"You're lucky to be here this time of year," says train driver Ken over the roar of the Gulflander's engine. "It's very green. Later in the year it's brown – still beautiful, but not as green."
It's not easy to catch a train from Normanton, a remote town in the Gulf Savannah region of northwest Queensland. For one thing, the Gulflander train only operates once a week. And if you try to catch it at the tail end of the wet season, as I am, you run the risk of being washed out.
But we've been given the go-ahead by the track crew, and the landscape looks beautiful as we enter the savannah, dotted with slender dark-trunked trees .
This early in the season there are only four passengers on-board the two-carriage, maroon-coloured diesel train, nicknamed the Tin Hare. In addition to myself, there's a family of three from Sydney, lured by the appeal of catching "the train from nowhere to nowhere".
A relic of a late 19th-century gold rush, the Gulflander takes five hours to run 150 kilometres from tiny Normanton (population 1257) to even tinier Croydon (population 258).
"Gold is long gone, but the train survived because it could always get through," Ken explains, using a microphone to speak above the engine noise.
Innovative arched steel sleepers sank into the ground, anchoring the rails against the region's regular floods. As a result, he says, the train could operate in 15 centimetres of floodwater. This gave it an advantage for many years over other modes of transport, though eventually it transformed into a tourist service.
I'm glad it survived; partly for its curiosity value, but mostly for the unique view it affords of nature in this flat, sparsely-wooded terrain.
Mind you, it's the noisiest train I have ever ridden on. The constant low growl of the engine combines with a loud scissoring sound of vibrating metal. As we progress, we can't help but stir up the local fauna. A big black-necked stork takes flight in front of us, then a group of brolgas ascends. An agile wallaby ("agile" being both its breed and description) then tears across the front of the train without mishap.
Clarina is our first signposted location. As it has a fresh water source, it once supplied water for locomotives and was home to Chinese-run market gardens. Later we pass Critters Camp, named by a railway construction crew in honour of its plentiful mosquitoes, scorpions and snakes. We stop for morning tea at Blackbull and chat about our travels while enjoying tea and blueberry muffins.
Back on-board, Ken has a story for us. In 1907 a train guard had, after acting strangely, shot himself dead at Blackbull station. "Maybe Blackbull's got a bit of a curse on it," he adds, giving the tale a showman-like spin. "We try not to stop there too long."
We're soon amid paperbark trees, in blossom after the rain. Ken also points out the bloodwood tree, the tallest in the region. Near the end of our ride we pass another ghost town, Golden Gate, which once was home to 1500 people and ran "suburban" train services from Croydon. Then we ascend True Blue Hill, the steepest point on the route, after pausing to let a couple of Brahman cows cross the line.
"By hook or by crook, the railway's been kept running all these years, and may hopefully continue," says Ken, easing the Gulflander into Croydon's simple station. Though it'll be good to return to the not-rattling world, I have to agree.
Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Queensland Rail Travel.
The Albion in Normanton has basic but comfortable motel-style rooms from $95 a night.
Croydon Club Hotel has pub accommodation near Croydon railway station from $80 a night. See croydonclubhotel.com.au
The Gulflander runs from Normanton to Croydon each Wednesday from February to December, returning on Thursday. Adults, $69 one-way, $115 return. See gulflander.com.au