Back when I was a university student in Canberra in the nineties Austudy, the government student assistance scheme, would pay me for two trips home per year. The catch was that they would only pay for airfares if the travel time by land was over 38 hours. The ride by train to Rockhampton in Central Queensland was only about 36 hours.
I’d leave the house at around five AM in the freezing Canberra winter morning dark. Though I always thought that journey should begin in the dark, this was too early. Too early for the buses, so somebody would need to drive me to the station, a taxi or a housemate.
Down William Hovell Drive, around the rural back of Canberra overlooking the Molonglo River valley, the land black and without houses, the mountains a dark silhouette. To my left, the blinking hypodermic syringe of Telstra Tower atop Black Mountain.
Arriving at Canberra’s railway station in Kingston, I’d hurry to board, hoping that nobody else was in my window seat, that my seat would actually align with a window and that it wouldn’t be permanently fogged up. For looking outside was my only amusement for the long journey north. That and the case of cassette tapes for my portable cassette player. Not a genuine Sony Walkman, I couldn’t afford that, a bright green Sharp.
I would choose Michael Kamen’s Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, as my music of departure as the train jerked out from the station. In those days it was a locomotive hauled train or a DEB railcar set, colourfully Candy Stripe coloured.
I had left the house too early for breakfast, so I might purchase a ham and cheese croissant from the buffet car’s kiosk or just go without.
The journey to Sydney takes about four and a half hours. It begins very scenically, the line winding above the Molonglo River valley, past golden autumn trees and pine plantations before entering the rolling hills of sheep farms.
We would pull into Sydney’s Central Station with its long platforms gazed down upon by a tall sandstone clock tower, before eleven, giving me around five hours in the city. That was enough time to marvel at the Saturn V rocket engine at the Powerhouse Museum, to grab something to eat at Darling Harbour or to ride a loop to nowhere on the Monorail.
At the time Darling Harbour was more of a down market family venue than the overseas tourist focus of today. It was easy to find an empty table at the upstairs food court and relax and admire the views of the shiny glass, steel and concrete skyscraper city.
My next train was the XPT to Brisbane. At four-twenty we’d chugg off passing first to the west through Strathfield, before turning north up past green manicured gardens and old wealth. The water level run along the Hawkesbury provided more scenery, but by this time it was getting dark.
The crew would come through the cabin collecting meal orders for dinner, handing out laminated strips of coloured paper as tokens of the order.
The crew would announce when each car’s meals were ready over the PA and we would walk to the buffet car and line up to receive our meal, taking it back to our seat to eat.
My favourite was the curried prawns, tiny peeled prawns and vegetables in a curry powder and cornflour sauce served with fried rice.
Years later I discovered that you could buy the same meal, Griff’s Curried Prawns, for much less in the freezer section of the supermarket. By this time I had also discovered, thanks to my Malaysian born wife, what real curries tasted like and Griff’s did not come close.
Invariably, the passenger seated next to me on this fourteen hour plus overnight train ride would be obese and spill over into my side. Despite drinking being forbidden except in the buffet car they would also sneak stubbies under their jacket and race out to smoke at each stop. They stank and they snored.
Meanwhile, I would spend the entire journey shrinking into my seat, staring out the window and listening to my soundtracks and audio recordings scraped off videos where full versions of the music were unavailable.
Before the buffet closed for the night I might sneak off and grab a hot chocolate. It was never great hot chocolate, but it was something to sustain me while I stared out into the darkness and dreamed about the tiny snippets of life revealed by the lights of passing towns and homes.
Early the next morning we arrive at Brisbane’s Roma Street Station. I have to hurry as it is a tight connection for my next train, barely enough time to brush my teeth and shave in the station bathroom.
The way back is more leisurely and I would order a selection of dishes from the Chinese takeaway in the station food court.
My final train was probably my favourite, the clean and modern electric Spirit of Capricorn up to Rockhampton. Better still was that it had a 1-2 seat configuration, meaning I could get a window seat to myself if I was lucky.
There is a bulkhead painting facing me and the air inside the cabin is cool and fresh, despite the tropical humidity outside. The only exception is when we stop at Bundaberg and the sickly sweet stench of the sugar refinery enters the cabin.
I nod off now and then, buy sandwiches from the trolley that passes through. We pass parallel to the coast, but far away enough that there are no ocean views. The landscape outside is often harsh and dry. It is not my land or colours, but a place I was transplanted to. I prefer the south, but this is where my family have settled.
Thirty-six hours after I had set out in darkness, so my journey ends, pulling into the long sheltered fluorescent lit platform at Rockhampton. Two days of my holiday have already passed, but by the end of it I will be eager to have completed the return journey.
I’m not sure I would be willing to repeat the entire experience again today, at least not in one go. Some parts no longer run. There’s no more train line to Murwillumbah on the way back, past Byron Bay with its raucous station bar late at night. The Rockhampton train has been replaced by a faster tilt-train that made me feel queasy last time I rode it. The Canberra train is now an Xplorer rail car limited to a single trip a day. Both the Xplorer and the XPT are soon to be replaced by new rollingstock.
I bought a pack of Griff’s Curried Prawns not so long ago when I was travelling and only had a microwave in the motel room. They’re edible, but thirty years later, perhaps like the trains, my expectations and experiences have grownand what was once acceptable is now simply disappointing.
Update 27/04/2022: It has been pointed out to me that the Canberra Xplorer is back to three trips each way per day, which is fantastic to see.