The Outback Rail Experience.
This is a unique way to see Australia's outback. Once a week the classic 1960's rail motors head out from Cairns on their 4 day, 850km return trip to Forsayth. For much of the journey the Savannahlander has the railway line to itself and this allows passengers to experience a type of train travel that most won't have come across before. Want the driver to stop so you can take a photo? Just ask! The Savannahlander stops overnight in three different outback towns, Almaden (Chillagoe), Mount Surprise and Forsayth, each offering the traveller something different. Where to stay overnight? There are many options from the inexpensive to the not-so inexpensive. There are side trips to be done too. You can take a tour of the famous Chillagoe caves, take a tube tour at Undara (this is a facinating area and will be the subject of a post very soon) or see the spectacular Cobbold Gorge.
The Savannahlander crossing the dry Norman river bed on a low trestle bridge.
Originally, construction of this railway began in 1888 with the line being completed in 1891. Initial plans were drawn up to link Normanton, the beef capital of the North, with Cloncurry, to serve the cattle industry. But as time passed, that all changed when gold was discovered at Croydon.
The Normanton-Croydon line was then constructed under the supervision of George Phillips, an engineer and advocate of the Gulf Country. He designed and patened the steel sleepers used on the line. Interestingly, they are hollow based and packed with mud, avoiding the need for ballast material in the track. This low cost railway was also designed to be submersible, allowing flood waters and debris to flow over the line, leaving it intact when the water subsides.
Today, over one hundred years after its construction, most of the sleepers on the line are still in place.
The original services consisted of five, first and second class passenger carriages and fifty assorted freight wagons. Steam locomotives hauled the trains until 1922 when the first rail motor was introduced.
Be touched by a land untouched.
This is an enchanting journey few people take the time to experience. Travelling between Normanton and historic Croydon, the Gulflander is more like an adventure than a train ride. Your driver will stop and show you points of interest along the 152 kilometre track.
You'll cross the Norman River, pass an endless stream of wildlife and finally terminate your trip at the old gold town of Croydon.
The Gulflander was the Heritage winner in the Queensland Tourism Awards, 1994. Until then it had been one of the State's best secrets.
The Gulflander Train: AKA "The Tin Hare" is said to go from nowhere to nowhere. In fact the train travels from Normanton to Croydon in the Gulf Country of northern Queensland. The line is about 150 kilometres long and was completed in the late 1800’s.
All things are possible in the "Outback" even down to transporting your vehicle on a flat-top if you don't want to travel both ways on the train.
Poised gracefully on one of the many crossings made necessary by the annual "Wet Season" flooding of the route.
One of the original Motor Rail engines, these were 1922 AEC Truck chassis
converted to suit railway use, they retained many of the original features of
the trucks, including a clutch and gearbox to drive the motor rail "train"
The Millards of the Gulf
by Frank Harvey
Let me introduce you to Ken and Tracey Millard.
Ken is a permanent QR employee who is the Officer in Charge of the Gulflander, a world renowned tourist train. His QR duties include Station Office/Master, train booking, train maintenance, train driving and commentary on the train journey.
Tracey (a QR casual employee) is his wife who assists in the running of the train, as well as the administration duties that goes with running a railway station, tour busses, and the general maintenance of a railway station.
This family is unique in Queensland Rail and should be recognised as a great achievement of a husband and wife team of a very young family in an extremely remote location.
I recently had the opportunity to travel the section of track between Normanton and Croydon (the Gulflander route) and was emotionally overwhelmed by the knowledge and professionalism that this extremely important QR family possess.
Ken Millard gives a very specialised, informative and factual commentary during his journey, both to and from Croydon over a two day period away from his young family.
Each journey is approximately 4-5 hrs in duration and Ken provides enjoyable dialogue the whole time whilst driving the train. (Ken is reported to regularly take lozenges to ease his throat and vocal chords from non-stop commentary).
Ken gives an outstanding history of the rail, its purpose many years ago and the rail infrastructure in this area, including the unique sleepers that are still under the rail that was laid in 1880's. Ken relays this information at the onset of the trip and the information just gets better.
Ken gives factual information about the surrounding landholders, including the land sizes, history on the types of cattle that graze the land, the types of road trains that transport the cattle along the 'highway' at sale times.
Ken also delivers mail and freight to these landholders along the journey – this was a prime job of the Gulflander since its inception over 140 years ago.
Ken has an outstanding botanical knowledge of the native vegetation which he has acquired through his own personal studies and has an enviable relationship with renowned botanists who have begun to 'discover' unique spiders in this area.
Ken gives the tourists a professional history lesson on the gold rush times of the era as well as giving guided tours of native fauna habitats along the journey.
Ken explains that the aboriginal used various tree barks and fruits as medicines and offers passengers to sample these – I did and was amazed at the stories that accompanied these 'taste tests'.
Ken explains the 'settling' of both the Normanton and Croydon townships during the gold expeditions, with Normanton being the Port for import and export of freight and ore from Croydon – some 150 kilometres away.
Once my trip (experience) was over I was excited to learn from Ken's wife (Tracey) that Ken continually receives letters of appreciation from a range of people that participate in the world renowned tourist train journey.
One of these letters indicated that Ken is a "National Treasure".
Now that I have participated in this experience I cannot help but agree with this comment in the true sense of the word. He is in the same ilk as a Steve Irwin (crocodile man) or in fact Ludwig Leichhardt the Australian explorer that Ken has studied and refers to in his commentary.
I do not know of anybody that has such an unbelievable passion in his work (luckily it is within QR), extensive knowledge of surrounding land, extreme joy in portraying this information to his train travellers, as well as his ability to relate to passengers needs or enquiries.
Ken has also received a letter from an 11 year old boy who states that Ken 'has changed his life'.
This too is easy to believe after this train journey. Ken has this unique ability to have anybody that listens to his stories want to learn more and want to participate in 'bettering' the country.
I know that I felt a sense of pride in just knowing Ken while he was giving his commentary. The emotion that Ken shows made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up like that when you are participating in an intimate occasion with members of your family.
I guess that is what QR is made up of – families.
However there aren't many families that perform for QR the way Ken and Tracey do in an area that is hard to have children educated, being isolated from parents, other members of the family, and friends.
In this area friends are hard to come by. Because of the remoteness of the area people don’t generally stay.
Ken has also gained the title of a Savannah Guide because of his unique ability, environmental knowledge, local history and bushman type skills. To be a 'guide' is not an easy task, there is a rigorous process to go through and Ken has achieved this.
I hope you enjoyed the trip back in time, most of the content is courtesy of the
Queensland Rail Website pages, I thank them for the images and stories.