After my lament for Bernie’s, I was going to tell you almost immediately about my expedition west of Cairns, way out in the Gulf Country, on a couple of trains called The Gulflander and The Savannahlander – outlandish names, though logical, as I’ll explain – but then I was forced to take some French leave. Somewhere along the way I took on board an unidentified bug of some potency and landed in hospital with a drip in my arm being fed massive doses of antibiotics. Bacterial pneumonia was the verdict . . . the coincidence of which with another recent, but tad more famous, case of pneumonia prompted certain wags of my acquaintance to suggest I hadn’t really been in far north Queensland at all and would soon be the subject of tabloid headlines along the lines of “Secret Presidential Love Tryst”. Cough, cough. Anyway, here I am after a couple of weeks of doing a John Keats impression, back on track and keen to resume my campaign of spreading sweetness and light among my merry band of readers.
The whole odyssey started when I noticed on the website of the Queensland division of the Australian Railway Historical Society a tour to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the completion of the Normanton-Croydon line – an anomalous piece of engineering isolated from the rest of the Queensland rail system. One place on the tour was left, so I grabbed it and some weeks later joined 36 other railfans and oddball tourists in Cairns for eight days and 1400km by road and rail to Karumba and back.
The itinerary was fairly straightforward: head to Kuranda on the famous scenic railway, then get on a bus for a two-day sprint west across the Atherton Tableland and the tropical savannah to Karumba on the Gulf of Carpentaria, ride the Gulflander back from Normanton to Croydon, more bus to bridge the gap to the end of the Queensland rail system at Forsayth, then board the Savannahlander for a two-day run back to Cairns. Along the way we would take in some of the rare geographical features of the land and some of its history, mostly in mining gold and other metals, notably tin and copper.
This, it should be emphasised, is no grand tour of Switzerland. There is no majestic scenery, the region is sparsely populated, the towns small to vanishing and the facilities basic. The trains, despite their grandiose names, are a couple of vintage railmotors – DMUs (diesel motor units) in British parlance – renovated for the tourist trade, but not airconditioned, and they trundle bumpily along at barely more than 40kmh for most of the time. This is tremendous fun if you’re that way inclined. And I am, as my loyal followers know.
So what about those names? I suppose ultimately they’re linked to the name of the state . . . if you come from Queensland, you’re a Queenslander. But really they derive from a fleet of trains the then Queensland Government Railways launched in the early 1950s, starting with the Sunlander, a home-built, airconditioned, diesel-hauled sleeper train to ply the 1600km between Brisbane and Cairns. After that came the Westlander (Brisbane to Cunnamulla in the state’s south-west), the Midlander (Rockhampton to Winton in the far mid-west) and the Inlander (Townsville to Mt Isa, across the north of the state). They were fairly slow (the best part of three days between Brisbane and Cairns) but comfortable, fully catered long distance passenger trains – providing Great Train Journeys in every sense of the term. Now they’re all but gone, for the same reasons such trains have disappeared all over the world.
The Gulflander and the Savannahlander are johnny-come-latelys, named solely for the tourist trade, and without doubt would not exist but for that trade. Once a week in each direction for 8-9 months of the year, depending on the Wet season, tourists fill up these old rumblers to try to capture some of the feel of a remote region and of a time when the tracks were actually important in communication and commerce. The irony is that these railways are probably now bigger earners than when they were hauling minerals and cattle out of the region and food, household goods and machinery into it.
They are also unlike most tourist traps in Australia, being filled entirely by Australians, although the Cairns International Airport funnels thousands of Asian tourists into the north every week. As I said, you need to have a certain mindset to enjoy these trips – they’re a long way to go for not much. The home of the Gulflander at Normanton is nearly 700km from Cairns by road or a couple of hours by small aircraft, and once you get there you’re faced with a classic Australian bush town – a number of pubs lining a main street so wide you practically need a cut lunch to cross it, a few rundown public buildings dating from the boom days before the Great War, a basic motel and a camping ground for the hordes of grey nomads on their caravan circumnavigations of Australia. Then the train itself takes five hours to rock and roll 150km almost dead straight through flat, featureless bush to Croydon, a once prosperous (more than a century ago) gold-mining town now seeking to exploit its glory days for the tourists. And you’re still 550km from your five-star hotel in Cairns.
