Great Southern Rail Journey

Article from Travel Outback Australia.

Excited and nervous. That’s the best way to describe how we felt on a balmy January morning, stepping aboard the Great Southern Rail’s sleeper carriage. We were off on our Great Southern Rail Journey.

When we were offered the chance to test drive a gold class rail journey from Brisbane to Adelaide, we knew we’d be completely out of our comfort zone. After all, as far as luxury travel goes, a tent in winter is about as up-market as we usually get.

And sleeping on a moving train? I won’t lie. We were both worried we wouldn’t sleep at all.

So what was it like? How did we die-hard outback campers cope with gold class service and sleeping on a train?

Read on and find out what we learned about Aussie train journeys – and ourselves.

Day 1

We missed breakfast. Okay, we didn’t actually skip breakfast.

We’d had it before turning up at the historic Customs House in Brisbane’s CBD, where our Great Southern Rail journey began, not realising there was a fully catered breakfast awaiting us.

We checked our bags in, then headed out into the garden overlooking the Brisbane River, enjoyed a coffee and checked out our 200 fellow rail travellers. Gary might have also had a second breakfast, hobbit-style.

From the Customs House, a bus took us out to Acacia Ridge where the train awaited at the freight terminal.

Yes, a freight terminal. There’s a good reason why.

The Great Southern is 700 metres long, so it calls for some creative embarking and disembarking, like using freight terminals or in other cases, shunting carriages along station platforms.

Around 11 am, the bus dropped us off at Carriage O. We hopped on board, keen to check out our cabin for the next few days.

Ours was a twin sleeper cabin with an ensuite. The top bunk folds down at night, and the bottom bunk is a lounge during the day. 

The ensuite is similar to the bathroom in a caravan: small but functional.

Our carriage manager arrived whilst we were still unpacking to check on us and explain how things worked.

This level of communication continued throughout the journey as did the excellent level of service.  Used to looking after ourselves this was something we weren’t used to but hey, we could get used to this!.

Soon after, the train pulled out of the terminal and our journey was underway.

We headed up to the lounge car – a journey through four other sleeper carriages which was at times bumpy!  In the lounge, we chatted with a few other passengers and waited to be called for lunch.

Our first meal was a hint of the impressive fare to come. There was food, good food, and lots of it.

Six hours and an espresso martini later, we arrived in Coffs Harbour, and our first off-train interlude: dinner at the beach.

Great Southern Rail journey

This meal was my favourite and it’s not hard to see why. The setting, the food, the music and dancing afterwards.

Back on the train, we returned to the cabin to find our beds made up and ready for us. After a shower, I climbed up onto the top bunk, and tucked in, hoping the train would lull me to sleep.

Day 2

Sleep eluded us.

With the constant bumping of the train as it sped south, neither of us got much rest. I’m a fussy sleeper at the best of times, so this was no surprise to me, but Gary usually nods off without much effort.

Worse, the coming day was to be our biggest off-train day, with two half-day Port Stephens excursions ahead.

Over breakfast, we conferred about the best way to get ourselves to sleep that night. Our solution: more nightcaps.

Bolstered by several cups of coffee, we stepped off the train at Maitland Station (near Newcastle, NSW) that morning and into a bus.

Each day there were a choice of activities on offer. Some passengers headed off on a Hunter Valley wine tour, whilst others joined a foot tour of Newcastle.

We’d opted to go for the Port Stephens by land and sea option. This combined a morning’s dolphin watching cruise around Port Stephens with an afternoon 4WD tour of Stockton Beach, famous for its massive sand dunes.

So did we see any dolphins on the two hour cruise? Yes, we did!

Lunch was an abundance of delicious local seafood at the marina and then we were off to Stockton Beach and a 4WD trip.

For me, visiting Stockton Beach was a highlight. Stockton Beach is well known for its Worimi (Aboriginal) heritage and archaeology: middens, burials and occupation sites. It’s also known for Tin City, the real-life shanty town featured in the first Mad Max film.

Scattered along the beach are also reminders of its time as an army training ground in World War II.

Tin City, a unique collection of corrugated iron shacks with their origins as shelter for shipwrecked sailors in the 19th century, didn’t disappoint. With the famous Stockton Sand Dunes rising up behind them, Tin City gives off a post-apocalyptic vibe.

It’s not hard to see why it was chosen as a setting in a Mad Max film.

Sadly, none of the original 19th century sailors’ shelters or 1930s depression era shacks remain. Today, Tin City is home to eleven holiday or fishing shacks, all built after WWII. It has one permanent resident.

This Daily Mail article has a few pictures inside the shacks.

