Unlike, say, Switzerland or Japan, Australia isn’t particularly well-known for its train travel. As one of the world’s largest countries by land area (it’s 32 times the size of the UK), that means a lot of wide open spaces and endless desert terrain – and it’s usually much quicker and more cost-effective to fly the huge distances between population centres.
But Australia does have some spectacular train journeys that range from the quirky to the down-right charming. Beyond the Ghan, here’s 5 options that will give you a true taste of local Australian life.
West Coast Wilderness Railway, Tasmania
Tasmania’s wild and windy west coast can feel a bit like the end of the world. But this was once one of the wealthiest mining regions on the planet, where around 500 men built a rail line in just 2.5 years, using a revolutionary rack and pinion mechanism to cross the steep mountains, deep valleys and impenetrable rainforest and connect the copper mines with the port at Strahan.
Today, the West Coast Wilderness Railway is the only operating Abt rack and pinon railway in the Southern Hemisphere. Travel on the half-day Rack and Gorge tour from Queenstown to get a glimpse into the life of the early west coast pioneers who carved out their fortunes in this rugged, remote landscape. A highlight of the journey is the King River Gorge, a 65m drop down to the water as the train clings to the edge of the mountain, while the turntable at Dubbil Barril, deep in the rainforest, is always a favourite to see the steam locomotive turned by hand.
The Q Train, Victoria
South-west of Melbourne is the gorgeous Bellarine Peninsula, scattered with laid-back coastal towns and long sandy beaches. This part of Victoria is renowned for its excellent produce, and there are plenty of worthwhile provadores and wineries to explore. But to make life as simple and delicious as possible, two ex-train drivers have done the work for you, purchasing an old Queenslander train (complete with original disco carriage) and turning it into a gourmet moving restaurant that runs along the Bellarine Heritage Railway between the coastal towns of Drysdale and Queenscliff.
Everything you eat over the six-course degustation will be seasonal, sustainable and locally sourced – from the oyster mushrooms accompanied by a soft-boiled egg, cauliflower puree, Drysdale goats curd and truffle oil to the house-cured Bresaola with celeriac remoulade and watercress. The 3.5-hour return trip is served up with scenic views, while the attentive waiters will field you with stories about the local area and its producers, so you’ll almost feel like a local by the time you disembark.
Kuranda Scenic Railway, Queensland
Heading inland from the coastal charms of Cairns is one of Australia’s most impressive train journeys: the Kuranda Scenic Railway. Constructed in the late 19th century to open up a route between the Atherton Tablelands and the coast, the 1 hour 45-minute journey climbs more than 300m over the Great Dividing Range through the stunning scenery of Barron Gorge National Park.
Relax in a refurbished vintage carriage as you wind your way through lush rainforest and past craggy rock faces to the charming town of Kuranda. You’ll pass steep ravines and thundering waterfalls, cross 37 mountain-hugging bridges and through 15 hand-carved tunnels, while learning about this incredible engineering feat and the fortitude of the North Queensland pioneers who built it.
Mary Valley Rattler, Queensland
Most travellers flock to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast for the sparkling coastline, gorgeous beaches and bustling coastal towns. But beyond the sun, sand and sea you’ll find some of the state’s most scenic spots and their fascinating histories.
Just a short drive inland from Noosa is the lush Mary Valley, which once lay at the heart of a thriving mining industry. When gold was discovered at Gympie in 1867, thousands of prospectors flooded into the area in search of their fortunes. A train was needed to both export the gold and bring food to all these new settlers, so in 1881, a rail line was constructed from Gympie through the Mary Valley.
Today a fleet of meticulously restored steam and diesel locomotives, collectively known as the Mary Valley Rattler, chugs its way 20km along this historic route between Gympie and Amamoor stations twice a day, three days a week. It’s a brilliant way to explore these gorgeous, fertile hinterlands that most travellers will never see.
Scenic World, New South Wales
Head west from Sydney to the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains, a beautiful natural landscape renowned for its epic panoramas, eucalyptus forests, thundering waterfalls and sandstone cliffs. Although hiking opportunities abound in the region, get a different perspective on the stunning scenery by heading to Scenic World.
Here, thrill-seekers can board the Scenic Railway, claimed to be the steepest passenger railway in the world, with a massive 52-degree incline. Board the custom designed carriage, where the truly brave can tip their seat back for the ‘Cliffhanger’ ride (at a whopping 64-degree incline) and hold on tight as you fly 310m down the mountainside into the ancient rainforest. It might only be a short ride, but it’s certainly impressive.