Longreach via Spirit of the Outback: Into the wild, wild west

Spirit of the Outback departs Brisbane for Longreach twice weekly.
Spirit of the Outback departs Brisbane for Longreach twice weekly.

"We'd left Longreach on a sunny day. In the two and a half hours to Barcaldine, there was a huge rainstorm. The creeks flooded, we could go neither forward nor back, and we were stuck there for two and a half days."

Anyone doubting the Outback still offers adventure should talk to Mark Lawrence, service technician aboard the Spirit of the Outback train linking Brisbane to Longreach.

As we sit in the Shearers Rest, the train's first class bar car, Lawrence recounts his most memorable journey aboard the train.

"It was an adventure," he continues. "Everyone had a great old time! We had plenty of food and drink, and plenty of frivolity. And they had a karaoke machine in the pub across the road. It was the best fun."

It sounds like a great travel yarn you could spin out forever. Though it's not one I'm likely to experience myself, given the drought that's been gripping Longreach for the past few years.

Every cloud – or lack of cloud – has a silver lining, however. The parched weather has forced the owners of cattle stations to diversify into tourism, resulting in some great experiences for travellers.

That's all down the line, though, as we traverse more than 1300 kilometres from Brisbane along a railway that opened up the Outback in the 19th century; first north to Rockhampton, then west to the wide open grasslands.

It takes 25 hours to reach Longreach by rail, but the Spirit of the Outback is a memorable way to do it.

My first class sleeper cabin is compact but comfortable. During daylight hours it contains an armchair, concealed at night beneath a single bed which faces the direction of travel.

Though tight, the space is well-organised: in addition to the chair and bed there's a drop-down sink, a narrow wardrobe, a luggage rack and a small cupboard.

As with a cruise, social interaction is a key part of a long-distance train journey, and the bar car's alcoves aid conversation between fellow passengers. The colour scheme here is simple: brown and bone and black, with a sepia image of horsemen at one end.

The adjoining Tuckerbox restaurant car is similarly colour-coded, but more eccentrically decorated. The dividers between table booths are each topped by metal frames containing livestock brands of famous cattle and sheep stations, such as Bowen Downs, Wellshot and Isis Downs.

First class sleeper on the Spirit of the Outback Train.

First class sleeper on the Spirit of the Outback Train.

Above the tables there's a curve of corrugated iron, a reminder of rural Australia's favourite building material. The effect is that of a quirky Outback-themed eatery. Tacky or fun? I'm going with the latter.

The onboard menu is constructed from locally-sourced ingredients as far as possible, and it's capably presented fare that resembles the output of a decent pub.

There's a vegetarian option for dinner (a fairly bland cheese tortellini), but otherwise it's a meaty selection: beef, lamb or pork. The standouts are the desserts, particularly the mango and macadamia panna cotta – combining two great Queensland products and attractively presented in a tall glass.

Tuckerbox dining car, on the Spirit of the Outback Train. Photo: Picasa

Tuckerbox dining car, on the Spirit of the Outback Train. Photo: Picasa

After a reasonably good sleep, I wake early to use the carriage's communal shower before a queue develops. Then, after breakfast, I sit in my cabin's chair and watch the landscape slip by.

We've left the coast well behind and have begun our westward trek. Out the window it's greens and reddish-browns against a bright blue sky: with stands of gum trees in dry-looking soil, and off to the south the lofty Blacktown Tableland.

The hours slip by, and about noon we start to ascend the Drummond Range. The railway was particularly difficult to construct through this landscape, winding up slopes and through gaps. The train slows down to navigate this stretch, creaking and groaning dramatically as it makes the grade.

The Stockman's Hall of Fame. Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland

The Stockman's Hall of Fame. Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland

Late in the afternoon the train reaches Barcaldine, the town where the train was once so memorably stranded. No such luck today, but there's sufficient time here for passengers to visit the prime local attraction: the Tree of Knowledge.

This ghost gum in front of the station was the open-air headquarters of the 1891 shearers' strike, and became an icon of the Australian trade union movement. Though the tree died in 2006, its trunk has been preserved and a huge memorial canopy erected above it. It's a particularly impressive sight after dark, when it's lit by green lights.

Also in Barcaldine is the Australian Workers Heritage Centre, a museum dedicated to everyday people's working lives; and the Red Shed, a creative hub which sells artwork by local Aboriginal people. Outside the town, the Lara Wetlands is a beautiful place in which to picnic and bathe in hot artesian water.

Longreach sunsets are a sight to behold. Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland

Longreach sunsets are a sight to behold. Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland

But for the moment it's onward by rail to Longreach, which we reach just as the sunlight is fading on the horizon.

The next morning, I switch to transport of a bumpier type: a stagecoach. The Kinnon family, owner of Nogo station, has branched out into accommodation and tourist attractions, and this is its star act.

