Trainspotters, also known as trainiacs, anoraks and even, gunzels, I soon learn have a knack of popping up in the oddest places as we travel the Australian countryside. As I settle in for a chilled glass of sparkling wine in the Outback Explorer Lounge upon boarding The Southern Spirit, I discover that many of my fellow passengers are, indeed, gunzels. The Southern Spirit, which runs just a handful of services over the Australian summer season between Adelaide and Brisbane, offers highly-credentialed bragging rights amongst serious rail buffs.
“Gunzel on the bridge,” my friend points out as our train passes beneath a highway flyover. I whip my head around in time to spot a stout camera-toting man above us, his lens pointed trackside as our train gains momentum.
As we pull out of Brisbane heading south, conversation quickly leads to stories of other train journeys ticked off on ‘must do’ lists. Many have travelled aboard some of the world’s iconic rail routes through Canada, Africa and Europe as well as the legendary Australian trains, the Indian Pacific and Ghan. The Southern Spirit differs from many of these in that rather than being a point to point train, it is more like a leisurely type of rail cruising. Daily Whistle Stop Tours allow passengers to enjoy highlights along the route, which are co-ordinated with our schedule to provide enticing diversions beyond the train itself.
Whistle Stop Tours
Oozing an alluring mix of beachside funk blended with well-heeled style, Byron Bay on the northern New South Wales coast is our first Whistle Stop after departing Brisbane. From high atop the Cape Byron cliff overlooking the beach, the water is clear enough to see the ripples in the sand beneath the surf. There’s enough time for poking around trendy boutiques or a swim in the surf before dinner. Our first dinner onboard is not actually onboard at all, as we dine downtown in Byron Bay before retreating to Southern Spirit in time for a nightcap. Damian, my affable 30-something cabin steward has read my mind and left a miniature of Baileys alongside a handful of chocolates to send me off to sleep. Not that I need much help, as the train gently lulls me into a semi conscious state, encased as I am amid crisply starched linen.
Day two and The Southern Spirit pull into Coffs Harbour station beside the harbour, throbbing with burly fishermen unloading their catch dockside. Some of us opt for a brisk walk to stretch our legs, taking the path beyond the marina and up to the summit of Mutton Bird Island. Confined as we are onboard, it’s a relief to get some blood pumping into idle legs.
As lunch is served onboard in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant we’re soon off again, with Port Macquarie our next destination. Home to the worlds only koala hospital, unfortunately we don’t call in, instead the afternoon is spent sipping and sampling as we visit a vineyard followed by a hydroponic tomato and strawberry farm. It’s enough to whet our appetite for our tour through the wine growing region of the Hunter Valley the following day. Further Whistle Stop explorations include the Taronga Western Plains Zoo at Dubbo, Albury-Wodonga on the Murray River, with the Grampians National Park the last stop before pulling into Adelaide.
Onboard we easily slip into a regular pattern, much of which revolves around eating, drinking and socialising. After dinner there’s usually a tightly contested game of Scrabble underway in the lounge, while others retreat to their private cabins. Operated by Great Southern Rail, accommodation onboard is in either luxurious Platinum Service or contemporary Gold Service cabins. The main differences between the two are mostly to do with cabin size and amenities, plus the inclusion of special luxuries for Platinum travellers (think turndown nightcap and chocolates, Natio bathroom products, fluffy bathrobes, and tea or coffee served in bed each morning).
Naturally limited by carriage width, both are somewhat compact, though making exceptional use of limited space. All cabins have ensuite bathrooms, and this is where the real difference lies between the two. Platinum guests have modern, spacious showers with glass screens along with a regular vanity basin and toilet. Gold Service guests, well, bathrooms are, how to put it? Let’s just say, compact. Clever almost, given that both the toilet and hand basin fold down from the wall. Concealed when not in use, the floor space is then utilised as a shower stall with wrap around shower curtain. Not for the bibulous, to be sure, but perfectly adequate. And lets’ face, how much time do you really spend in the bathroom?
During the day, cabins are set up for lounging, with sofas or lounge chairs the perfect spot to curl up with a book, or to watch the landscape brush past. At night, usually while we’re at dinner, cabin stewards transform each cabin into a cosy sleeper, with beds folding down from behind concealed walls. Crisp, fresh linen and fluffy blankets make for a cosy, comfy night time retreat. An added luxury for couples in Platinum Service is the option of a double bed to stretch out in. Naturally, panoramic windows in all cabins bring the great outdoors up close and personal, whether lounging on your sofa or reclining in bed.
With little to do but kick back and relax, I spend endless hours gazing out the window from a supine position. After a while I begin to recognise trainspotters trackside. With binoculars or cameras, sometimes both, slung around their necks, train timetables in hand, I can almost feel their hand-wringing angst when we are running behind schedule. On online forums intense discussions ensue about which trains have been spotted and where, inciting speculation about train schedules and whether trains are running on time. Or not.
As we depart Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station bound for Adelaide, one particularly passionate gunzel called George, well known amongst train crews, waves enthusiastically from the platform as we roll out of town. He looks absolutely chuffed that he’s seen The Southern Spirit at close range. Sure, I could have flown the short distance between Brisbane and Adelaide in just a couple of hours. But, as a raw trainspotter still building the required street cred to consider myself a gunzel, it was never really an option.
Great Southern Rail and The Southern Spirit. The Southern Spirit operates between Adelaide and Brisbane (and vice versa) between November and February each year. Also visit Freedom Australia (Tel: 0844 567 8040).
Fiona Harper is a freelance travel writer specialising in travel, boating and lifestyle genres. Highly acclaimed, widely travelled and much published, her engaging articles and images appear online and in print globally. With a particular penchant for rail or sea travel, soft adventure, or anything that involves water, Fiona’s office, when she’s at home, sits beyond the beach on a tropical island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. A Career Gypsy of sorts, researching and writing from across the globe, she’s a member of the Australian Society of Travel Writers, the Australian Journalists Association and the International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association.
In March 2011 Fiona Harper launched a travel guide in App format – Great Barrier Reef: Ultimate Guide