Thursday, October 22, 2009

My favourite train - the Savannahlander

The Savannahlander is one of Australia’s great train trips - and Queensland’s best kept secret.
It is an art deco train that takes a weekly journey into North Queensland’s remote outback. It is trip back in time, following a railway line that pursued gold, copper, marble and gemstones over the last 100 years. And that gold is still out there. When you do this train trip, you find out why. 

I was a passenger on the Savannahlander for four days, covering 850km from Cairns to Forsayth and back again.
We set off at 6.30am, Wednesday 16 September, from Cairns railway station.
Despite the earliness of the hour, our train is up and ready, our two drivers being the only sign of life on the station platform. They tick off our names on a clipboard.
We are two of six passengers, and we will spend four days on these two connected railmotors, travelling into inner North Queensland, over the Atherton Tablelands and beyond to the gulf savannah. Our route will pass through towns we’ve never heard of: Forsayth, Almaden, Einasleigh: towns so tiny that when our train, with two crew and six passengers, pulls into the station, it doubles the population.
Our train, from the 1960s, is a by-product of the era of rivets and steel plates. It has an art deco muzzle and plain round lines, reminiscent of a bullet.
The carriage interior has the first class glamour from half a century ago: dark polished wood, green leather seats and windows that open casement-style, with metal catches to hold them up. 
Train interior
Casement windows: open for air conditioning

There is seating for about 90 people so, for now, the six of us have the run of the train. (Later, larger tourist groups will join the train for separate legs of the journey.)
There are two toilets: one is an open pipe to fertilize the rail line, and the other, a token of hi-tech necessity, being a state-of-the-art vacuum sealed contraption as found on planes.
Energy-wise: our train will travel over 800km on the smell of an oily rag. Or, to be exact, on 180 litres of diesel.
Equally frugal is its large wooden icebox, being chilled by a single large rectangular (and very old fashioned) block of ice, which lasts the full four days.
The train is designed so that the driver does not shut himself away in a separate compartment. He sits in the front with the controls and in talking distance. There is a seat beside him, and passengers can take turns riding shotgun – on the look-out for kangaroos and other livestock on the rail lines.
The rest of us sit directly behind him, watching his every move, but mostly we watch the train swallow oncoming rails and sleepers to the sound of clickety-clack clickety-clack. 

Driver with passenger riding shotgun, keeping an eye out for kangaroos and cattle

The lush jungle of Kuranda railway station

It swings and shudders and when you walk down the aisle, you swagger to the train’s rhythm.
Our drivers, Leigh and Rob, wear a khaki uniform of shorts and shirt. They take turns being driver, with Leigh in the morning and Rob after lunch. This train, and its 800 km of rail, is their toy. They know its every foible.
Its first foible shows up two hours from Cairns. We chug through tunnels and cuttings to the tablelands, and just past Kuranda, at 8.30am, the rails are wet from morning dew and a little rain, and possibly slimy from syrup spilled by the sugar train that had earlier passed by.
Our train confidently starts up the slope, but slows with every metre of incline until it stops. No amount of revving can coax our train any further. It slides back to level ground. Then it tries again in the undying tradition of the little train that said: ‘I think I can. I think I can.’ But it can’t. It slides back. Rob emerges from the rear of the train, asking: ‘Do you want me to get out and push?’
It seems that the train has run out of sand.
I assume this is an Australian joke. It has the same flavour as that old tall tale about killer koalas dropping from gum trees and slaughtering unsuspecting tourists. But this was no joke. The train does indeed come equipped with a sand box that sprays sand onto wet and slippery rails to give it traction on a slope.
We retreat to Kuranda station. Rob wonders if the Savannahlander will be charged another $395 for a second call onto the platform. Apparently, it incurs this ‘landing fee’ each time it stops at Kuranda.
We hope for a discount.
We also hope that our journey will continue.
A phone call is made for a delivery of sand. We stroll the platform, admiring its lush tropical gardens.
Thirty minutes later, we reboard and try again.
Rob takes a fast run at the slope. We hold our breath and urge the train on. We make it. Being later in the morning, the tracks have possibly dried, giving the train more traction. But the truth is - we make it to the top because we held our breath.
We push up the windows. A tropic wind blows through the carriage.
From Cairns to Kuranda, the scenery is lush rainforest and waterfalls, which is at odds with the luggage accompanying the train crew. Their bags are covered in red dust.
It is a portent of the landscape to come.

