the route we took for the theoretical 5 minute walk to the railway station took more like 15 minutes (which would still have been ok as we had allowed 15 minutes, but never let it be said that I let an opportunity to worry pass me by).
Once we got to the platform, getting the luggage checked in and onto the train was straightforward, and we had 40 minutes or so to wait before the train even left (they kept announcing final boarding calls). While waiting we were invited to the lounge where they’d be ‘preparing welcome drinks’ which I took to mean champagne cocktails or something for breakfast but turned out to be tea or coffee (apparently they got a bit confused and other trips get actual welcome drinks – maybe our train was too early or something!). Still, once the train took off we went through to the dining car for breakfast. We were pretty hungry so I tucked into a full cooked breakfast and Peta had bacon with toast.
After breakfast we returned to the lounge car for a bit of watching the world go by. To set the scene a little, the countryside was a mixture of jungly rainforest (palms, vines) and the obvious impact of widespread cultivation of cash crops – sugar cane seems to cover large swathes of north Queensland and banana fields fill the gaps. We entertained ourselves by looking for cane trains – I actually saw one in motion – a very small locomotive about to connect to some cane – which we decided was nearly as good as seeing a cassowary or a crocodile (we saw neither on our trip) and nowhere near as good as seeing a tree kangaroo (although we did meet someone who had seen one the day before, so my TreeKangaroo score is now 2). I spent some time reading much more information about the whole cane train system.
We also learned (there were regular announcements about stations or other key features on the route) about Mount Bartle Frere – about 40km south of Cairns it’s Queensland’s highest mountain at 1622m. It’s easy to assume that most of Queensland’s so-called mountains are piddly hills, but at least some of them are genuinely mountains (actual definitions for mountains vary – the UK uses 2000ft, and the US uses 1000ft – either way there does need to be a proper cull of Wikipedia’s List of Mountains in Australia (it lists Wild Horse Mountain at 123m!))
We had the opportunity to stretch our legs at Tully for 25 minutes – that’s when the drivers had their breakfast and then it was back aboard for card games while watching the scenery change. There were plenty of birds to keep an eye out for – ibises and cattle egrets (elsewhere known as rhinoceros egrets – but we saw them with horses as well as cows, but not with camels or shetland ponies, which we also saw on the journey), ducks and black swans.
For lunch I had the seafood platter which was fantastic – the oysters were stunning, the calamari was cooked to perfection and the Moreton Bay Bugs and prawns were also excellent. I did feel a little diddled with the bit of crab I got as it wasn’t a proper bit of claw, but I guess they just divide crabs up between passengers. Dessert was apple and rhubarb crumble and ice cream – I’m usually no good with fruit based puddings but this one was really good.
Townsville was the next opportunity for a leg stretch, and we got to see cars being loaded onto the train (apparently your car can go free with your train journey – but as we’d flown up that wasn’t much use to us, but worth knowing).
By this point we’d realised one of the train staff had a bit of an Elton John obsession – there was a tablet in the lounge hooked up to speakers, so you could just select whatever you fancied (from a short list of albums, only a few of which were actually worth listening to). But whenever she thought the music needed changing, it got changed to Elton. This got quite infuriating by the tenth time, so we had to take regular cabin time. In general the staff were lovely and very friendly, we had a number of good chats over the course of the trip.
Once it got close to 4pm, we decided it was drinks time, so off to the lounge for fizz! The fizz came from Sirromet, a local winery with a cellar door at Mt Cotton, about 30 minutes south of Brisbane; we’ve been there a couple of times now, once for wine tasting and once for a Day on the Green.
We got to enjoy some of the countryside, particularly the impressive Burdekin Bridge between Ayr and Home Hill. The latter is now a haven for caravanners as to boost its economy the town provides free 48 hour camping sites so there were lots of vans to be seen.
The sun was setting as we got to Bowen (famed for murals we didn’t get to see from the train) and the sun set behind the hills as we left – this was the last place we’d really see until the morning.
We got to Proserpine (the gateway to Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays) as we sat down to dinner. We were sat with another couple, George and Mary-Ann who were in their seventies and had some great stories to share – we shared a bottle of cab sav with them and got on with them very well. I had crab and avocado for starters, prime rib steak for main and semifreddo for dessert – all very enjoyable. As we finished dinner, the train finally left Proserpine – apparently the police had had to remove some people from the train!
After a brief sojourn to the lounge car, we decided to head back to the cabin where we had some more wine and read either the internet or the kindle (Peta might have played Angry Birds). We were intrigued as to what was going on when we got to Mackay and people started walking up the outside of the train with torches. Looking for stowaways under the train? After that it was bedtime and so nothing more to report until we woke up at 7:15 as we were leaving Bundaberg station.
Breakfast didn’t seem as good the second day – but we were ravenous at breakfast time the day before, whereas we were probably quite well fed from all the meals on the train.
We spent the morning alternating watching the world go by with reading. As I got closer to Brisbane I became less and less keen for the journey to end and tried to watch more and more of the journey.
Before we got to Nambour we had the final meal of the train – morning tea, including sausage rolls, quiche, salmon tarts and finally profiteroles. We were hoping we’d get a final lunch but the train was pretty much completely packed up by then – everything shut!
We passed through a lot of places that I’m not yet familiar with, before we got south of Nambour and we got to the Glasshouse Mountains, passing Tibrogargan close up, then Beerburrum before experiencing the average Caboolture commuter’s daily experience. Peta went for a nap around here, while I watched the industrial entrance into town through Petrie, Strathpine, Sunshine and then past Northgate for what I assumed would be a standard journey into Roma Street. But no, one last surprise as the train took the Exhibition line and thus skipped Fortitude Valley and Central entirely.
All in all, the 30 hours passed almost too quickly for me – we passed our time through eating, sleeping, drinking, reading, and keeping an eye on the passing scenery. It’s a difficult balance – too much watching the world go by can be dull at times but not enough misses the point!
Photographer’s note: I tried not to get caught up in trying to take photos through fuzzy reflective windows while on a juddering moving vehicle, so only carried my lil Fujifilm x100s around with me for snapshots. Turns out the train supervisor was an amateur photographer and had been eyeing up an x100s for himself, so we had a good chat about it. I always find it hard to talk about the technicalities of photography – I don’t do it much so as to not bore everyone around me, so I’m not used to translating whatever happens in my head when I take photos into words. This is something I should practice, I’m happy to share I just need to learn how!