Australian Travel: Brisbane to Cairns on the Sunlander

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I had to sell the idea.

“Why, we’ll be like the Famous Five, setting off on a lovely train journey to the seaside,” I said to our three teenage boys the morning of our departure.  “It’ll be simply splendid!” My eldest son regarded me with scornful disbelief. My middle son gave me a wry humouring smile and, raising his eyebrows, turned back to regard the contents of the fridge. Baby son said, “Yeah!” He didn’t mean it.

We arrived in good time at Roma Street Station, Brisbane, but the power lines on one of the tracks had fallen down and all city train services had shut down.

“Will the Sunlander still be running?” my husband asked one of the rail staff.

“Yes, but there’s an electric train in front of it that’s going to have to be moved first.” Oh.

The train was due to depart at 1.25pm. We finally boarded at 2.30 and some time after 3 we began to move forward. We had two sleeper cabins each with three bunks. My husband and I checked into ours while the three boys got settled into theirs next door. I had in my romantic head some mahogany lined room with shiny brass fittings—not large, but something you could at least breathe out in. Instead of warm mahogany, the walls are Soviet grey. Where there should be brass, there’s chrome or, worse, plastic. But it was clean and there were sheets, blankets and pillows. And it did have one of those little sinks that fold out of the wall. Having accepted that we would not exactly be experiencing the romance of rail, I decided to see how the three boys were adjusting to their austere accommodation.

I opened the door to their cabin and three faces turned to me in disbelief. I told them weren’t they lucky to have parents who gave them such interesting experiences and closed the door to let them ponder on this. “I’m missing Neil’s 18th for this,” was what followed me out the door. Thirty seconds later I opened the door again and they all had their laptops out. Virtual escape.

Movement brought on hunger, so we wobbled our way up to the”Tropical Club” car. We bought coffee, soft drink, muffins, cheese and crackers and sweet biscuits and finally started to have a whizzer jolly time, just as I’d predicted.  This was also a perfect chance to observe our fellow passengers. As rail travel is heavily subsidized for them, most passengers fall into one or both of two categories: aged or infirm.  “Why are we the only normal people on here?” asked my youngest.  I left it as a rhetorical question.

Some passengers, rather than take afternoon tea, decided not to wait for the sun to be over the yardarm and started instead to drink. I didn’t think it normal to start drinking cans of Carlton Midstrength before 4 in the afternoon, with the clear intention of continuing to do so for many hours to come, but I suspected it was pretty normal for the person doing so.








At about 5 pm , the children having been sufficiently fed for now and returned to their laptops, my husband turned to me and said, “Would you think any less of me if I had a drink?” as though I’m some right-wing teetotaler.

“Oh why not. You’re on holiday after all, “ I replied.

But what to drink? There was beer; that was enough choice for my husband. But my visions of lounging elegantly with a glass of champagne in hand amidst the mahogany and brass evaporated once again when faced with the menu. There was chardonnay or shiraz or premixed cans of spirits.  Kath and Kim turned me off Chardonnay and I don’t like to drink red wine without a meal. It did say spirits were available in 60ml so I decided to go retro and order a vodka and orange, a good old seventies Screwdriver like my mother used to drink when in the summertime she felt like letting loose. Alas, such an exotic drink was not possible. Would I like premixed vodka and lemonade? Hardly. I suppose I could have had a shandy but I wasn’t that desperate to drink. So I sat drinking nothing and watching those around me become rosy-cheeked and garrulous (except for the Carlton Midstrength drinker; I looked at his bloodshot eyes and wondered rather how long before he would need dialysis).

The dining car is strictly for “those guests partaking of a meal” so we seated ourselves at two laminex and aluminium tables and awaited our meals—three roasts of the day and two steaks. While we were waiting I went back into the bar to get two half bottles of Shiraz. By this time the Tropical Club had begun to smell like a pub and the Carlton Midstrength drinker had been joined by some premix rum and coke drinkers who were verging on rowdy.

