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Where The Desert Is An Inland Sea

May 5, 2008
Queensland Railway's freight train 7A90 lurches forward 30 metres, then backs up 40, and an hour after departing 50 minutes late, sits 10 metres behind the starting point. And that's a typical itinerary for the 24-hour or more journey from Cairns on the one and only freight train to the Gulf Country. There are eight scheduled stops, but in reality the train makes innumerable halts as it doles out supplies along the way like a modern day cargo cult. I was part of the cult, taking up space in a little-used passenger wagon attached somewhere behind the livestock car.

I could have taken a hint from the hiccupped departure and disembarked before the looney adventure into the remoteness of Australia's outback began. But there was typhoon heading for Cairns and a slow freight train to nowhere seemed preferable to a tropical storm.

The Gulf Country, I soon found, is an endless sea of red dust, picked-clean gold mines and 200,000 acre cattle stations stretching from the Arafura Sea near the Gulf of Carpentaria on Australia's northern coast to the Great Dividing Range. Queensland's better know features like the Great Barrier Reef, cane fields and rainforest are represented on maps with marlins leaping from the sea, kaleidoscopic coral and lush tropical foliage.

The map for the Gulf Country my holiday destination has no glossy tourism photos, just red-stamped paradoxical quotes which do little to lure visitors: "Lakes and water courses rarely contain water unless they are flooded" and "The desert may be an inland sea during the rainy season." Translated, it means there is no water when you need it and when you find it, you'll be stuck.

Probably the 19th century explorer Captain Stokes, who declared the Gulf Country the "plains of Promise", hadn't seen the same map I had. His declaration started the gold rush which lasted until typhoid wiped out the adventurers, leaving the area sparsely populated even today.

The 7A90 is the Gulf Country's lifeline, carrying once-weekly loads of mail, food and building supplies going and rocks, waste paper and wild horses on the return. The train sat like a pariah in the drizzly darkness on the wrong side of the tracks, removed from Queensland Railway's star, the heavily advertised commentary passenger train to Kuranda. If railway staff hadn't denied the existence of the vintage passenger car, I wouldn't have been so determined to find it. I'm told they worry that unprepared travellers will go bonkers mid-journey and demand an airlift to civilization.

Besides Sean, a peroxide-haired salad chef/blues singer from New Zealand and myself, three other passengers wrestled tickets from unwilling staff. As the whistle blew (The first time), a tall, bowlegged ringer with a swag, saddle and tuxedo loped across the track. This textbook Australian was heading for a new job on a station so large they use helicopters, not horses, to herd cattle. Ricky the ringer hung the mysterious tuxedo well away from the swag a multi-layered canvas bedroll that smelled of horses and too many nights under the stars.

"I hunt 'roos, mate," reports Mickey, while Sean prepares a light snack of crudités. Mickey and Jen are from Bourke, as in the Australian term "the Back of Bourke", meaning bush country in the middle of nowhere.

The cook and I were the only ones with no reason for going bush except that we both were tired of rain. A train buff, I wanted to add a vintage, working, not for tourists railway car to my list of trains traveled. The 7A90's original brass hat racks, leather banquettes (attractive, but not for sleeping on while jostling over track) and varnished hardwood panels decorated with sepia photos of previous passengers (all dead, I noted later) added to its appeal.

As the eight scheduled stops and numerous other unexplained halts clicked off, the Gulf Country reared up as an endless ocean of dust replacing postcard Queensland. There is probably no better way to understand the vastness of Australia's bush country than to creep 323 kilometres into the outback on a leisurely-paced train.

It's a casual journey with an accommodating three-person staff viewing the occasional passenger as a welcome diversion on a trip where progress is eked out in fits and starts while waiting for flood waters to subside, track to be replaced and rubble removed from the path.

While waiting for a bridge to be repaired, we're dropped almost at the door of a bush pub that appears out of nowhere. In towns like Mt Surprise (and surprise-there's no mountain in sight), pubs are the hub of outback life. Regulars claim reserved seats at the bar. They tell anyone who cares to hear, and often those who don't, about the boom days of the mines. Now the only fossicking they do is in their pockets for beer money.

After the town of Mareeba on the flat-topped Atherton Tablelands, it's all bush country. Despite a whistle blowing periodically throughout the night, screeching wheels and a searchlight sweeping the tracks, the dawdling pace allows us to sneak up on animals streaking toward eery ghost gums with incandescent bark glowing in the moonlight. When surprised, the animals send up a cacophony more often heard in a zoo at feeding time.

Kangaroos and wallabies bouncing across the track spark the interest of the hunter and his missus. Exotic birds like galahs and cockatoos and bush turkeys wing away in clouds of soft-hued designer colours of pink and grey. Rare black cockatoos are a common sight.

The technicolour red and gold sighn of Einslagh's pub is a welcome beacon after 270 kilometres of scrub. The Copperfield River, with banks guarded by supposedly gregarious freshwater crocodiles, sluices past the tavern. The ringer disappears here in a cloud of dust, tuxedo in hand, in a hurry to get 80 kilometres away just in time to make the annual station B&S ball, black tie optional. That's Bachelor and Spinster, an outback institution that gets far-flung singles together for serious partying.

From Einslagh, the train arcs along wide curves winding through the craggy Newcastle Range where track is suspended from sheer rock faces. Thick forest is lit by a blur and white headlight, creating a theatre set of cumulus tree canopy in silhouette. When the train grinds to a halt 70 kilometres later, no one expects it to be Forsyth, the end of the line, where a huge meal, kept warm in the kitchen of the Goldfields Tavern, waits.

The sound of furiously whinnying brumbies, wild horses of the outback, signals the start of the return journey. Ringers whistle and snap lassos to herd the animals into freight cars.

With no major bridges washed away and goods delivered, there's little diversion on the return journey except for the same pubs with the same pies and beer delivered the day before. After 60 or so hours the 7A90 leaves the Gulf Country, where the desert may be an inland sea, and pulls into Cairns where the skies are sunny again.
About the Author
Truman Tyler is the professional freelance writer. He's also the webmaster of Kornup.com
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