It may not seem like most people’s ideal train journey but David Bowden is game and takes an almost two-day journey to Mount Isa and back
AFTER a restless night sitting upright in a train carriage, I was starting to question my own judgment. It wasn’t just the fact that I had just spent some 21 hours on this westward bound train; it was that after a few lazy hours at my destination, I was going to do the whole journey again in reverse.
I was on a mission. The task had to be completed and I was trying to make the most of what could have been perceived as one big crazy idea. I kept reminding myself that it was only 21 hours there and 21 hours back plus a layover of a few hours; that’s only two days, after all.
PLASTIC SNAKES AND SOUL MATES
My journey on The Inlander train began at Townsville Railway Station in northern Queensland. The platform was mostly deserted as the train departed just after midday for its 977km inland journey to the mining town of Mount Isa.
The beautiful heritage building of the former Townsville Railway Station has ceased to be a functional station, with a new one where I departed from a featureless modern structure with limited facilities.
Like a handful of other travellers who were to become my soul mates on the journey, we had alighted from the plush train from Brisbane a few hours earlier and were now killing time between trains. Sadly, Townsville Station is not a good place to kill time with my only amusement (all of a few seconds) being a sign which informed passengers that the plastic snakes on the platform were to deter birds. Perhaps, the most amusing thing was that there were no snakes or birds.
My research informed me that Townsville was a port for the export of minerals that were railed in from where I was heading.
There were just three carriages behind the diesel loco; one being a combined lounge/staff car and the other two, sitting cars. Sadly, sleeper cars are no longer available on the service. Mercifully, all cars were air conditioned. Without it, the atmosphere would be stifling, especially near Mount Isa where the summer mercury often exceeds 40 degrees Celsius.
Speaking to one of the drivers, who became a passenger after completing his shift, I discovered the train only reached a maximum speed of 80km/hour although on most sections the speed was 60km/hour, while it’s 25km/hour through sidings. High temperatures also affect the train’s speed — it must slow down to 40km/hour when temperatures are high, since it’s travelling on steel sleepers.
I love train drivers as they provide information you wouldn’t normally pick up. It’s a single track all the way to Mount Isa although there are sidings to enable trains to pass. Much of this is straight although there are some twists and turns to keep passengers (all 10 of us!) on the edge of our seats. Other trains on the track mostly haul copper and lead from Mount Isa, fertiliser materials and finished products, to and from Phosphate Hill, with occasional trains transporting livestock.
The crew made available complimentary tablets for us to watch movies during the journey. Decent meals were included in the ticket price. Snacks were available at other times and various beverages were served. Self-service, complimentary tea and coffee were also available in the lounge car which had eight seats and six tables.
Because of the remoteness of this journey through outback Queensland, there was no WiFi and limited mobile phone service. I repeat; NO WiFi!!!!
SCRUBBY FORESTS AND THORNY GRASSLANDS
The Inlander departs Townsville, heads south to Reid River, then southwest to Charters Towers and onto Burra before tracking west to Mount Isa. There are only a handful of stations and the train only stops when passengers are alighting or getting on.
Many rivers were crossed and while most were dry, during the wet season (December to March), the service can be affected by swollen rivers although flood conditions are normally known before the train sets off.
Much of the journey passed farmland or scrubby eucalyptus forests and while without stunning features, it was forever changing. There are few settlements out here and those that are here don’t amount to much.
Our first substantive stop was Charters Towers where we had to wait for a freight train to pass. Gold was discovered here in 1871 and it became Queensland’s second largest city with over 60 hotels and a stock exchange. When the gold was exhausted, a scaled down Charters Towers continued as a regional service centre for the surrounding pastoral properties.
At Pentland, red soil and red-barked eucalyptus trees dotted the landscape while cattle grazed on the sparse grasslands with termite mounds rising high above the plain.
Near Warrigal, the sun slipped below the horizon and at 8pm there was a change of drivers in the darkness of the deserted Hughenden Station. I discovered later that the rocks around here are fossil-rich and include bones of dinosaurs.
During the long evening, we passed Cloncurry which not only has a colourful train history but also has a strong aviation heritage as it is linked to the beginnings of Qantas, Australia’s national airline. Contestants in great continental air races stopped here, it was an American base during World War II and, Australia’s Royal Flying Doctor Service was established here in 1928.
While the local Kalkadoon Aboriginal people lived in this part of the outback well before the Europeans arrived, the area was unknown to the outside world until 1923 when a prospector discovered minerals beside the Leichhardt River. Little did John Campbell Miles know, his discovery led to the development of one of Australia’s largest mines on one of the world’s richest ore deposits.
I became aware of this as the train pulled into Mount Isa Station located immediately opposite Mount Isa Mines. Several tall smoke stacks line the horizon, the tallest being 273m high.
I was so grateful to arrive and to step out into the fresh air and sunshine of outback Australia. Time was not on my side as I had just a few hours as the train was repositioned and refuelled for the return journey. With 21 hours to research Mount Isa, I put into action my well-rehearsed plan.
Outback at Isa is the best place to head for visitors with limited time as there is a mining display, an Outback Botanical Garden, the Mount Isa Regional Art Gallery, and the Hard Times Mine Tour where visitors can explore a mine located 23m underground. Included here is the Riversleigh Fossil Centre Museum (Riversleigh is a Unesco World Heritage Site 350km from Mount Isa and known amongst scientists as one of the world’s richest fossil sites).
While exploring the very pleasant desert gardens and ponds in the grounds of Outback at Isa I was asked if I would like to go on the “fossil tour” which was just about to start. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good fossil, love the company of palaeontologists and become breathless at the mere mention of the Pleistocene era.
It just didn’t seem the right thing to do, what with the little time there was in Mount Isa to spend. Then I remembered passing through Hughenden and reading about dinosaur bones. Besides, I didn’t want to be disrespectful to my enthusiastic hosts so I agreed and I’m glad that I did.
I was the only participant on the tour so I enjoyed the personalised attention offered by amateur fossil fiend Alan Rackham. I don’t think I have met anyone as passionate about a hobby as my guide, who soon had me peering down a microscope at the fossilised remains of a Ghost Bat dating back four million years. Before I could gather my thoughts I was admiring the remains of a Dromornithid; a flightless bird four times bigger than an Emu (the Emu is no slouch in the bird stakes being the world’s third biggest bird after the Ostrich and the Southern Cassowary, but you already knew that).
Dragging myself away, it was time to return to the train, to be greeted by the same crew, and to settle in for the return journey — deja vu all over again.
Great Railway Journeys AUS & NZ
David Bowden is the author of Great Railway Journeys In Australia And New Zealand published by John Beaufoy Publishing of the UK (www.johnbeaufoy.com) and available in Malaysia in November.
Pictures by David Bowden