Travel: Stop the train! I've just seen a black cockatoo

When you travel on Queensland Rail's Savannahlander, delays are caused not by leaves on the line but by the odd kangaroo. Philip Game climbed aboard

ANT-HILLS, SCRUB, and waving grass. The train grinds to a halt on a deserted track. The engine driver beckons his few passengers. A breakdown? No - he's inviting us to step down and see the love-nest of the Greater Bower Bird, surrounded by gleaming white gewgaws and shells.

Where else could passengers step down a moment to see a bird's nest? Or share the engine driver's cabin - a vantage point from which the narrow- gauge track seems a very tenuous thread through the endless bush?

Flashback to 1992. On a warm tropical evening in Cairns, North Queensland, a small group boards two antique carriages sandwiched between freight wagons and flatbed cars. Instead of hermetically sealed windows and vinyl seats we find old-fashioned wooden slats and leather. Neither sleepers nor dining car are provided - we are laden with sleeping bags and provisions for the next 36 hours.

Until 1993, Mixed Goods 7A90 still climbed from Cairns up over the Great Dividing Range, then south-west into the grassy savannah.

After 423km, the line petered out at the tiny township of Forsayth. Launched in 1995, Queensland Rail's Savannahlander first ran tourist excursions between Mount Surprise and Forsayth. Since September 1998, the rail-motor travels through to Forsayth, with overnight stops at Almaden, near Chillagoe, and Mount Surprise, close by the underground caverns of the Undara lava tubes.

No longer is this an obscure milk-run patronised by hardy enthusiasts. Further west, the Gulflander, a rail-motor service between Croydon and Normanton, has become a celebrated tourist attraction, and so the Savannahlander is pitched equally at travellers for whom the journey is more important than the destination.

Six in the morning in Cairns. The old peach-pink timber station has been devoured by an omnivorous shopping complex and the new station is a featureless extension of its car park. Two gleaming bullet-heads rumble alongside: refurbished 1960-vintage rail-motor units - basically an old-fashioned touring coach on rails. As the sun comes up, the Savannahlander rattles through quiet streets of stilted timber "Queenslander" homes, worlds away from the 24-hour energy of Cairns's waterfront. Our route follows the popular tourist line as far as Kuranda, through the rainforests, into the tunnels and across the ravines.

Joe Gillotti, porter and steward, points out the massive mango trees which are the hallmark of white settlement in North Queensland. Silent now are the grassy expanses where dozens of steam locomotives were gathered in Mareeba's railyards. Spreading flame trees enliven the streets of hamlets like Dimbulah, where signs point down dusty roads towards Wolfram or the Tyrconnell Gold Mine.

"Once we pass here, we're on our way. There'll be no one ahead and no one behind," remarks the engine driver, Paddy Inskip. Boulder-capped hilltops and the ubiquitous ant-hills presage the arid outback; trestle bridges span the dry riverbeds.

At the turn of the century, the Forsayth-Chillagoe line was the largest private railway in Australia, traversing terrain rich in copper, gold, silver, lead, tin, wolfram, coal and ancient, convoluted rocks spiced with garnets, rubies, sapphires and topaz.

Lappa was the junction for the spur to the Mount Garnet mine. We spill out to meet "Lappa Liz" - surnames are superfluous out here - who plans to restore the old wayside inn and regain the licence. She has collected old pub signs, hub-caps, miners' picks and the like. Liz holds court an hour later at the pub in Almaden, flicking her black tresses and laughing off the celebrity status conferred by TV crews and guidebook authors.

Kangaroos bound across the tracks; zebu cattle canter alongside. Black cockatoos wheel off through the ironwoods, and bustards stalk between the termite mounds, which provided a source of iron and magnesium for aborigines. Time for a pit stop at the trestle bridge at Fossilbrook Creek, whose babbling waters are much appreciated.

Almaden is quietly fading into oblivion. The century-old school has closed, the pub doubles as post office and the ramshackle racetrack will close if it cannot muster more meetings.

Crew and passengers alike make the dusty drive out to Chillagoe, where the chimneys of the ruined smeltery and the massive slabs of sawn marble standing about add a human and historic dimension to a rough landscape of towering limestone profiles which shelter cathedral-like caverns quite unlike the damp grottoes so familiar in temperate climes.

At Mount Surprise, the garage serves as general store and post office. As I browse among chocolate ice-creams and five-inch bolts, an incongruously soft voice enquires: "How are you, mate, eh? Do you want that in a bag, mate, eh?"

