Why slow travel makes sense in a fast-paced modern world

I’m sitting on the Great Southern train reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches.

It’s the ultimate book on slow travel by the great Japanese Zen poet Basho, a classic about the journey, rather than the destination.

This seems appropriate on my trip from Brisbane to Adelaide – a four-day, three-night rail odyssey through eastern Australia, called the Great Southern.

Great Southern

The Great Southern, as it snakes its way down the east coast.

I grew up reading books about slow travel – Somerset Maugham’s meanderings through Asia, Robert Louis Stevenson’s travels – with a donkey – through the Cevennes, the great Eric Newby’s Slowly Down the Ganges.

In today’s frantic age, slow travel – rail in particular – has never seemed more attractive. This wide brown land was, of course, opened up by rail travel, and while we drifted away from it over time, it’s a delight to see we’re now drifting back.

I was a student when I started travelling long distance by train – the Gold Coast Motorail that used to run from Murwillumbah to Sydney. It seemed the most literary way to go, based on my love of Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, Paul Theroux’s travelogues including The Great Railway Bazaar, and a plethora of other books.

My main literary touchstone has, however, always been Australian Kenneth Slessor’s The Night Ride – a poem about an evening journey by train, first published in 1944.

On The Great Southern I think of Slessor as I look out my cabin window at night, seeing what he saw: “Nothing but grey, rushing rivers of bush outside”.

Sometimes, “nothing” is good for you. It’s not boring; it’s relaxing. And aboard The Great Southern I give myself over to the journey.

If you’re going, take a few good books and a journal to jot in. Then relax, because everything is done for you, with military precision and a smile. 

While most routes from Brisbane begin at Roma Street, the picturesque station doesn’t have quite the space for the Great Southern’s 28 carriages and two locomotives. The job goes instead to Acacia Ridge Terminal, a freight hub with much less in the way of romance (and facilities), hence it’s prefaced by a breakfast briefing at nearby historic Hanworth House, which is far more aligned to the golden age of rail. 

From there, we’re bussed to Acacia Ridge, where the train awaits, bearing a distinctive Eastern Grey kangaroo livery. (It turns out this train is actually The Ghan on its months off, which makes excellent sense.)

Great Southern train gold class cabin

Watch the world go by from your bed. Photo: Cam Inniss

My Gold Class cabin is comfortable with a couch by day, which turns into a bed at night, while I’m at dinner. There’s a small but practical bathroom with a shower, and plenty of room to stow my stuff. Platinum Class cabins are a cut above, with more space and a larger window to gaze through, but I am perfectly happy with mine. 

The food is excellent, thanks to the on-board chefs, the menu in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant reflecting local and Indigenous ingredients such as lemon myrtle. It has quite a social atmosphere, if you’re that way inclined. Although I’m generally not, I find myself drawn to the only other gentleman wearing a sports jacket and Panama hat, which provides an obvious conversation starter.

Meanwhile, the Outback Explorer Lounge features entertainment by a rather engaging troubadour named Kev, who seems able to play anything and everything requested. 

Great Southern Rail Queen Adelaide

Feel free to dress for dinner at the Queen Adelaide Restaurant car, aboard the Great Southern.

A beachside seafood feast at Coffs Harbour on the first night is the first of the off-train experiences, followed by Newcastle and the Hunter Valley on day two, and outings in and around Melbourne on day three.

To enjoy some down time, I opt out of the first day of excursions, staying on the train and embracing the whole idea of slow travel by reading my book and chilling in comfort.

The staff, a bit bemused by this, are nonetheless attentive and fix me a light lunch. Talk about spoiled.

Great Southern train excursion Coffs Harbour

An off-train experience to Coffs Harbour.

I prove more adventurous once we reach Victoria by joining a tour to the Clyde Park winery at Bannockburn near Geelong, a short bus ride from the train. Possibly an unusual choice for a teetotaller, but it’s all about the food for me, including Peking duck pizza (to die for) and marinated Sutherlands Creek lamb with a side of duck fat potatoes. Comfort food of the highest order.

Then it’s back on board for the final stretch to Adelaide, arriving in the morning on Thursday after a scenic dawn crawl through the Adelaide Hills.

Some excursions are truncated after we’re held up for a couple of hours by flooding in a tunnel en route – all part of the excitement as far as I’m concerned, because I just love rail travel.

As a family we have often opted for rail – in Japan, Canada and Europe where rail travel is now booming. New luxury rail journeys are being launched almost weekly – Brussels to Prague with European Sleeper; a new night train connecting Rome and the ski resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo and Austria’s state railway ÖBB recently unveiled a new 33-strong fleet of night trains.

The luxurious Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is still the benchmark though when it comes to the sheer romance of rail.

And like many I have also experienced the world’s great rail journeys vicariously with Michael Palin, Michael Portillo and Tony Robinson, among others. I have even journeyed imaginatively on the Trans-Siberian with Joanna Lumley, but I’m now one up on her. As far as I know she hasn’t been on The Great Southern. Yet.

The Great Southern travels between Adelaide and Brisbane weekly from December through February, from $2340 per person for a Gold Twin cabin.

The writer was a guest of The Playford Adelaide – MGallery and Journey Beyond.

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