After clambering into a pair of replica stagecoaches, we're taken along the original Cobb & Co mail route in the direction of Windorah. As we travel, we're told the story of Freeman Cobb and his pioneering public transport.

Cobb and Co stagecoach in full flight.

Cobb and Co stagecoach in full flight.

The ride includes a moment of play-acting between the drivers of the two coaches. Their conversation about an approaching storm is the prompt for a short gallop back towards the town.

Rather than being a touch Disney, it's an excellent experience that gives passengers a taste of what it must have been like to ride in these contrivances – except we only have to put up with the dusty, bumpy ride for 45 minutes, not days.

Another dose of Outback showmanship is the regular morning show at the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame, on the edge of town near the aviation-themed Qantas Founders Museum.

Beyond the main building with its exhibitions of ranching life, stockman Lachie Cossor expertly clowns around with horses, dogs and sheep, performing riding tricks and singing songs, before emerging with guitar on the back of a gigantic bullock.

The day is rounded out by the Drover's Sunset Cruise along the Thomson River aboard the MV Explorer. This slow-flowing, broad expanse of water sometimes breaks its banks to spread across the surrounding flood plain and threaten the town.

Tonight it's simply looking picturesque, as we sit on deck spotting whistling kites above and turtles in the water below.

After the cruise, we disembark to have dinner in a clearing containing tables, a bar and a stage with a corrugated iron roof. As we eat our barbecued beef or fish, a musician with a stockman's hat prepares to play.

It's a great atmosphere. At the end of a long hot Outback day, it's relaxing to be sitting with a drink in hand as the air cools down, the guitarist strikes up and the Southern Cross appears in the sky above us.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/queensland

outbackqueensland.com.au

RAIL

The Spirit of the Outback departs Brisbane for Longreach twice weekly, see queenslandrailtravel.com.au. Sleeper from $427 one-way.

STAY

Kinnon Homestead Stables, Longreach, outbackpioneers.com.au. From $180 a night.

North Gregory Hotel, Winton, northgregoryhotel.com. From $120 a night.

Country Motor Inn, Barcaldine, barcaldinecountrymotorinn.com.au. From $120 a night.

SEE

Cobb & Co Stagecoach Experience, see outbackpioneers.com.au. Adult ticket $99, includes ride, morning tea and entertainment.

Outback Aussie Tours, see outbackaussietours.com.au. Offers many tours including the Drover's Sunset Cruise (adult ticket $99, includes dinner and entertainment).

Red Dirt Tours, see reddirttours.com.au. Based in Winton, takes day tours to attractions in the region. From $75-$160.

Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame, see outbackheritage.com.au. Museum and show $50.

Qantas Founders Museum, see qfom.com.au. Entry $28.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Outback Queensland and Queensland Rail Travel.

THE WAY TO WINTON

Two hours north-west of Longreach by road, the town of Winton has its own Outback appeal. Here are five reasons to visit.

WALTZING MATILDA

Although the town's Waltzing Matilda Centre was destroyed by fire in 2015, there are ways to celebrate the famous song while waiting for it to be rebuilt. On the main street is a statue of composer Banjo Paterson, standing proudly in front of a curved sheet of corrugated iron bearing his lyrics. matildacentre.com.au

THE NORTH GREGORY HOTEL

This retro-themed pub is where Waltzing Matilda was first performed. A piano and plaque in the lobby marks the spot. northgregoryhotel.com

QANTILDA MUSEUM

Taking its name from local legends Qantas and Waltzing Matilda, this history museum contains a vast number of artefacts from Aboriginal grinding stones to a relocated train station. experiencewinton.com.au

AUSTRALIAN AGE OF DINOSAURS

The land around Winton was once the bed of a prehistoric sea, and is now the source of numerous dinosaur fossils. The best place to learn about them is this institution outside town. See australianageofdinosaurs.com

LARK QUARRY

A vast canopy covers a set of carefully uncovered prehistoric tracks, the only example in the world of a dinosaur stampede. dinosaurtrackways.com.au

CARISBROOKE STATION

Tours can be taken of this working sheep and cattle station, with spectacular views from mesas (known locally as ''jump-ups''). See reddirttours.com.au

WHISTLE STOPS

FIVE MORE MEMORABLE TOWNS SERVED BY THE SPIRIT OF THE OUTBACK TRAIN

EMERALD

Home to an elegant train station of timber and iron lace, and the gateway to Carnarvon National Park.

ANAKIE

Located within the Sapphire Gemfields.

ALPHA

A series of murals around this small town depicts its pioneering history.

JERICHO

Hosts Australia's smallest drive-in movie theatre, which can hold 36 cars.

ILFRACOMBE

Dotted with historical buildings including the Wellshot Hotel, a classic Outback pub which was moved here by bullock cart when the railway reached the town in 1891.

This story originally appeared on Traveller