Sydney - “We’re going to the end of the line” – the lyrics from that wonderful ’80s Travelling Wilburys song comes to mind as our train draws into Charleville station in the outback, courtesy of Queensland Rail’s network of rail links stretching across this giant Australian state.
We soon discover that, thanks to a constant flow of water from the Great Artesian Basin, Charleville, population 3 500, sits like an oasis in this remote and sparsely populated region 777km due west from the state capital of Brisbane.
Apart from being the terminus for the “Westlander” train, the small town boasts a fine compliment of Victorian era heritage buildings befitting its status as the regional centre of south western Queensland.
This arid slice of the Sunshine state is firmly beef country with hardy breeds such as Brahman, Angus, Charolaise and Santa Gertrudis on cattle stations the size of small countries.
The dominant vegetation is the life-giving Mulga (acacia aneura), a tough, durable and long-living species providing a good fodder source for pastoralists.
Notwithstanding that, winter graziers are feeling the downside of cattle flooding sale yards as producers deal with drought.
Our visit to Charleville coincides with news that graziers from northern Queensland are moving 18 000 cattle south along old droving tracks to escape drought, for the first time in decades.
The stockmen and women make their presence felt in Charleville’s main drag as the weekend approaches – dust-shrouded high-chassis four-wheel drives, a kelpie sheepdog up front and loaded with essentials for far-flung cattle stations.
Queensland graziers long ago adopted American cowboy styles: jeans and headgear ranging from straw Stetsons to weathered Akubras, the owners mingling on the sidewalk and outside the banks and pubs with the droves of “Grey nomads” on the move north in their caravans and campervan homes to horizons new.
Charleville may be far from any perennial water source, but the good citizens keep boats in their backyards and have raised the foundations of their homes, should the occasion arise when the rivers flow.
And for good reason, as the little town on the normally dry Warrego River is the most northerly point of the Murray-Darling Basin and is regularly inundated from dumps of cyclonic weather far upstream.
The worst flood was in 1990 when the entire population had to be excavated to high ground. Severe flooding also took place as recently as 2008 and 2010.
Neville, our tour guide, tells us that last year the town narrowly escaped flooding when the waters of the Warrego just topped the town levee and to make it safe, bigger diversion gates and levees are under construction right now.
Blame it on history, but the flooding is a consequence of those pioneer stockmen first setting up camp to water their animals on a strip of land between the Warrego and a small creek and where, as time went by, the town developed.
Scale is everything. On the road out of town to Mount Isa, a signboard proclaims it to be the longest (perhaps) road in Australia – and 1 350km is certainly a long drive.
Of the four pillars of outback society lining Charleville’s main street – the local hotel and pub, bank, courthouse and police station – the latter two alone are responsible for 227 000km2 of territory, an area almost the size of the UK.
Matilda is a fairly common name around here – the Matilda Highway passes through town from Bourke on its lonely way north through the Mulga woodland to Longreach and beyond, and we could not resist booking in at the Waltzing Matilda Motor Inn.
There are probably more Matildas and for good reason. All are dedicated to Australia’s most famous song that best defines the traditional national character, Waltzing Matilda, written by Banjo Paterson in 1895 when working on a sheep station north of here and forced indoors during the summer “wet” season.
Given its dark sky location, the town is ideally placed to stargaze and this facility is on tap at the Cosmos Observatory where powerful telescopes allow visitors to explore the outback sky.
Like other regional centres, Charleville is also base for the Royal Flying Doctor Service that delivers medical services to remote outback communities, as does the School of Distance Education for rural kids in a virtual classroom that covers 1 million hectares.
If you are into history, there is the Historic House Museum, a magpie’s collection of memorabilia housed in a classic 1880’s Queensland house on main street. For good measure next door is the town’s sole restaurant – Indian with good curries.
Late afternoon and as we prepare to return to Brisbane, the Westlander is already waiting. For a few hundred metres we pass scattered buildings and off to the right navigational lights pinpoint the runway for the town’s airfield where Qantas first took to the air way back in 1922, and then we are enveloped in the bush.
We settle into our compartment and watch as dusk settles over the bush: in the south a big fat moon starts to illuminate the shadows. With darkness approaching, we walk through to the Westlander’s club car in the adjoining carriage where a range of meals and light refreshments that include hot and cold takeaway snacks, drinks and confectionery are available.
At first light the Westlander pulls into Toowoomba, the biggest inland centre in Queensland, drops and picks up passengers and then begins to trace a gentle meander through a circle of bush covered hills of the Toowoomba range. We are passing through the spine of what Australians call the Great Dividing Range, heights separating the outback from the eastern seaboard.
From now on in our journey to Brisbane the catchments run east directly to the Pacific coast. As we enter the club car, the panorama opens up with spectacular views across the range of hills.
The Westlander hugs the hillside, passing pretty Spring Bluff Station where landslips closed the line earlier this year after widespread flooding from Tropical Cyclone Oswald. Soon the Westlander enters the Lockyer valley, skirting sandstone gorges surrounded by remnant eucalypt forest reminiscent of the Durban-Pietermaritzburg line as it passes through the Shongweni cuttings.
Emerging from the creek, the train enters the broad Lockyer valley.
On both sides of the line for the next 30km we pass numerous farms, irrigating vegetables growing on the rich black volcanic soils that dominate the valley.
Small prosperous agricultural hamlets and the regional centre at Gatton supporting the agro-industry pass us before we reach the furthest extension of Brisbane’s city line some 50km from Queensland’s capital. Soon we are in Saturday morning suburbia with golf courses, parks, highways and shopping centres leaving us in no doubt that the outback adventure is over.
The Westlander may not boast the frills of the Sunlander and Spirit of the Outback, tourist trains offered by Queensland Rail, but it makes up for it with functional on-board facilities: comfortable double and triple berths or if one chooses the equally comfortable and affordable economy class aircraft-type seating. All factors to be taken into account by South African visitors travelling with a weak rand.
But above all trains are a great and effortless way to cover the vast distances in Australia and in this case easy access to the great outback. - Sunday Tribune
Charleville Visitor centre: www.murweh.qld.gov.au
Queensland Rail: www.qr.com.au