Brisbane to Cairns: The romance of rail

By Simon Kay

Simon Kay takes the slow route by train from Brisbane to tropical Cairns.

The Sunlander train travelling through Queensland. Photo / Supplied
The Sunlander train travelling through Queensland. Photo / Supplied

The transition from plane to train underlined just how much the nature of travel has changed. On my flight to Brisbane, almost everyone is focused on the screen in front of them rather than the people beside them. The plane is a sea of headphones and silence.

A few hours later, aboard the Sunlander train leaving Brisbane for Cairns, the contrast could scarcely be greater.

Gone are the gadgets and, instead, people are talking to each other, swapping stories and sharing a laugh in a convivial and relaxed atmosphere.

This is travelling as it used to be, when the journey was as important as the destination.

At nearly 1700km, Cairns is a deceptively long way from Brisbane. Melbourne is closer. This trip is almost the equivalent of travelling the length of New Zealand (Bluff is a 2100km drive from Cape Reinga).

Travelling that far overland could be a chore. The Sunlander ensures it's enjoyable.

Evolving from a steam-powered service that first ran in 1924, the Sunlander started in 1953 and, four years ago, the Society of International Railway Travellers named it as one of the world's top 25 rail journeys Departing three times a week in both directions, the journey takes 30-31 hours.

I was travelling in Queenslander Class, introduced on the Sunlander's 50th anniversary as a premium, all-inclusive class for those who like extra comforts. This class takes in the train's front three carriages, the first of which is the dining car. All meals are provided and the food is outstanding. Every multi-course meal features fresh local produce and is complemented by an extensive list of Queensland wines. The chef works wonders within his kitchen's tiny confines.

Next comes the club car, complete with a bar and resident musician. Most of the socialising outside of meals takes place here. Passengers enjoy a chat and a drink as they watch the countryside go by.

It was in these front two carriages that I got to know some of my fellow passengers. There was Gerry and Linda from San Dimas, Los Angeles, who met more than 40 years ago when he backed into her car; Brian, a father of four sons who runs a bowling alley at Surfers Paradise; and Greg, an Australian who lived in New Zealand for 18 months and met his wife while working as a barman in Te Anau.

Passengers are, of course, free to socialise as much or as little as they want. Some on our trip preferred to spend most of their time in their private rooms in the third carriage. Each room in Queenslander Class is a twin berth, containing a sink and a seat, which the crew convert into a bunk-style bed each evening.

Toilets and a shower are at the end of this carriage. Each passenger receives a robe, slippers and toiletries to keep.

With a trip of this duration, you can spend hours in the dining and club cars and still have ample time to relax in your room and admitre the view.

For a New Zealander, the Queensland landscape is certainly different. What stands out most are kangaroos, houses on stilts, sugarcane plantations and farmland remarkably devoid of livestock.

The Sunlander passes through countless Queensland settlements, great and small. My favourite was Rollingstone (population: 207), albeit pronounced differently from the one-time greatest rock'n'roll band in the world.

The train stops at several larger locales, such as Townsville, but long enough only for a brisk walk up and down the platform. Stepping out of the air-conditioned carriages provides a good gauge of the rising humidity as you progress north.

For those who prefer not to rush their travel, the Sunlander is a delightfully relaxed way to get to Cairns. For those with the money to spare, Queenslander Class makes it even more of a trip to remember, combining gastronomic, visual and social treats all the way.

On track

Cairns is the gateway to many attractions in North Queensland. A trip to the village of Kuranda is high on the to-do list, taking the Kuranda Scenic Rail one way and the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway the other.

The Cairns-Kuranda railway was built during 1882-91 and is considered a great engineering feat. Hundreds of men were employed and several lost their lives building a line which includes 15 tunnels and 37 bridges.

The Kuranda Scenic Rail is a spectacular journey which takes in World Heritage-protected rainforest, steep ravines and picturesque waterfalls.

Spanning 7.5km, Skyrail has six-person gondola cabins that glide metres above the canopy, providing stunning views from the rainforest to the Coral Sea. Two stops during the 90-minute trip feature walkways, lookouts and guided boardwalk tours.

Next to the Skyrail terminal in Cairns is the Tjapukai Aboriginal Village, where the attractions include learning how to throw spears and boomerangs and how to play the didgeridoo.

There are 600 tours out of Cairns daily and many take in the Great Barrier Reef or nearby tropical rainforests.

The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest and can be explored by diving, snorkelling, sailing, cruising and island hopping.

North Queensland's rainforests are home to a third of Australia's mammal species, a quarter of its frogs, a third of its freshwater fish and almost half its birds. The famed Daintree Rainforest near Port Douglas, an hour's drive north of Cairns, contains species which have existed for 150 million years. At Cape Tribulation, it extends to the sea and Great Barrier Reef, the only place in the world where two World Heritage sites meet.

Closer to Cairns 26km of uncrowded beaches north of the city are perfect for relaxing. A great way to wind down after a day exploring is dinner at the award-winning restaurant overlooking the Cairns marina at the Shangri-La Hotel.

Cairns has an adventure festival which runs this year from May 27 to June 4.
For more on Queensland click here.

TRAVELLERS' TIPS

* One-way Queenslander Class fares are A$859 (twin share) or A$1288.50 (sole use). Further back on the train there are twin share and single berth cabins available for A$479, triple-share berth for A$340, and economy seats for A$265.

* Meals are not included for those outside Queenslander Class but food can be bought from a buffet car.

* Save up to 25 per cent by booking U-Save fares. New Zealand senior citizens can also get discounts of up to 15 per cent. For more information, see queenslandrail.com.

Simon Kay was a guest of the Sunlander and Tourism Queensland.

- Herald on Sunday

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