Being able to travel by train outside of the daily commute is so diminished in this country that it has become somewhat of a novelty. Such was true in August 2014 when I travelled from Brisbane to Cairns with my friends Chris and Tim on The Sunlander (a now extinct service replaced by a diesel Tilt Train in January 2015).
It was mid-August 2014 and the three of us were staying in a hotel next to Roma Street Station, Brisbane. We definitely could have done without the 2am wakeup call when the buildings fire alarm went into full panic mode, but these things happen. Apparently.
Eagerly we arrived at the station towing our luggage to see our train waiting for us with locomotives 2152 and 2471 at the head of the train. Our train consisted of 14 passenger carriages, a baggage van, a power van, a staff carriage and two motorail wagons on the rear. We had reserved berths 7, 8 and 9 in Car G and we quickly found our cabin to deposit our luggage before finding a good spot in the nearby club car.
The full consist for those playing at home was as follows: Locomotives 2152 and 2471, MBC1458 (baggage car), MSC1469 (staff car), LDC1936 (Coral Cay Restaurant Car), MCD1518 (Club Car), MAS1500 (Sleeping Car A – W Saville Kent), MAS1492 (Sleeping Car B – Matthew Flinders), MAS1489 (Sleeping Car C – Robert Ballard), MAS1488 (Sleeping Car D), LAR1903 (Sleeping Car E), MBS1472 (Sleeping Car F), MBS/C1486 (Sleeping Car G), MDC1461 (Buffet Car), MCC1503 (Club Car – Tropics), LBL1880 (Sitting Car H), LBL1929 (Sitting Car I), LBL1931 (Sitting Car J), QFB1998 (Power Van), DSOP43180, DSOP43181 (motorail cars, permanently coupled pair).
Twelve hours after leaving Brisbane and having had both a hot lunch and dinner in the adjacent dining car, it was time to turn in. There is something about riding on a “proper overnight train” that just can’t be replicated with modern rolling stock (which is often more akin to airline accommodation than proper rail travel). I’m sure we stopped at multiple stations through the night but it went unnoticed by this particular passenger who only awoke once the sun had begun to lighten the sky outside.
Showering on a moving train is definitely an experience for the ages. I now know what my bottle of water feels like when it falls out of my bag and rolls down some stairs. Half the time you’re washing yourself and the other half of the time you’re bracing yourself on a wall as the bogie immediately underneath you bounces over some points or a hole in the track or some other seemingly intentionally placed inconvenience. I’m just grateful we beat the rush and didn’t have to risk running out of hot water!
A few stops along the line later we finally arrived into Cairns mid-afternoon. Having spent about thirty-one hours on the train it was both a relief to finally alight with our luggage but also a bittersweet moment as this was to be the final (in my case only) trip we would take on this train owing to its imminent demise a few months later.
Whilst in Cairns we shot the Kuranda tourist train consist returning to the depot, an ex-Tasmanian Emu Bay Railway 11 Class locomotive shunting cement wagons and went hunting for local cane trains before we returned to town for dinner and another night’s sleep.
It was Tim’s birthday, and it was particularly amusing walking down the main street of Cairns looking at crowded restaurants full of happy people enjoying all kinds of meals from all aspects of the culinary spectrum whilst Tim (a notably fussy eater) managed to pooh-poo every single menu we passed. I can’t even remember what we finally ended up eating for dinner after all that. Probably pizza. I couldf say something about simple pleasures, I suppose!
Regrettably we found the hotel had slightly erred in their booking – three blokes and two beds. A quick call to reception remedied the fact as they agreed to send someone upstairs to unfold the sofa bed and dress it appropriately. Not keen to wait, Tim dove into the bathroom to jettison all of the delicious train food he’d consumed over the past few hours. Chris and I did our part by turning the TV to an episode of The Simpsons and turning the volume up. Way up. The first sign of trouble was the noxious cloud emanating from the underside of the bathroom door. By the time Tim had finished his business, the poor housekeeping worker had arrived and was making the soft bed up. I’ve never seen someone make a bed that fast in my life!
The next morning, we managed to catch The Sunlander departing on the return journey to Brisbane before it was time to throw Tim out at the airport. Not because we were sick of him, but so he could catch his flight home to Newcastle. Chris and I would go on to follow the railway line south back to Mackay over the next three days before returning to Sydney. That in itself was an adventure, but I’ll always treasure that train journey the most. The train itself was merely what put the three of us together for that weekend, it was the company and the memories I’ll treasure the most.
Happy Birthday Tim. You’re forever in our hearts.