Max Anderson discovers the joys of a platinum cabin and the frustrations of leaving it on a trip from Brisbane to Adelaide.
Train travel is a special kind of travelling, one that bestows a sense of calm and privilege. This is the case while cosseted in Great Southern Rail's platinum-class cabins: when I wake in my double bed to a scrolling vista of mists in plunging valleys, I muse that life can't get any better. Then Damien the steward brings fresh coffee and proves me wrong.
I'm a fan of GSR, the company that conveys travellers across this gargantuan continent in the Ghan (Darwin to Adelaide) and the Indian Pacific (Sydney to Perth). I've travelled previously in gold class, the sleeper-class cabin that's half the size of platinum and two-thirds the cost, and I've been delighted to commend both journeys to domestic and international visitors. It's with great anticipation, then, that I embark on a double first and take a platinum cabin aboard the Southern Spirit, the new rail service from Brisbane to Adelaide.
This train journey bests everything that's gone before.
All the good stuff is present and correct: affable, generous-natured staff who help considerably in creating real Aussie bonhomie on board the signature silver-skinned carriages; the Queen Adelaide restaurant car serving fine food; and, yes, that sense of calm and privilege.
And the platinum cabin? It is comfortable and romantic, with a double bed, a full shower in the bathroom and an extra-wide 1.5-metre window. The latter is more important than you might imagine, since it showcases what truly sets this rail trip apart: the landscapes of south-eastern Australia.
GSR has secured rights to follow rail routes hitherto used only by freight trains and much of the journey hugs the Great Dividing Range. Like the famous desert and plains crossings, the landscape serves up colour and solace; unlike the famous desert and plains crossings, it offers wild contrasts, vertical scales and splendour: the emerald valleys of subtropical Queensland, the azure coast of Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie, the golden sheep country west of the Hunter, the olive Murray lands, Melbourne, the Grampians, the sinuous descent through the Adelaide Hills.
So, here's a truly great rail journey of the world, yes?
A platinum cabin on the five-night, six-day Southern Spirit trip costs $13,600 for two people, including meals and whistle-stop tours; alcohol is extra.
Now, I consider $13,600 to be a lot of money. It is a good second-hand car. In some of the country towns we pass through (Junee, Murrurundi, Albury, for instance) it is a deposit on a house. And within the tourism industry, $13,600 will buy a lot of highly personalised elite travel: private chefs, private vehicles, small aircraft, privileged access.
So, I'm flabbergasted when our train is halted each day so all 72 passengers (staying in gold and platinum cabins) are shepherded on to local coach tours. And I mean local coach tours: "On your right, you'll see a Dubbo housing estate ..."; "The population of Albury is ..."; "We're passing a koala forest - they say there's koalas in there but I never seen one ..."
Rather like "cheeseburger" is a long way from Tetsuya's, so "local coach tour" should be a long way from $13,600.
GSR calls them whistle-stops but brevity is rarely a feature and the intractable natures of some are suffocating. When the train stops at Port Macquarie on a hot summer's day, half a dozen passengers want only one thing: to swim in the Pacific off a golden Australian beach. Sure enough, we arrive at a golden Australian beach being enjoyed by hundreds of people but the passengers of the Southern Spirit are given five minutes to "have a look". Why? Because we've previously stopped at a roadside winery, a tomato farm and a convict-built church (closed for repairs).
Next morning, I think the scenery couldn't get any better and the whistle-stops any worse. I'm wrong on both counts. We wake to windows filled with McCubbin canvases of homesteads and rolling dairy pastures dotted with majestic gumtrees. It bestows a feeling of incredible well-being - at least until we board that same blasted bus for a seven-hour tour in the Hunter Valley.
After two hours tramping around the 16-hectare Hunter Valley Gardens, we're bussed off to lunch. We're looking forward to it, fully aware that the Hunter is a source of pedigree semillons, a place of fabulous cellar doors with outdoor dining decks surrounded by vines and views; indeed, just like the ones we've passed in our coach.
So why do we have lunch at a brewery pub named Potters? Why are we herded into a windowless brick room with all the charisma of a boardroom and asked, "Do youse want the beef or the lamb?"
It soon dawns on me what has derailed the Southern Spirit experience.
The Ghan and the Indian Pacific are tightly scheduled train trips with a few brief whistle-stops on the way. (And if you don't like them, never mind, you're soon back on the train.) The Southern Spirit itinerary, however, has been deliberately extended to double the time frame of the journey, entailing longer layovers to accommodate more tour time.
The fact is, five-star touring is clearly not a core competency of GSR; indeed, the job has been handed to local facilitators. For the record, the tours of Dubbo Zoo, Byron Bay and Albury are quite nice but I wouldn't choose to do a seven-hour coach tour of the Hunter, or anywhere else, for that matter, and certainly not while paying for an expensive cabin on a luxury train.
(If I were an overseas visitor, perhaps one who had forgone a private safari in southern Africa for the same money, I think I'd be ropeable: "See that beautiful Aussie beach, you poor, sun-starved Brits? Well, you can't go on it.")
I'm left wondering how hard would it be to give luxury-class passengers some better off-train distractions? Perhaps a beach barbecue led by one of the excellent crew, taking along some wines, even a beach cricket set. How about a late-afternoon four-wheel-drive tour in the foothill paddocks, led by a local farmer, stopping for drinks at sunset?
However, in all fairness, I can't leave the train standing at Not Happy Station.
While some of the passengers are miffed by their whistle-stops, the pleasure they take from being on board the Southern Spirit really doesn't waver - it's a silver thread of goodwill and good humour, being wound gracefully through the stunning Australian countryside.
And sure enough, two days after the Hunter Valley disaster, my frustration has been assuaged by the unrelenting service, hospitality and scenery. When I alight in Melbourne, I'm genuinely sad to say goodbye to passengers such as Don (happily hobbling around with his video camera) and to crew such as Robyn (so cheerful as she served tables in the gently rocking dining car).
The present incarnation of Southern Spirit has run only twice and is set to return in November. With a reconsidered and more imaginative approach to touring, there's little doubt this could be one of the world's truly great rail journeys. The Southern Spirit is, after all, on the right track.
Max Anderson travelled courtesy of Southern Spirit.
Twelve Southern Spirit trips are scheduled between November and February 2012.
Six-day Southern Spirit journeys run from Brisbane to Adelaide (and vice versa).
Platinum-class tickets cost $6800 a person, twin share; a single supplement costs $4624. Gold-class tickets cost $4400 a person, twin share; $2992 a single supplement. All meals and touring are included; alcohol is extra.
A five-day Southern Spirit journey to Brisbane can be taken by joining (or alighting) in Melbourne. Platinum-class tickets cost $6500 a person, twin share; $4420 a single supplement. Gold-class tickets cost $4100 a person, twin share; $2788 a single supplement.
Platinum cabins are roughly twice the size of gold cabins and have a double bed instead of two bunks. Beds fold away during the day. Platinum cabins have panoramic windows and a full bathroom with a cubicle shower. Gold cabins have en suites specially designed for train compartments.