The Great Southern train sits sleek and metallic alongside the concrete platform. It weighs 1,329 tonnes and extends 687 metres and 29 carriages into the distance, forming a long, articulated tube that will undulate its way from Adelaide to Brisbane.
I stow my gear under my cabin bench and pivot to close the door. I'm contained and snug: a cabin-capsule inside a carriage-capsule moving through time and landscape. Almost imperceptibly, the train begins to roll. Then, the joints between carriages tense and there's a jolt, a stutter. The train gains momentum. The journey begins: 2,880km, two nights and three days and we will adjust our clocks through two time zones.
Sunlight arcs through the double-glazed window. The cabin, with its walnut-toned panelling, exudes a warm glow. Light beams, interrupted by trees or a small farm dwelling, a lamp post or occasional passing train, create a shadow theatre on the walls.
My gaze runs across a landscape of eucalyptus with their pear-shaped leaves. In a copse of verdant green something catches my eye – a single pale tree, stripped of bark, with a smooth anaemic trunk, as if its blood had been drained, its bald branches spreading out like a network of white porcelain veins.
Later, while walking through the Grampians National Park (Gariwerd: home to the Djab Wurrung and Jardwadjali people for 20,000 years) for the first of our off-train experiences, I encounter a similar tree close up. We are hiking a winding track immersed in forest and weaving around dramatic layered sandstone outcrops, shaped over millennia by the motion of water, and tall jagged cliffs extruded over 380 million years.
A meandering river trickles and, when we reach a bend in the trail, there's a pool held captive between rocks. The water is mirror still. It reflects the sky, the trees, the rocks and me. Then something tiny drops into it and the image and moment fractures.
Nearby stands a eucalyptus, bleached from the waist up, with just an apron of shredded loose bark. "What's up with these trees?" I ask our guide, pointing at the bare trunk. He reaches over and pats it. "Eucalyptus moult annually," he explains. "It gets rid of mosses, fungi, lichens and parasites. It aids tree health. And assists with photosynthesis, so the trees grow faster." It turns out the tree was on the cusp of life, not death.
The train rolls through fields of wheat that go on and on and on and on. They stretch beyond my focus, fusing with the horizon.
With ample uninterrupted time, I begin to notice the way the light rotates and the colours of the landscape change throughout the day. At dawn, the fields are bleached and listless. By midday, fluttering blades send a honey ripple across the wide panorama. In the afternoon, cotton wool clouds cast puffy shadows, and when evening arrives, the wheat blushes. When I look through the window on the opposite side of the train, a hot ember glows on the seam between sky and earth.
I slip easily into sleep. In the deep of night, I am vaguely aware the train is swaying and shuddering. On occasion, it rolls with a murmur and a vibration that reaches me comfortingly through the mattress.
On the Great Southern, you share days, meals and conversations with strangers. There are 187 passengers and in the dining cart, we are randomly assigned tables opposite others. Pleasantries are exchanged. Where are you from? Is this your first long train trip? What will you do when you get to Brisbane?
Conversations are not of youthful aspiration: rather, they reflect on memories, reference the twilight years, recall past careers and travels.
I notice themes emerging. There's an awareness of life’s transience, its ebbs and flows and how we are all subject to its currents; our lives are unique yet eerily similar; most of life is constructed from small, unimportant events and insignificant things.
I'm reading when my cabin plunges into darkness. For a short time, I'm disoriented. The air cools and the rumble on the rails seems amplified. I see my reflection in the window. I photograph myself with my phone and, as the flash ignites, it flares against the glass and when I look at the image, part of me is missing, ghostly and incomplete. I'm there, but I'm not. I have a flashback. To our second off-train experience: a visit to Canberra's National Portrait Gallery.
"The portraits here are likely not what you are used to," says the museum guide. She sweeps her arm passionately around the gallery, which features around 500 drawings, paintings, photographs and sculptures. She’s right: the visit redefines my understanding of portraiture.
I see a life-sized sculpture of a man's head by Sam Jinks: half-face-half-skull. And a portrait by Andrew Mezeia of astronomer Penny Sackett who holds a globe; in a small round wall mirror is a reflection of an interviewer.
A large monochrome work that seems ghostly, incomplete, catches my eye. It’s a large self-portrait by Vernon Ah Kee. The facial features fade and disappear towards the edges. In his 'Unwritten' portraits, each drawing shows the marks of human-ness – depressions at the eyes, a ridge at the nose. Human, yet not properly formed, like my self-portrait in the train’s cabin. Ah Kee symbolises the invisibility and disempowerment of Indigenous identity in Australia. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are there, but they're not.
The train hums, the cabin swells with light and we emerge from the tunnel.
As the train nears Brisbane, wide open fields give way to pasture with livestock; folds into fields with sparse eucalyptus, then intensifies into dense subtropical forests. Covering great distances by train has heightened my appreciation of the immensity of Australia, the planet's sixth largest country and the world's largest island.
It turns out that parallel rails offer serendipity of a different kind: the discovery of the colour of light, the hidden narrative of portraits and life where I thought I saw death. And perhaps part of the reason we buy train tickets is to connect with other passengers, to find out about their adventures through life. I did not discover paths less travelled, but lives well travelled.
Explore more from AA Directions magazine while you're here:
- Looking to buy a campervan? Find out which types hold their value
- Meet the maker: Flutter Design butterfly chairs
- Head to WOMAD festival in New Plymouth