Freelance travel writer, and train lover Tim Richards decided to shake up his life, by taking an epic rail journey across Australia, on his lonesome. Many adventures awaited.
The result led to his new book, Heading South (Fremantle Press) now on sale.
Tim chats to The Starfish:
What’s your book about?
I decided to shake up my job and my life by taking this rail journey around Australia, starting in the remote outback town of Normanton. Via eight memorable trains including the Gulflander, the Spirit of Queensland, the Overland and the Indian Pacific, I travelled over 7,000 kilometres around the continent, taking in the tropics, cities, ghost towns, a strange island, and the empty wasteland of the Nullarbor Plain. Things went right and wrong on the way: there were floods, cancelled trains, unforgettable landscapes and loads of forays into rail history. I also met a passing parade of quirky fellow passengers as I travelled.
How does this Australian rail adventure compare with other train travel you’ve done?
I’ve been on some marvellous trains around the world, from the luxurious Eastern & Oriental Express from Bangkok to Singapore, to a worn night train trundling between Poland and Ukraine. But the rail journeys most similar have been those in the USA and Canada: the Coast Starlight for example, which heads north from Los Angeles to Seattle; or The Canadian, an epic journey from Vancouver to Toronto. As on those long rail journeys, Australian trains give you the room to relax, socialise, and take in the amazing ever-changing scenery.
You clearly love train travel, do you think enough Australians appreciate the joys of going by rail – and if not, why not?
More should consider it. For a start, it’s kinder to the environment than travelling by air. Sleeper trains are especially pleasant; there’s nothing like trundling along the rails for a night to arrive in the heart of your destination first thing in the morning, ready to start the day. So much better than the endless queuing and security checks of airports, before playing sardines in seat 33F.
With more Australians exploring their own backyard in the time of COVID, do you think it’s a great time to consider a train journey?
Indeed it is. Earlier this year I travelled aboard three great long-distance trains – The Great Southern, the Ghan and the Indian Pacific – to find them full of Aussies who’d elevated these marvellous trains to the top of their bucket lists and were having a great time aboard.
You embarked on this great Australian train journey alone; why did you not want anyone, eg your wife, to accompany you?
I felt it was important that I pay attention to my surroundings – really pay attention. So I deleted the social media apps from my phone and tried to take in everything around me as I travelled. A travelling companion wouldn’t have found me very good company; I was always taking notes and spent my evenings on the road typing them up.
Ever feel lonely on the train?
Never. There’s always someone to talk to, and scenery to admire. Also books to read!
What were some highlights of this journey?
Passing through the savannah country of outback Queensland, startling birds and wallabies aboard the Gulflander as we passed; awaking on the Brisbane to Sydney XPT train to see the beautiful misty mountains of the Border Ranges National Park; learning about the rail past and hopeful future of Redfern, Sydney; exploring the mysterious French Island off Victoria; taking in the emptiness of the Nullarbor; walking in CY O’Connor’s fateful footsteps in Fremantle.
And the worst thing that happened to you?
I had so much trouble with rain during the last of the wet season in Far North Queensland. It caused a lot of stress and uncertainty, and I had to skip one train, the Savannahlander – but I got to ride it later for Heading South’s epilogue.
What kind of people did you meet along the way?
A great variety of people were my fellow passengers: including a migration agent, an Aboriginal student liaison, a Zimbabwean on holiday, an American with a link to WWII Brisbane, even a woman who ran a dog refuge in Bali! Trains are full of great characters, with the time to get to know them.
Do you feel you know our vast country much better for having made this journey?
Yes indeed. Not just the incredible changing landscapes and our rail history, but my fellow passengers as well.
What advice would you give to someone considering such a trip?
Bring some enjoyable books that complement the landscape (eg A Town Like Alice was inspired by Normanton); give your phone a rest and look out the window; be open to conversations with your fellow passengers, you’re sure to learn something. And never drink railway coffee if you can avoid it, it’s terrible.
Who would enjoy reading Heading South?
Everyone. It’s not just a book about trains, it’s a personal journey with a variety of lively characters met on the way. It also has plenty of rail history, told in an accessible manner.
What are you working on now?
I have another rail-related book coming out from publisher Hardie Grant, titled Ultimate Train Journeys: World. Then I’d love to research a sequel to Heading South next year, riding trains along completely different routes to those described in the first book. There are plenty more interesting Australian trains to be experienced and written about!
Heading South: Far North Queensland to Western Australia by Rail by Tim Richards is out now.