In the torpor of mid-afternoon, we trundle over a trestle bridge into Einasleigh, a hamlet basking above the Copperfield River gorge. Baby freshwater crocodiles inhabit the remaining deep pools in the sandy riverbed and rock- wallabies hop nervously across the frozen pillows of grey basalt.

This outpost, too, has faded even further since my earlier visit. The precariously leaning edifice beside the pub has collapsed at last. Out of town, the Kidston gold mine, one of Australia's largest, has closed its gates in the face of failing gold prices. Gillotti's daughter rustles up afternoon teas at the one-room station. Just as well, since the pub is "Closed for a Funeral".

As the shadows lengthen we climb into the Newcastle Ranges, slowing to a crawl. Timid rock-wallabies emerge from crevices, close enough to be fed. Just on sunset the train puts on a last rush of speed to clatter into Forsayth. Fortunately, the Goldfields Tavern still turns on a good three-course dinner and tucks me up in the same transportable "donga" I slept in six years ago.

Forsayth still feels like the end of the line, a gold rush-era town beating back the bush and the ant-hills which encroach on all sides. The school and the hospital are clinging on precariously, but some bureaucrat has determined that what Forsayth needs is a new library.

Squadrons of red-tailed black cockatoos invade just after dawn, staking out the telephone wires, setting up command posts in the hotel garden. Helen, whose son is the fifth generation to attend the Forsayth school, takes time out from pulling beers to run me up to Castle Rock, a sandstone crag whose sheltered hollows bear the fading stencils of long-gone aboriginal hands.

Up top there are sweeping views out over the scrubby ranges of the Gulf Country, already baking under a harsh sky. It is difficult to visualise the heady days on the Etheridge goldfield in the 1860s when tiny townships mushroomed across the arid ranges and every inch of land was staked out in claims and mining leases.

The journey back to Cairns is broken by a night at Undara, where the remarkable caverns formed by cooling basalt lavas had lain unrecognised until a few short years ago, disturbed only by the bats and the wallabies. We stayed in the tourist lodge which Gerry Collins has built, using restored railway carriages, on the bushland on which his family has grazed cattle since 1862. The highlight of the evening was the discovery of the rich natural environment behind that facade of scrubby forest. In one magic moment we held our collective breath as a large wallaroo (sturdy cousin of the kangaroo) hopped cautiously into the mouth of the cave in which we stood.

FACT FILE

australia

Getting there

Return flights from Gatwick to Cairns cost pounds 559 on Garuda Airlines through Austravel (tel: 0171-734 7755) until 30 June. The price must be paid in full on booking. Austravel can also arrange Australian visas over the phone for pounds 16.

Where to stay

Lodgings at Forsayth's Goldfields Tavern and Chillagoe's Bush Camp & Eco Lodge from A$50 (pounds 20) per person full board. Economical campground and country hotel accommodation is also available at Mareeba, Almaden, Chillagoe, Forsayth and Mt Surprise.

Getting around

The Savannahlander departs Cairns on Wednesday at 6.30am, arriving Almaden at 1pm. It then departs 8am Thursday, arriving at Forsayth at 5.45pm. The return service departs Forsayth at 7.45am Friday, arriving Mt Surprise 1pm, then departs Mt Surprise at 8.15am on Saturday reaching Cairns at 6.40pm. The Mt Surprise to Forsayth round trip offers a more compact experience. Adult fare (Cairns to Forsayth) A$85, child A$43. Same-day connecting coach services are available from Cairns-Forsayth on Thursday and Forsayth- Cairns on Friday. A six-day Mount Isa-Cairns itinerary by train and coach also takes in the Normanton-Croydon "Gulflander" rail-motor journey.

Further information

There is an "Aussie Help Line" in the UK (tel: 0990 022000). You can also visit the Australian Tourist Commission's website: http://www.aussie.net.au; or the Queensland tourism website: http://www.qttc.com.au. Other relevant sources of information include: Queensland Rail Cairns Travel Centre, McLeod Street, Cairns, Qld 4870 (tel: 00 61 40 52 62 49); Cairns Karumba Coachline (tel: 0061 40 31 54 48; fax: 00 61 40 31 55 49); Chillagoe Bush Camp & Eco Lodge (tel: 00 61 40 94 71 55), which also offers transfers and tours.

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