It’s been described as the train ride “from nowhere to nowhere,” but Queensland Rail’s Gulflander is anything but a useless journey – especially if you love history, striking scenery and a dash of the eccentric.
The experience starts in Normanton – nearly nine hours’ drive and 700 kilometres west of Cairns. This is Gulf Savannah country – a harsh, far-flung part of Queensland and the last place you’d expect to find the gracious arch of a Victorian-era railway station.
It’s home to the Gulflander. This classic old rail motor does the run, once a week, between Normanton and Croydon – two remote towns that were a big deal more than a century-and-a-half ago. When gold was discovered in Croydon in the 1800s, a rail line was built to link the river port of Normanton to the gold fields. As is often the case, the gold eventually petered out. But the line – built to withstand flooding rains and the march of time – remained. It was ultimately re-purposed as purely a tourist experience and has never looked back.
Visitors to Normanton Station start their journey back in time by visiting the station museum, which is stacked with rail memorabilia.
They might also encounter the station’s two resident cats – Maggie and Harrison – who “assist” Station Master, Ken Fairbairn.
Ken needs help. He’s surely Queensland Rail’s original “jack of all trades”: driver, engineer and even the station porter at times. He’s also a guide during the five-hour rail journey to Croydon, sharing the history of the line and pointing out natural features in the stark Savannah landscape.
And you can add postman to Ken’s long list of duties. The Gulflander still delivers mail to remote cattle stations along the line.
In Croydon, the gold may be gone – but there are still treasures to discover.
Drop into the True Blue Visitor Information Centre to get your bearings – and join a guided walking tour of the town’s impressive heritage precinct. The original town hall, courthouse and gaol have been preserved along a street studded with gaslight-style streetlamps.
You can also pop into Australia’s longest continuously trading General Store. Croydon’s “one-stop shop” opened for business 124 years ago and owner, Barb Brock, has been behind the counter for 14 of them. The store’s floorboards, shelves and counters are all original features from the 1800s.
For those who are staying on in Croydon, there’s the option to jump back on the Gulflander for a Golden Sunset tour. The train heads eight kilometres back up the line to an old mining camp. It’s the setting for a rustic dinner of soup and stew as an outback sunset delivers the best kind of gold.
If the Gulflander is on your bucket list, there’s a range of short or full-day excursions from Normanton to Croydon. Or jump on board a fully guided nine-day Gulf Savannah Wanderer tour from $3,795.00 per adult, twin share.