“For two people are they?” said the woman serving me, who my children later christened “The Dog Lady” on account of her poodle-like hairdo and her officious manner.

“Yes,” I replied, a little surprised.

“Not taking those back to your seats are you? Because you know you’re not allowed to.”

“No. The dining car,” I said pointing in the opposite direction to the seating carriages. What did she think I was? It was my first trip to the bar.


The meals filled the whole plate, which wasn’t hard since the plates were only a little bigger than a bread and butter plate, but the food was quite good. Well at least I thought so.

“Mum, is this powdered mash potato?” I tasted and considered. It was certainly very smooth.

“I don’t think it would be,” said my husband.

“No probably not,” I added, shoveling it in and finally sipping my Shiraz. At the end of our meal I asked the boys how they’d enjoyed their meals. “The mash potato tasted powdered and the mint sauce tasted like toothpaste.” There was mint sauce?

Dessert was “Chef’s choice of cakes”. He’d only made one choice, an almond cake. It looked very edible for a slice of cake in a plastic container, so we ordered a couple. It was delivered in a bowl with a small tub of ice cream and a tiny plastic container of thick cream. It was deliciously moist. We washed it down with cardboard takeaway cups of tea and I walked back to our cabin feeling satisfied and ready to crawl (literally) into my bunk bed and let the train rock me to sleep.

After approximately three hours sleep I awoke to misty bushland rushing past the window.  Several kangaroos stood to attention and watched us go by. A Brahmin cow stood by the shriveled body of its dead calf while other cows grazed with their healthy living calves. My husband’s head appeared from the bunk below and I tapped three times: tea and toast…tea and toast.

“It won’t be open yet.”

“Well I can wait then.” So I dozed a bit trying to gather a few more minutes sleep to add to my meager total. Eventually the dear boy did venture up to the dining car and soon returned with tea and toast. Alas, no silver tray with china cups and a toast rack, but a plastic bag to carry two cardboard cups of tea and two paper bags of toast, foil-wrapped butter pats and tiny packs of vegemite.

I dozed a bit more then we headed up for breakfast. And it was good: muesli and fruit salad, or the Canecutter’s Breakfast—bacon, eggs, sausage and tomato. A young mother with a boy of about five came in and, there being no tables left, perched herself and her son on a spare chair and tried to butter some toast. There were five of us spread across two tables, so we offered to share one of our tables. She thanked us and sat down, then asked if we’d managed any sleep.

“I slept from 9.30 to 7,” boasted my eldest

“Yeah, I slept from about 10 til 6,” said my husband.

“Do you have sleepers?” she asked. We nodded. She screwed up her face with envy.

“I’m back there,” she pointed back to the seated carriage. “Some woman got on at about 3am with a kid, and every second word was F or C and she was punching the walls. And the people in front must have been on something because they were awake all night talking.”

After all the delays leaving Brisbane, the train was running about three hours late. There was a long day ahead. As I watched the endless cane fields rush by the only appropriate song sprang into my head and lodged there in 11/4 time: The Go-Betweens, Cattle and Cane.

I recall, a schoolboy coming home

Through fields of cane, to a house of tin and timber

It seemed to be getting hotter outside; the landscape looked dryer and more battle weary. Patches of ash and blackened trees showed there’d been burning off. Hazy blue mountains rose in the distance behind the green cane and the houses of tin and timber with their tripod windmills. We passed many dry river beds, some with a trickle of water clawing its way through the tinderbox dry scrub.

As the day wore on, to prevent a riot by impatient passengers, tea and coffee were provided complementary. And since we were all still going to be there at dinner time, we were going to have to be fed. Someone must have made a quick dash to the local supermarket while we sat at Mackay station waiting for a derailed cane train to be moved, because the resulting meal was a meager portion of penne pasta in a greasy meat sauce. On the house.

At last we wheezed and lurched into Cairns station at 11.15pm by which time I’d finally fallen fast asleep.

For more on Australian trains and options, click here.



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