The new Great Southern train service links Adelaide and Brisbane

The departure of any long distance train is arguably more stirring than its arrival, jammed as it is, more often than not, with the expectations and excitement of the places that lie scattered in the imagination along the route ahead.

Today, as my gleaming stainless steel transport of some considerable delights prepares to slip away from its platform with that familiar gentle shudder, a three-day, nearly 3000 kilometre overland odyssey awaits, with the sense of anticipation on this particular journey greater than usual for train tragics.

I'm part of a rare event, not merely in Australia but anywhere. It's the inaugural trip of a brand new "rail cruise" which, at the moment it departs, will join its shedmates the Ghan and the Indian Pacific, in the pantheon of the world's great rail journeys. Together. the Ghan and the Indian Pacific represent 140 years of rail history, surviving successive threats of closure, among other dramas, but somehow prospering long enough to help spawn this, the new Great Southern service, travelling between Adelaide and Brisbane and return.

The 3000 kilometres or so the Great Southern will travel between the two cities places it only behind the Ghan as one of the longest rail journeys on the planet, taking its place in such august company as even the Trans-Siberian between Moscow and Vladivostok and the Blue Train between Pretoria and Cape Town.

After festivities at the Adelaide terminal, we're off on our 57-hour, absolutely-no-rush overland voyage, travelling at an average speed of 85 km/h. The distance between Adelaide and Brisbane is similar to that of the Ghan between Adelaide and Darwin but in a bit of railway chutzpah, the Great Southern is in reality a re-badged Ghan and the ghost, too, of the defunct Southern Spirit service which last ran in 2012.

The new train is designed to occupy the void left by the Ghan when it is rested for a few months during the summer months and the Top End wet season, and those wishing to book a compartment aboard it will need to do so now for its summer season later this year.

On this journey, I'm among the first to sample some of the Great Southern's attractively-refurbished interiors, fashioned by a big city interior design firm more accustomed to hotels than trains, with each reborn carriage costing as much as $2 million.

The train's spacious top-tier compartments these days feature fold-down double beds (lounges by day) and relatively luxurious and even sizeable bathrooms with fancy hotel-style toiletries and proper shower cubicles with clear, fortunately shatter-proof, doors.

It's not the Venice-Simplon, the compartments of which only recently had showers installed, would you believe, though it's not far from it. But, really, it's not the rolling stock that alone defines a genuinely great train but the landscapes through which its travels and the community of passengers that rapidly develops, and it must be said eventually dissolves, aboard it.

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The Great Southern traverses at this time a yet to be bushfire ravaged Adelaide Hills on the first section of its journey. It's clear that the train has swapped the blood red deserts that characterise the unforgiving country through which the Ghan and Indian Pacific pass with the pathetically anaemic farmlands of an almost equally moisture-deprived southern Australia.

Thus far the lone body of water is the Murray River, itself no raging Mississippi, where, in some antipodean Huck Finn throwback, a paddle-steamer floats picturesquely below us as the train passes across a bridge, en route to the only somewhat greener pastures beyond the Victoria border.

Australia's pioneer rail planners may have factored in a paucity of water for their notoriously thirsty steam trains but they clearly never envisaged a 21st century passenger train that would be much too long for most 19th, and 20th century platforms.

Further along the line, well into Victoria, later that afternoon, at Stawell Station, straight across from the sporting field where the annual eponymous Gift foot race is held, it's necessary for the 700-metre long Great Southern to make two full, minor traffic-jam inducing, stops in order for passengers to alight for the first of their off-train excursions. Further along there will be more stops at Canberra and Coffs Harbour before finally arriving in Brisbane.

The Great Southern's itinerary, which unapologetically snubs both Melbourne and Sydney, includes stops in the Grampians, or Gariwerd as it's known to the indigenous Jardwadjali people, mountain range, featuring a special outdoor dining experience in a scenic setting.

At Stawell, passengers are transferred from the train to that enemy of all rail fanciers, the coach, or more plainly bus, for the hour-long trip to the aforementioned rugged, sandstone mountain range, protruding from the surrounding flat farmland like a goanna let loose inside a billiard table.

Once there, there's the opportunity to visit a lookout but I decide to stay put, reclining on the sofa-soft kikuyu of a large paddock near the village of Halls Gap, specially reserved and prepared for passengers and dominated by a marquee erected for dinner, under a forgiving early summer sun. Nearby, wild kangaroos and emus, an irresistible attraction for the foreign passengers, graze at a safe though detectable distance.

