There’s something special about train travel. The clickety-clack, the sheer industrial weight of the train, the distances it travels; whatever it is, it brings a certain thrill. And when the train has a history, we’ll that’s even better.
This morning, in the wee hours, I stumble across the road from my hotel into Southern Cross Station in Melbourne. I’m there to celebrate a birthday - happy 135 years. I wheel my carry-on to platform 2b and watch with delight as The Overland glides in.
Run by Journey Beyond and supported by the Victorian Department of Transport, The Overland travels the tracks between Melbourne and Adelaide on a weekly basis, connecting two major cities with a host of major towns. Her fortunes have been up and down over the years - she’s been through a few iterations and she’s outlasted them all. Now, the “Grand Old Lady” is turning 135.
Perhaps that’s what it is that draws the rail enthusiasts - that longevity; the knowledge that this piece of machinery will most likely outlive us all.
George pops down to the station every week, twice a week to welcome The Overland in as she arrives and to wave her off as she leaves. He’s not alone. Today, at least seven people are there just to see the train, not to board. Three are teenagers. They know the schedules off by heart. They’re delighted that today is something special. Balloons wave in the breeze and a musician strums a guitar and croons Australian anthems as part of the celebrations.
When we roll out of the station, the city quickly recedes. We cross a bridge, another train below, pass through grassy lots, some with shipping containers, and the verges slowly turn to faded yellow grass. A dandelion swirls in the breeze outside my window, captured in the train’s wake, before drifting in to land. A rabbit stops in its tracks, wide-eyed, as it watches us pass. Scenes of suburbia drift by to a soundtrack of creaks and groans that is somehow comforting.
Soon, we are in the country, gum trees dotted through parched paddocks. On the horizon, mountains shaded blue by distance squat under cloudless summer skies. We pass a freight train pulled by the locomotive from The Ghan, another piece of Australian history in motion. on my right, hay bales stacked into a wall; a rusted shell of a vehicle; an old green tractor; farmhouses; a windmill lazily turning; a pair of ducks paddling in a dam. I don’t know where I am, but it is bucolic and beautiful.
On my left, four white cockatoos take flight; trees stand sentinel along the track; shiny silver silos; sheep gather around a watering hole; a red-dirt trail leads to nowhere. My eyes watch, capturing moments. My thoughts are silent. It is perfection.
The day is punctuated by brief pauses in towns with short platforms. We stop in Ararat, the only city in Australia founded by Chinese immigrants, who discovered gold in its veins. Stawell, the gateway to the Grampians National Park, still has an active gold mining industry but is better known for the Stawell Gift, a foot race that began in 1878. Next up is the well-kept agricultural city of Horsham, followed by the wheat and wool town of Dimboola, where old friends reunite on the platform near an old boarded-up building.
We skip through the halfway town of Nhill and glide by Bordertown, the first stop over the State border, where the time changes by half an hour. It makes no difference. Time feels fluid on board.
The penultimate stop is Murray Bridge, sitting on the Murray River, where I’m longing to hire a houseboat. The bridge we traverse was built in 1925 or thereabouts and in a nod to history, a paddleboat carcass sits off to one side of the track just pass the station. Next stop Adelaide.
Throughout the journey, passengers embark and disembark. Life goes on. This is not the fastest way to get between Melbourne and Adelaide - it takes a whole day - but that’s not the point. The Overland goes on and that’s what counts. Long may she prosper.