Riding The Writer’s Train

I wrote this article after returning from the Q150 Train and it appeared in last month’s Avid Reader Newsletter.

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I’m seated inbetween two award-winning authors on a flight from Brisbane to Townsville. We don’t know eath other yet, but by the end of the week, I will feel as if I’ve known Matt Condon and Greg Rogers forever. Spending anywhere from five to ten hours on a steam train across central Queensland country can do that. There’s a lot of time to talk, share stories, and sleep – if you can find a spare seat long enough in the conductor’s carriage.

My first experience of the historical steam train was on the second morning of the trip – we were ‘diesleled’ from Townsville to Charters Towers because the stea engine was broken. Matt leaned out the window and remarked how beautiful the steam was, pluming back across the carriage. I’d just applied lip gloss but, eager for the same sense of wonder, I stuck my head out the window and my lips were instantly covered with coal soot. Like dipping wet lips in biscuit crumbs. You don’t see those kinds of visceral details in nostalgic movies. Or that by the end of a day’s travel there’s soot all over the floor and through your hair.

Another reality of riding the steam train is lack of coffee. Yes, I’m talking real coffee. Avid Reader quality espresso coffee. It was a long two days without it before a brief stop at Julia Creek outside Cloncurry. There, across the road from the train tracks, was a huge hotel with a sign saying CAPPUCINO. I looked left and right – no conductors to stop my heist – and I ran across the tracks, across the road and into the pub. “Jeez,” says the man. “I haven’t been asked for a cappucino in fourteen months. I just can’t be bothered taking the sign down.” There were no meat pies, either. Though Greg managed to return with beer. We arrive back on the train – no one saw us leave, surely – and there was the conductor standing in the asile saying, “Hello, heard you couldn’t get a cappucino.” Hello, how the hell did he know that?

Cloncurry turned out to welcome the train in true country style. A school band played a competent, if not slightly unconventional, selection of music. Cloncurry may be the only place I ever hear ‘Shut-up-a-your-face played by a full brass band. But oh, the glory, oh, the delight when outside the train station were two men and a quality espresso machine.

The mayor came to Hughenden to welcome the train when we arrived. Hughenden differed from the other towns for us, in that they had managed to sell one of our rooms to someone else. “Well,” said the accomodation manager, “you know we have a steam train coming through.” But we needn’t have worried because the Mayor – on hearing our predicament – offered us his house. No, he insisted. “Watch out for the twenty green tree frogs in the outside toilet and here’s the key.” Campbell Newman, you have big Hughenden shoes to fill.

In Charters Towers, I won the State of Origin prize pack on Origin night at the Royal Hotel. We were an interesting threesome, us writers, that night. Matt the Origin fan (understatement), Greg the Origin virgin, and myslef, somewhere in the middle. Sure, I’m interested. I understand the passion, if not the rules, exactly. So when I pull out the winning ticket, the Hughenden locals – not to mention the woman who ran the train – were categorically unimpressed that a girly writer from Brisbane should be wearing the coveted jersey when she couldn’t even remember the final score.

The paradox of intimacy: you can live next to someone for years, share a fence, a wall, and never know their name. And you can live in areas of Queensland, where your nearest neighbor is a good half hour drive away, and know everything about them. Sometimes the further we travel, the closer we get.

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