By the next morning, having slipped in and out Melbourne overnight, the bleary passengers are up early and performing the typical train tango, bouncing their way off the sides of sleepers en route to the restaurant carriage for the excellent breakfast. Over bacon, eggs, orange juice and some well-appreciated proper coffee, the train is typically abuzz with the usual inquisitions as to how much slumber each has achieved overnight (most common response: not a lot).

There is another coach transfer from Yass, across the border in NSW, to Canberra where I've chosen, from a range of off-train excursion options, a surprisingly revealing behind-the-scenes tour of Parliament House including lunch with all of the Great Southern passengers inside the building's aptly-named Great Hall.

After a generous three-course meal, it's time to explore this mammoth building, built bunker-like into a hillside and topped by a massive stainless steel pole flying an Australian flag, as big as the bus that transported us here.

We stroll through the impressive Prime Ministerial portrait gallery, where the turnover of PMs has been so acute in recent years that some of those who have held the office are yet to hang, as it were. Next, we're escorted all the way to the walk of death, that long white corridor where successive prime ministers, under the hot glare of television lights, have marched to face their fate in their respective party rooms.

By late afternoon we're back aboard the train. The Great Southern slips into the night, passing through a mostly unnoticed Sydney, with most of us asleep and positions itself north towards Brisbane, fashioning, speaking of politicians, a kind of reverse Paul Keating-style J-curve since departing Adelaide.

On the last day of this inaugural Great Southern sojourn, there's a stop at Coffs Harbour and the nearby seaside township of Urunga. Here we stroll in the company of an Indigenous-guided tour along a kilometre-long boardwalk, this morning shared with locals taking their dogs and themselves on morning constitutionals. Beside us a dolphin dips in and out of the estuary's waters where the Kalang and Bellinger Rivers meet the sea, pausing the foot traffic on the jetty.

After lunch a little further up the coast at Coffs Harbour, en route to Brisbane, the train threads its resolute way through the heretofore unaccustomed green subtropical undulating country of NSW's farthest north coast.

The mist of pernicious bushfire smoke settles into the passing valleys for the evening like a least welcome house guest and it won't be long now before we glide into a prosaic freight terminal outside Brisbane, with even that city's famous Roma Street Station unable to accommodate such a long train.

It's with bags packed, memories stowed and farewells issued, that the excitement of the departure, 3000-odd kilometres ago down the track in Adelaide, has been replaced by a quiet elation of a new epic journey well-made, well-done and, after three days almost well over.

FIVE MORE GREAT SOUTHERN OFF-TRAIN TOURS

THE GRAMPIANS, VICTORIA

Take a shuttle to Boroka Lookout for spectacular panoramas of the ragged peaks, valleys and forests of the magnificent Grampians mountain range – formed sandstone deposited on the ocean floor 380 million years ago – and pastures beyond.

MURRUMBATEMAN, NSW

A small town on the edge of the ACT, Murrumbateman is nirvana for food and wine lovers. A notable wine region with more than three dozen cool-climate wineries, it's also a great place to sample the fine local produce.

CANBERRA, ACT

In addition to a behind-the-scenes tour of Parliament House, passengers aboard the Great Southern have the option of visiting some of the capital's other landmark institutions including the Australian War Memorial and the National Gallery of Australia.

COFFS HARBOUR, NSW

After arrival at Coffs Harbour station, head by coach for the hills, to the Forest Sky Pier, a suspended viewing platform-cum-lookout affording uninterrupted vistas of the Pacific Ocean coastline and the Solitary Islands Marine Park with its five main islands.

BONVILLE GOLF RESORT, NSW

Believe it or not, there actually is time for a round of golf (or up to at least nine holes) before the Great Southern departs on the next stage of its journey at this renowned, 72-par golf course near Coffs Harbour.

THE DETAILS

Anthony Dennis travelled aboard the Great Southern as a guest of Journey Beyond.

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traveller.com.au/australia

RIDE

The Great Southern's first summer of operation has concluded with its second season starting on December 4 this year and running until the end of January 2021. The reverse journey between Brisbane and Adelaide takes three nights and four days.

BOOK

Prices start from $1779 for a Gold-class single, $1869 a person for a Gold twin and $3999 a person for Platinum Service. See journeybeyondrail.com.au

See also: Luxury train returns to the Melbourne-Sydney route

See also: Why the Ghan is one of the world's greatest trains

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