As I check my mail on my phone, there’s a headline about a door falling off a Boeing aircraft. Watching commuters scurry along the platforms at Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station from my comfortable seat, I am happy to have it confirmed that today the train is the place to be.
It’s a bright, fresh morning out of Melbourne as The Overland train to Adelaide trundles out of the station and across the industrial inner west of the city. Victorian buildings with fragments of iron lace are juxtaposed with huge piles of shipping containers and acres of storage facilities.
The train lets out a long, mournful whistle as it departs. It is impossible for me to be melancholy on such a beautiful day and with such a journey ahead.
Rail travel fan and famous travel writer Paul Theroux says that an important appeal of sitting on a train is peering into people’s backyards and seeing how people live in other countries and cultures.
This journey is certainly good for that and I watch early birds on the golf course and kids off to school before The Overland pushes on into the open plains and green grazing land west of Melbourne.
I can see low hills on the horizon – the satisfyingly named You Yangs where I’ve been rock climbing a number of times – and in the foreground the green grass and fields of golden rape seed present a very Australian colour scheme!
The symbol of The Overland train is the Emu, which runs with speed and grace across the wide open lands of Australia. My extensive research has revealed that the average top speed of an Emu is 50 kilometres per hour (31 mph) but they have been timed running at 75 kilometres per hour.
Given that the average speed of The Overland is 85 kilometres per hour, the symbolism seems more and more appropriate!
This train has been part of Australia’s history for over 100 years, forming an important link between states since 1887.
The name was appended in 1935, referring to the ‘overlanders’ or colonists who pushed ever onwards into Australia’s hinterlands with their horses and bullock-drawn drays in search of pastoral land in the 19th century.
Beside the tracks I watch stands of eucalypts and golden wattle stream past; rusty boulders, exotic agaves and tiny settlements.
For the trainspotting anoraks among you, the massive engines of the Indian Pacific rail line have been seen on The Overland tracks in recent months. I saw one of the big blue and gold engines pulling freight.
This is typical Australian overland travel. At times there is unique and stunning scenery, at times the landscape can appear quite dull. It is slow travel at its best, with time to get your head around the vast distances and varied climates of the Great Southern land.
There is also plenty of time to get the camera and walk over to the window to grab a shot when something pretty passes by. Yes there is ample room to walk around; an embarrassing amount of leg room.
The food on The Overland train is good and – I can’t quite believe this – well-priced. Better prices than the shops around the Melbourne station actually. In the Red Premium service a friendly crew member will bring your meal right to your seat.
Across the silvery lakes of the Wimmera, Victoria’s wheat growing belt, the sandstone ramparts of the Grampians Mountains and Mt Arapiles are distant, hazy lumps that approach slowly. Giant grain silos and rusting tin roofs are a far cry from the glamour of Melbourne and the gentility of Adelaide.
Red dirt roads run straighter than straight towards former gold mining towns like Ararat and Stawell. There are open woodlands and bare vines. Near Nihill someone has planted swathes of bright calendula flowers alongside the tracks.
The train disturbs a group of lambs, who run together across the grass.
Across the border into South Australia and the landscape changes, there is dry scrub on sandy ground. And slowly, slowly the land becomes more undulating.
The bridge over Australia’s biggest and most famous river – the Murray – reveals gracious homesteads on the hills overlooking the placid-looking, tree-lined waterway.
Then it is through the rolling farmland of the Adelaide Hills, where bluestone farmhouses and young olive groves are shadow-marked as the evening approaches. Lovely old gum trees are lit up by the sun.
The track slices through deep cuttings, forest and glade to Adelaide, with only a soft pink sky as a background. I loved The Overland. It was a journey, a real journey through a real Australia.
By Natasha von Geldern
What’s your favourite rail journey?