For the average foreign tourist, with three days in Cairns to sample the Great Barrier Reef, the rainforest of the mountains immediately behind Cairns and maybe on the Daintree further north, the Gulf Country just doesn’t cut it – you need to invest a lot of time for what most would perceive as not of much interest. Cobbold Gorge and the Undara Lava Tubes, of which more later, are well worth a visit but I can’t see a busload of Chinese, for example, finding much charm in a train to nowhere, through country where nothing is obvious and you have to be attentive to spot a kangaroo, ubiquitous though they are. On top of that, the accommodation is pretty basic and the food is best described as hearty – chips with everything sums it up. Even most backpackers aren’t interested in going that far for so little bang.
For Australians, however, this is the Great Outback – the place that lives in city-dwellers’ imaginations as the essence of our country. The legendary Australian character was forged in its harsh vastnesses. Males like Chips Rafferty, large, slow talking and as dry as a dead dingo’s donger. Females like Mrs Aeneas Gunn, author of We of the Never Never, resourceful, with hearts as big as the country. Male and female, they are tough people born of a tough country. That’s the story anyway, and that’s what the Gulflander and the Savannahlander cater to.
Well, OK, as an Anglo Australian with a family line dating back to convict days, I buy it. But I know of course it’s a myth and, like most Australians, I’m a city boy, as soft as they come. Alone in the Gulf Country I’d be as clueless as, say, Burke and Wills whose infamous and disastrous 1860-61 expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria reached its northernmost point about 40km west of Normanton.
Here, just off the main road, the Savannah Way, the four-man group literally camped by a billabong under the shade of a coolabah tree, cut off from reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria by about 50km of salt pans and mangrove swamp. Burke and Wills tried to push through, got about half way but never saw the sea.
A brass plate fastened to a concrete plinth summarises what happened: “This monument marks the site of Camp No.119 of the 1860/61 Burke and Wills expedition, occupied on Saturday 9th Feb 1861 by Robert O’Hara Burke, William John Wills, John King and Charley Gray. On Sunday the 10th February, Burke and Wills left on the attempt to journey to the Gulf of Carpentaria, returning on Tuesday the 12th February. All four abandoned the camp next day for the return journey to Coopers Creek (depot 75) and home to Melbourne. During the return journey, all died with the exception of King who survived with the assistance of a friendly Aboriginal tribe.”
Standing at Camp 119 a few weeks ago, reading the information boards erected on the site and trying to discern the blazes the explorers left in surrounding trees – nearly gone after 155 years – it dawned on me just how stupid or arrogant or both was Burke, an Irishman trained by the British army but late of the Austrian army. For six months he had led his party across the length of Australia, through verdant pastures, healthy bush and semi-desert to the gulf savannah, from spring in the south through summer to the Wet, but he, as commander, had apparently learnt very little about what the country might provide. The party relied almost entirely on the supplies they’d carried from Melbourne. One information board at Camp 119 remarks that their attempts to live off the land had mixed results. Given what happened to them, you’d have to say this is an understatement.
The country around Camp 119 is harsh all right. But conditions, while probably far from pleasant, given the onrushing Wet season, must still have been quite sustainable, with good water and plenty of wildlife. Another signboard states: “Burke’s team was unaware that they were passing through a region rich in food and resources in which Aboriginal clans had lived for thousands of years without either beasts of burden or bags of flour to weigh them down.” They did meet up with Aborigines but apparently messed up whatever they were taught about indigenous food.
I suppose Burke was in such a hurry to turn back south because he had only a third of his food supplies left, and maybe he sensed that the Wet might strand them there (although, having never been in the tropical north before, he can’t have had much idea what the season would be like). Even so, why not sit for a few days at least, regather your strength, save your supplies by shooting a little game, catching a fish or two and applying what you’d learnt from six months in the bush; maybe try to get some advice from the locals? No, not Burke. He did not understand that, although this environment is unforgiving, it is also one of great plenty.
I was stunned by Camp 119, and remain so. It was the unexpected highlight of the trip. Hitherto the story of Burke and Wills had been one of those Boys Own tales of heroic failure, a magnificent folly that ended tragically. But as I stood there under the coolabah trees, the “heroic” and “magnificent” melted away and I was left with “failure”, “folly” and “tragic” . . . and an overwhelming sense that it need not have been so.
Nevertheless, the Burke and Wills expedition is part of the myth the tourists come to experience. As the signboard says: “Burke might not have been a successful explorer but he left us a legacy. He had a goal, which he and his companions strove to achieve. These were the formative years of the spirit of a nation.”
All right, I’ll buy that one, too. But for days afterwards, as we got on with our train tour, I kept asking myself and my travelling companions: how was it that colonial boys – not soft modern city folk like us – could trek through the bush for half a year and not learn enough about it at least to survive? I was still metaphorically shaking my head as we chugged back towards Cairns on the Gulflander and the Savannahlander.
Next: Lonely Rails in the Gulf Country.