Forget flotation tanks, massages and forest bathing — long-distance train travel is the best relaxation therapy known to man, woman or child. After three days on the inaugural journey of the Great Southern from Adelaide to Brisbane, I now totally understand.
The rhythmic rocking of the train as we journeyed 2885km past golden fields of wheat, stands of eucalyptus, wild bush, picturesque green farmland, big bustling cities and small country towns was one of the most calming experiences of my life.
Our rail adventure started amid much fanfare as this new trip was launched. Champagne glasses clinked and cameras flashed to a soundtrack of Aussie classics played acoustically (Cold Chisel has never sounded so gentle).
The Great Southern will run over December and January (The Ghan, operated by the same company, is usually on a break at this time due to extreme temperatures) so book early to avoid disappointment - it's an outstanding voyage in every way.
On board the Great Southern
The first day was magical, full of the romance of every train film I've ever seen. Carriages were furnished with that elegance and style. Leather sofas, brass detailing, dark wood tables with oaky tops and plush patterned carpets adorned the lounge bar. The dining car was equally opulent, with monogrammed glass separators, crisp white table cloths and Queen Anne-style detail between booths. It has the allure and charm of a bygone era.
We spent the day chugging steadily from Adelaide to the Grampians through varying scenery, passing sheep, cows and the odd kangaroo — who didn't seem even remotely impressed as all 711m and 28 carriages of us whizzed past.
In sharp contrast, we also passed intermittent train enthusiasts (or "gunzels" as they are called in these parts) with their long lenses and tripods excitedly catching their first glimpse of this locomotive newcomer.
Pulling into Stawell Station at 4pm, I became aware of the logistics of a train this size. You can't just park up this baby — it blocks roads and takes over a small town. Offload was swift so the train could move on and meet us after an al fresco picnic at Halls Gap.
And what a dinner it was. Champagne, canapes and live music in the shadow of stunning — uniquely Australian — rock formations rising from the western Victoria plains.
We took a walk to Venus Baths to see its beautiful sandstone shelves; some opted for a coach to the Boroka Lookout to gaze out over the magical peaks, hazy valleys and forested slopes of the Grampians; and others just stayed put and soaked up the atmosphere before we all reconvened for an exquisite barbecue.
This dinner, like all meals on or off the train, incorporated local and indigenous ingredients and wherever possible, regional wines. I was in awe of the ever-smiling train staff who retained their balance — and their humour — while serving on a perpetually moving floor.
A quick stop in Canberra
On arrival in Canberra the next morning, we had the choice of a food and vineyard-based day in Murrumbateman wine region or to head into the capital. I opted for the latter and after a fascinating tour of the Australian Parliament — did you know there are 2700 clocks in the building? — we were treated to yet another magnificent lunch, this time in Parliament's Grand Hall.
Then it was off the National Gallery of Australia, where we spent an enthralling afternoon checking out Australian and international art, including some extremely moving indigenous installations, dotty fabulousness from the ever-eccentric Yayoi Kusama and a very famous Jackson Pollock work that cost the gallery A$1.3 million dollars in 1973, causing huge controversy.
The last day of our itinerary arrived far too soon. Two days had passed in a blissful haze of eating, drinking, chatting and exploring, punctuated with meditative moments of simply staring out my window, watching Australia go by.
Our last stop before Brisbane was the Coffs Harbour area. I chose an excursion that involved a boardwalk stroll with a local Aboriginal guide who gave us an intriguing insight into what this area (Urunga) means to the local Gumbaynggirr tribe.
The clear waters were still and abundant with darting, playful marine life which contrasted perfectly with the wild surf beyond the break. We learned about Picket Hill, the dreaming site, and how our guide had fond memories of learning about tides, the moon and fishing when he was young; we even licked mangrove leaves to taste the salt like they did. The vista was so much more meaningful when we understood its connection and cultural significance to the original guardians of this land.
After a short coach ride to Coffs Harbour, we spent an easy morning at the seaside markets and swimming at the white-sand beach. The train staff turned it on again with a beachside setup of tropical fruit, cool drinks, tables, chairs, beanbags, towels, games and beach cricket; it looked like something straight out of a magazine photo shoot.
As we pulled into Brisbane after one last lazy afternoon on the train, there was definitely an air of sadness. Over three days, friendships had formed between passengers from younger trainspotters to retirees.
What an incredible journey — if only I could bottle and sell that unique combination of a gently rocking carriage, beautiful scenery and time to contemplate life.
The Great Southern runs until Thursday, January 30, 2020. The next season is December 4 2020 to January 28, 2021.
Prices start at A$1649