While The Ghan and the Indian Pacific had a stranglehold on high-end train travel in Australia, their new sibling – Great Southern – has made quite the splash.
I think I am in love with baby emus. I realise this when sitting in a gorgeous green field in Halls Gap, enjoying a delicious meal and being entertained by a talented duo, belting out popular songs against this wondrous backdrop. I stroll away from the scattered tables and chairs and come across a family of emus, the dad leading his babies around for an afternoon graze. The fluffy chicks are ridiculously beautiful and win my heart on the spot.
We are in Halls Gap, in the Grampians National Park (Gariwerd), on the first stop of the inaugural journey of the Great Southern train, running from Adelaide to Brisbane on a two-night, three-day trip, with the reverse trip covering three nights and four days with different activities.
The Great Southern fills the gap when The Ghan stops running over the hot summer months, with 16 departures over December and January.
When we board with great fanfare at Adelaide’s Parklands Terminal, our serpent-like steed stretches 711 metres with its 28 carriages powered by two orange locomotives. I love my Gold Cabin, which has a long seat that converts to a bed at night – there is another top bunk should you have two people – storage for what you need for the length of your trip, power points to charge phones and batteries, and a small bathroom that has a shower and toilet. I sort myself out, then sit down to enjoy the show out the cabin window – the star being the changing countryside as we leave Adelaide’s suburbs behind, passing farmland, painted silos and rail crossings with drivers keen to see this new train in their corner of the world.
The train creaks to a standstill at Stawell station, and we offload onto buses for the trip to Halls Gap. Once here, there are a number of options for train passengers to do, including a tour to Boroka Lookout which will showcase the sheer rugged beauty of The Grampians, a walking history tour of Halls Gap, and the one I choose, a walk to the Venus Baths. Walking with our guide, we see a mob of emus waiting to cross the road, and many kangaroos – some carrying joeys – lit golden by the afternoon sun. The Venus Baths are pools that have been gouged into the rock over centuries, with the walk into the gully with its rock walls and ancient trees a breath of fresh air. We stroll back to Icon Central Halls Gap where we tuck into a feast, accompanied by fine wines.
Rolling on to Canberra
We rock and roll into the night after a few drinks at the bar – the bar staff make a mean Aperol Spritz – and arrive at Yass Station in the morning ready for the one hour coach ride into our nation’s capital. We all visit Parliament House, thoroughly enjoying the short tour around this magnificent building. We learn that there are 11 kilometres of hallways, 2700 clocks – so the parliamentarians always know the time so as not to miss a session – 17 courtyard areas and a jail cell. We go into the Senate and view where the action happens, and upstairs, see the paintings of nearly all the prime ministers – nearly, because more recent leaders have not had theirs done as yet. My favourite thing in the building is a tapestry hanging in the reception hall where we have lunch. It took 13 women weavers two and a half years to complete and was based on a painting Arthur Boyd did especially for it, showcasing the Australian bush around his beloved Shoalhaven.
After the visit, we board various buses and head off on a number of different tours, including the National War Memorial, which I choose. It is not long enough and I make a note to go back as soon as I get the chance. Most poignant is the Hall of Memory set by the Pool of Reflection, and it is impossible not to be moved as you walk past the names of more than 102,000 soldiers who have given their lives in the service of this country. Inside the Hall, is the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, and it gives me shivers as I think about what they might have gone through.
Heading north to Coffs Harbour
The trip from Canberra to Coffs Harbour takes us from the interior to the coast, and once again there are a number of tours to choose from. We stop at Urunga to drop off those who have chosen the Boardwalk to Beach excursion, then carry on to the home of the Big Banana. I choose to do the Coffs Explorer tour, which takes us up, and up some more to Sealy Lookout. On the edge of a rainforest, there are a number of walks to do but we only have time to walk out on the Forest Sky Pier, a viewing platform jutting out from the hillside overlooking the coast. Back in the coach, we head back to the Harbourside Markets by the Coffs Harbour Jetty. These markets are held every Sunday morning and offer a big range of produce and products from local makers and growers, much of it sustainable, ethical and local. I pick up some jewellery made from plastic recovered from the sea, some zero waste skincare products and some Australian-made baby clothes. There are a lot of food stalls – everything from burgers to Syrian food, as well as great coffee from the café by the breakwall.
I stroll out onto the old jetty, and as I watch some young girls digging up the courage for their first jump off it, it reminds me of my first jump way back on what was an annual pilgrimage for my family to Coffs. There are people fishing, swimming, building sandcastles on the shore, and walking on the breakwall, and as I look back to shore I spy the train lines where my dad used to put pennies on the track just before the train would come through, showing me the flattened metal afterwards.
With these memories stirring my heart, I realise it is time to get back on the bus for the last leg of the train journey from Coffs Harbour to Brisbane.
End of the line in Brisbane
Once back on the Great Southern, We head towards Queensland, going through tunnels, including the Heritage-listed Cougal tunnel, which is a ‘spiral’ tunnel – actually three of them – circling around on itself. The train buffs on board are in the hallways – cameras in hand, to snap shots of the front of the train as it turns.
We have one final experience on the train – lunch. And it must be said that the dining experience on the train is absolutely incredible. As I am in a Gold cabin – the Platinum cabins are the most luxe offering – I dine in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant, a throwback to the days when opulence ruled on the tracks. We indulge in cocktails and are blown away by the exceptional breakfasts, two-course lunches and three-course dinners – with a variety of options – complemented by local South Australian wines. I love the use of native ingredients like saltbush, lemon myrtle, bush tomatoes, blood oranges and quandongs.
For breakfast, I loved Riverina orange crepes with blood orange syrup maple and cinnamon cream, and on another day a chocolate banana slice with blueberries and lemon yoghurt. My favourite dinners were Grilled Murray Bridge pork loin served with wasabi mashed potato with a dessert of Murray River salted caramel ice cream, and on another evening, Junee lamb rump with minted pea puree, black garlic aioli warm potato and grilled summer veggie salad, with a dessert of choc hazelnut tart with velvet chocolate sauce and double cream.
After yet another divine meal, we all head to our cabins to pack and prepare for our arrival, and I watch out the window as we move from countryside to civilisation, before pulling into the station in Brisbane.
The Great Southern had carried us 2885 kilometres through three states, and with each kilometre, my love of train travel was cemented further.
It is a great way to go.
Other great train trips in Australia you can do with Journey Beyond:
The Ghan – this train has a 90-year history and offers expeditions between Adelaide and Darwin. It resumed operations on August 30 2020.
The Indian Pacific – an icon of Australia, this train runs from coast to coast, from Sydney all the way to Perth. The Indian Pacific will resume once borders reopen .
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