Travel writer Tim Richards shares six things he learned from his very long rail journey from Far North Queensland to WA
In early 2018, I decided to shake up my travel writing career by setting out on a huge journey by rail around Australia, from Far North Queensland to south-west Western Australia. It was a vast undertaking, involving seven long-distance trains (with an eighth as an epilogue), at various levels of comfort, along with side-trips in the cities between them.
As I gathered the material for my book, Heading South, this is what I learned from the experience:
- Australia is big. We all know this intellectually, but as most of us fly across the continent these days, our idea of a long time in transit is four hours. You can’t really grasp the size of the place till you’ve left Adelaide late one evening on the Indian Pacific to spend most of the following day in the featureless expanse of the Nullarbor Plain – at one point riding for hours upon the longest stretch of dead-straight rail track in the world: all 478 kilometres of it.
- Australia is sparsely peopled. Obviously we have sizeable cities, and my rail trek took me through all five mainland state capitals. But in between, it was remarkable how uncrowded our nation is. Hours would go by in allegedly populated regions – along Queensland’s sugar-cane coast, or through WA’s wheat belt – where I’d hardly see anyone at all. Even the towns I passed through seemed near-deserted. It really is a very roomy continent, sparsely settled.
- Strangers are friendly. Because I was writing a book, I made myself extra open to the strangers I met along the way. I’m usually welcoming of random chats, but this time particularly so. What I found was that people responded positively to any overture that might lead to a conversation, in the cities as much as in the countryside. It might be a cliché, but Australians really are easy-going, friendly types as a whole.
- Strangers are interesting. With a random sampling of fellow passengers on a six-week rail trip, you might expect a few quirky characters, but I found quite a lot of them. As you’ll discover in Heading South, there was a bloke who collects bricks, two young men who spent their time at sea killing crown-of-thorns starfish, an elderly Australian-American whose parents met when US troops arrived in Brisbane in World War II, and a young German economist who lived in Bangkok and helped identify a cockatoo that flew past the train. Best of all was the woman who sat next to me on a short but necessary flight and announced she ran a dog refuge in Bali. You couldn’t ask for better material.
- Australian history is interesting. When I was young, people used to claim that Australia had no history, or, if it did, that it was boring. But I’ve never thought that was the case, and my journey proved me right. On the way around Australia by rail, I learned about General Douglas MacArthur’s near-dictatorial rule over wartime Brisbane, Sydney’s former railway for the dead, relics of the explorers Burke and Wills, the mysteries of French Island, and the great works and tragic end of C.Y. O’Connor, WA’s railway engineer supreme. And everywhere I went, there were the stories of the local First Nations peoples, sometimes long-ignored but never absent, waiting to be listened to – from the Yandruwandha people who saved a member of a doomed nineteenth-century expedition, to the forging of a positive new urban Aboriginal identity via a major housing development in present-day Redfern, Sydney.
6. Trains are the best way to travel. I didn’t really need to be convinced of this, but my long journey reinforced it. Rather than being crammed into seat 39K of a plane and seeing nothing but clouds, I was swept through Australia at surface level: always moving fast enough to feel an observer, but close enough to be involved. In this era of cheap air travel, we don’t make enough of our long-distance passenger trains… and given their potential to help battle the threat of climate change, perhaps we should.
Heading South is published by Fremantle Press, available from August 2021.
If you’d like to hear Tim speak about his trip come along to one of these upcoming events! Join Tim’s sundowner event on Tuesday 21 September with Dymocks Garden City at the RAAFA Club in Bull Creek, tickets are $22 and are available to purchase at TryBooking. Celebrate the launch of Tim’s book at Readings State Library, Melbourne on Wednesday 29 September, secure your spot at TryBooking, or head along to Hoppers Crossing Library on Thursday 7 October as he regales you with stories from his epic 7,000 km rail journey around Australia. This event is free to attend and tickets are available through Eventbrite.