Leaving Tin City, our next stop was to the top of one of the beach’s tallest dunes, and a great place to enjoy a glass of bubbly or an ale.

By 5pm we were back on a bus, headed for Broadmeadows Station, where the Great Southern and dinner awaited.

We spent time in the lounge car, watching the Central Coast flicker past whilst sipping our various nightcaps. Our Great Southern Rail journey was well and truly into second gear.

We headed off to bed just as the train reached Sydney’s northern outskirts.

Day 3

This time, we both slept better. Whether it was the smoother ride, exhaustion, or that we’d alcoholed ourselves to sleep, I couldn’t say.

Which was just as well – we had another big day ahead.

Around 11:30am, we arrived in Melbourne’s outskirts. We’d opted for a to spend the day in Melbourne itself, so we hopped on a bus and headed for the city.

Others had chosen a day trip along the Great Ocean Road, or a wine trip to the Moorabool Valley and Geelong.

Great Southern Rail journey

Our first stop was the Eureka Tower, and a three course lunch at Eureka 89. Eureka 89 is a 5 star restaurant located on the Tower’s 89th floor (of course!). The restaurant showcases local food and wine, and the food was as stunning as the 360° view.

Gary was in food nirvana, but I was struggling.

I’m not a big eater or a foodie. The gastronomic tsunami had finally drowned me. I gave Gary my entree, half of my main meal and my dessert. There was no way I could squeeze anything else in.

I distracted myself with the view from the 89th Floor of the tower, picking out some of Melbourne’s most famous landmarks from above.

After lunch, we were ready to take the vertigo challenge on the Eureka SkyDeck’s Edge Experience.

The Edge Experience isn’t for the faint-hearted. You’re suspended in a glass box nearly 300 metres above the ground.

…Ground which you can see beneath your feet, a long, long way below.

There were a few sweaty palms and racing hearts in that little glass cube! Glad it wasn’t us!

Back at ground level, we’d opted for a couple of hours of free time to explore Melbourne’s CBD.

After some much-needed walking, we found our way to AC/DC Lane and took in some of the city’s famous street art. Baby Yoda was definitely a favourite.

Great Southern Rail journey

Our free time sped past, and we were soon back on a bus, heading for Geelong and our final dinner at Provenance Wines. Once a paper mill, Provenance Wines is located in historic stone buildings and dreamy gardens. Beneath the Barrel Room’s cathedral-like ceiling, we sat down to a feast of local food and a sampling of Provenance’s own wines.

The wine, food and dancing agreed with us, as that night we had the best night’s sleep of all.

Day 4

As we packed up our cabin whilst the train wound through the Adelaide Hills towards our journey’s end, we reflected on our Great Southern Rail journey experience.

This was a very different kind of travel for us.

It’s not an exaggeration to say we feasted like kings, with the beach dinner at Coffs Harbour and Provenance Wines both hard to beat in terms of stunning location and fine cuisine.

And, whilst the cabin was small, we didn’t actually spend that much time in it.

Great Southern Rail journey

Across all four days/three nights on the Great Southern from Brisbane to Adelaide, there’s a lot off-train activities packed in.

I won’t lie. We would have liked just a little more downtime to relax on the train – perhaps a mid afternoon return to the train on Day 2 would be our recommendation.

I really did miss those few hours to read a book or just watch the world go by. If we took the trip again, we’d opt for the Newcastle walking tour on Day 2 as with all the incredible food and drink, we found ourselves craving exercise.

We’d also make sure we prepared for the first night on the train, too, by having an extra night cap (or two) to help us sleep

The hospitality of the train staff, the food and drink both on and off the train were extraordinary.

Reaching Adelaide, we said our goodbyes to a few new friends and took a few more snaps of the train.

I think most of us like meeting people on our camping trips but generally there is no further contact. This train journey ensures you can really bond with people and continue to share that friendship over time.

Quick Facts

The Great Southern Rail journey runs exclusively during the hot outback summer months, December and January, when the legendary Ghan doesn’t operate.

You’ve a choice of travelling either Brisbane-to-Adelaide over four days and three nights or Adelaide-to-Brisbane which is one night shorter .

We travelled Brisbane-to-Adelaide.

All meals and drinks are included in the fare. Off train excursions are also included in the fare.

There are two classes to choose from, Gold and Platinum, and a variety of sleeper cabin configurations (single, double, queen).

You can read more about the classes, cabins and current costs here.

The Great Southern’s inaugural trip was in December 2019. The Journey Beyond Rail (the company who operates the train) representative told us it’s been so popular that it’s now booked out into 2021.

Cover Image courtesy of Journey Beyond Rail.

Our Great Southern Rail Journey was supported by Journey Beyond.

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