Savannah country: dry straw-like grass and anorexic trees

The rainforest gives way to savannah - dry straw-like grass and anorexic trees with scant leaves. It is the dry season. It has not rained for months. The landscape is being roasted alive.
Termite mounds lurk on the landscape, solid profiles peering through the trees. Being set equidistance apart, they display a fine feeling for personal space. Most protrude from the ground, small and phallic, but others take this seedling stage further, ballooning into bulbous shapes like saggy elephants or family groups of people melting into an amorphous embrace. 

They co-ordinate their colours with the surrounding soil: red, black, ochre, or the ghostly pallor of powdered old bones. 

Termite mound

Inland far North Queensland is a lonely place - few people are seen. It is a dusty hot cornucopia of minerals, a land of possibilities, a land of failed ventures.
Copper, coal, marble, gold – it is all out there.
The smelter at Chilligoe, a red brick ruin, magnificent as any fine cathedral, but a folly constructed on the promise of copper. The promise proved false, and within a few years, the smelter was abandoned beside a cliff of solid black slag.

Chilligoe, an abandoned copper smelter

In some areas, large boulders of marble lie handsomely on the landscape. This too was mined, and, in the past, sent to Italy, perhaps to return after processing (as only the Italians know how) to decorate Australian buildings.
Again, deposits were disappointing. Much of the marble had cracks that spoiled it, and it could not be cut into wide slabs. Some was inferior, being ‘sugar’ marble, which crumbled.
But then, ever enterprising, someone has now set up a mill to crush unusable marble into a powder, to be used as a lime fertilizer.
Gold mining is still on the menu, and large tracts of land have been staked out, ready to be plundered as soon as the global financial crisis allows investment.
Like these failed ventures – then new possibilities – the tropical seasons set a similar rhythm.
The wet season brings too much. The dry season takes it all away. In the dry, from about March until November, all but a few waterways become dry ditches, either sandy or rocky. Trees rooted in the river bed are forced to bow in the direction of the water flow. In the wet summer months, water rushes over causeways and low bridges, and dusty roads become muddy tracks.
It is the season when towns become gated communities, cut off from their neighbours by too much water.
What towns there are, I should add. The further inland you travel, the greater the distance between them. The towns themselves shrink, consisting of a pub (of course), maybe a house or two.
Remains of towns, abandoned corrugated tin sheds – are remote reminders of lost gold rushes, former railroad camps and abandoned copper mines. 

Now cows with humps graze by the railway, turning their uncomprehending gaze at us as we pass by. Some take a stand on the rail line, prepared to defend their patch against a huge metal beast. As Rob says, there is no more stupid animal than these cows, and it is no wonder that we eat them.
The train slows, and the cows give way, with attitude, letting us off with a warning. 

Cows on the track keep our drivers on alert

Unexpectedly, we come upon an emu with three chicks following the rail line. He (the male rears the chicks) goes on alert, trying to round up his brood as the train slowly enters his comfort zone. As we bring up the rear, an eagle swoops from the sky, aiming for a straggler chick. The emu turns, perhaps hearing the flap of wings, and the eagle aborts. It hangs above, awaiting another opportunity while the emu bounds into the undergrowth. The chicks, unaware of the threat from above, scramble to keep up.
We are to stop at one small town (Dimbulah?) for scones, jam and cream. The order must be phoned ahead so it is ready when we arrive. We walk across the road to the general store, which tries to be all things to all passers by. 

The town centre

As we travel further into savannah, settlements become scarce, so our drivers create one.
We are promised an afternoon tea break at Bullock Creek. The menu is unlimited tea and coffee, fruitcake, biscuits, lamingtons. It will cost $2.
But, he warns, this will be served by a couple of dodgy characters, a bit grumpy…but we’re not to mind, they mean well.
The train draws to a halt at nowhere. There’s tree, a metal phone box powered by a solar power dish, and a dusty road. No general store. No creek. No dodgy characters.
Instead, Rob and Leigh jump out, raise an umbrella and unfold two portable tables, plonk down an urn with hot water, tea bags, instant coffee powder, cardboard cups, along with packets of cake, lamingtons and biscuits.
We help ourselves, dropping $2 into the honesty box. 

Bullock Creek with dodgy characters

The two dodgy characters stand under the tree, looking up into the branches where several magpies (butcher birds?) are waiting, having factored the train into their weekly schedule. Rob and Leigh toss pieces of fruitcake in their general direction and the birds pirouette in the air to catch it.
They’ll be waiting in that tree when the train returns on Saturday.