As train journeys go, there aren’t any snow-capped mountains, fields of sugar canes, or tropical rainforests to see when you travel west aboard Spirit of the Outback… this trip charms instead with an upfront view of Dorothea McKellar’s ‘Sunburnt Country’, with mango-coloured sunsets, wide open spaces and good old Queensland bush hospitality.
Snaking its way over more than 1,320 kilometres in 24 hours, a trip aboard Spirit of the Outback is more than just getting from A to B (though you will pass the towns of Alpha and Beta). It is a glimpse into the beginnings of Queensland as a ‘state’ – the railway, pastoralism and indigenous Australian culture – and all of it explored from the air-conditioned comfort of the train and the rest stops at tiny towns along the line.
With twice weekly departures from Brisbane on Tuesdays and Saturdays, this train ride follows the Queensland coast north to Rockhampton, before heading west to chase the setting sun past Emerald and Jericho to its final destination, Longreach.
The train itself is specially-themed to capture the essence of outback Queensland, with iconic names like the ‘Tuckerbox Dining Car’ reminiscent of days without refrigerators, and ‘Captain Starlight’s Lounge’ named after the infamous cattle thief, Harry Redford.
The Tuckerbox on the Spirit holds more than just your essential flour, salt and sugar – a veritable feast of Aussie delights are offered to refresh weary travellers. Hearty Outback Lamb stew rubs shoulders with Garlic Prawns on the menu, washed down with none other than Queensland’s famous XXXX brew.
It’s also not unheard of for real Aussie characters to settle themselves in the Stockman’s Bar, pull out a harmonica, or entertain the tourists with yarns and tall stories – and it is this hospitality that has made this iconic journey popular with tourists from around the globe.
As the journey continues west, Spirit of the Outback ventures through the heritage towns of Emerald and Barcaldine and through the lesser known towns of Bluff, with its stunning sandstone formations, and Dingo, in the heart of Brigalow country, to the black-soiled coal town of Blackwater, where 15,000 tonne coal locomotives whiz by with their precious cargos bound for market.
Yet once the train leaves Emerald and the coalfield rail track behind, travellers enter a different realm of the journey – the clickety clack on the outback rails gives the full experience of what train travel was about in a bygone era, in this land of contradictions and contrasts.
Along the line, the Queensland equivalent of America’s Wild, Wild West, Bogantungan and the stunning Drummond Range, are framed to full effect in the train’s windows. Building the railway here was an epic feat of construction, and still today the train rarely seems to travel in a straight line, as it snakes its way through the red soil rocks of the ranges, bound for the towns of Alpha and Beta.
A short ‘whistle’ stop in Alpha gives guests the chance to stretch their legs, explore the heritage rail station and local murals, and possibly sample a famous Alpha meat pie from Snow’s Bakery, before the train departs for artesian country and Barcaldine – dubbed the Shamrock of the West because of the Irish navvies who built the rail line in the 1800s.
This leg of the journey heralds the beginning of the desert uplands and ‘Big Sky Country’, as the locals call it, where trigger-happy travellers can snap the iconic windmills against the dusty horizon. As Spirit of the Outback makes its way towards a long stretch of the Thomson River and a town aptly named Longreach, the journey ends, but the spirit of the trip continues.
Travellers say their goodbyes to staff and new-found friends, busily swap phone numbers and prepare themselves for a busy round of Outback sightseeing at the region’s iconic attractions – the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame, the Longreach School of Distance Education and the Qantas Founders Outback Museum.
On this journey it’s the rolling motion of the train, the sound of the locomotive horn scattering sheep on the plains, and even better it’s meeting real local characters, who are happy to share a yarn or share something about their lives.
Spirit of the Outback has twice weekly departures from Brisbane on Tuesdays and Saturdays; and from Longreach on Mondays and Thursdays. Extended touring packages are available, offering coach connections to Winton and visits to a host of surrounding attractions, including the Historic Wellshot Hotel, Lark Quarry Dinosaur Footprints, Blackall’s Historical Woolscour and Jacky Howe, the Australian Worker’s Heritage Centre and the Waltzing Matilda Cultural Centre.
Travellers can also combine the relaxation of a rail holiday and the flexibility of a driving holiday with Qr’s Motorail service. Motorail enables travellers to take their car or 4wD with them on spirit of the outback from Brisbane to Longreach or return.