The sun is still hanging quite low in the sky, lazily trying to rise. It’s a strong light from a large disk and the shadows it’s casting are long and sharp. While the sun is still so low, the light strobes through the trees and buildings and often disappears altogether as we pass through cuttings and large buildings. So far, still in the Sydney suburbs, it’s a lot like most other train journeys, the train jostles through various junctions but the track is very smooth even at this very urbane speed and only a slight side to side motion can be perceived.
We pull into the fantastically “train world” sounding station – Hornsby – just half an hour or so into the journey and the sight of unfamiliar uniformed school children remind me that it’s still very early and maybe because we set off in the dark feels like we have been going for a while. Not so. At least 8 hours to go. The sky is now fully blue though, with clouds to the north where we are heading and a low mist hanging at the tops of trees of the woodland opening up on both sides of the train.
I broke to buy coffee, as my boys smelt the buffet car open as soon as the shutters were raised. When I got back to my seat with the tray we were in the middle of the most beautiful lake area. It looks like miles of glassy water with oyster beds and edged with luxury yachts and boats all around it and spanning both sides of the track. It’s very obviously a wealthy area with large properties but it soon gives way to a scrappy and dour looking town providing everything the lakeside didn’t have. Neon and lots of traffic and commerce hanging on to the edge of the lakeside like a leech. The light rain and mist add to the glumness of the town which has the potential to look ok given sunshine but as soon as we pass the outskirts the landscape changes again giving way to what appears to be farmland. Nursery after nursery, massive covered clochés with whatever harvest pushing towards the light protected from whatever nasty this place has to offer. We are now two hours into the ride and it seems very slow but super-smooth. My coffee is hardly moving in its big paper cup.
Human city life has now long given way to sparse animal life. Creeks and streams cross endless undulating countryside and fill low areas with water to make pools providing home to many unidentified (to me at least) birds. They look like magpies and crows but there are differences so you can’t be sure. Each of these many pools or billabongs come supplied with a dead tree stump and a live tree for shade and edged with reeds and grasses. One strange thing is that none of the many, many cows out here actually match. The varieties and colours are varied and its mystifying to think how they can be herded for milking, so vast is the land. They also don’t seem to like to be with each other and consequently stand in small groups of 2 or 3 with hundreds of meters between each group. My travelling companion, apart from my wife and kids, is a lovely retired English teacher and the very first Ten Pound Pom that I have ever met. He has been feeding me snippets of his vast local knowledge all the way so far and is happy to chirp in when he feels my face bears a puzzled look. He tells me the cows are gathered by dirt bike and corralled to the milking sheds in that way but the only buildings I can see are rickety and badly painted water tanks on well weathered wooden stilts. There have been a couple of kangaroos and a few smaller wallabies and pelicans floating on the larger of the pools but without this exotic fauna we could be in any countryside in the UK. The rail track and roads outside are very windy now and we are pushing up hill in slow curves contrasting the straight lines of zigzagging cables. For now it’s unremarkable on the eye, but as I am in Australia on a train heading up the Pacific coast my eyes are keenly scanning for new things to see. Four and a half hours into the journey I am as excited as a child at the wonder of it all.
The landscape hasn’t changed much in the last hour or so. Cows and fields and more fields and more cows. It is much hillier than I expected. The valleys are deep and very steep and the peaks are high enough to mess with the clouds. We have passed through a one street town with no more than a dozen houses and one building called The General Store as its obvious hub. Even in a town this small the people have seemed to feel the need to drive to the store frmm what can only be a hundred meters. They can’t all be buying heavy stuff, but then again, steep hillsides could be a lot steeper than they look with a carrier bag in your hand at the bottom of one. It still feels like we are going really slowly and I have just come to the realisation that those pools in the fields are probably man made watering holes for the many cows.
The populated places along this stretch are very neat and clipped and saplings are planted everywhere to try to supplement the lone trees with their bark stripped at animal height. A few more of the plants are becoming more exotic in appearance with strange shaped leaves and it would also appear mother nature decided on a strict brown to green colour palette. There is the straw coloured scorched grass at one end of the spectrum all the way to the deep green of the main body of the more established trees. This brown/green background makes the very sparse and odd coloured flowers leap out at you in the bright sunshine that is bathing the whole scene again. The earth also has patches of red soil amongst the very dark black soil that has been the norm up to now. This red soil is of the kind one imagines when one thinks of the traditional Aussie outback, that typical “red soil and endless and cloudless blue sky with a dirt track zipping off towards vanishing point.” I ask my companion and he shakes his head and assures me that I must go at least a couple of hundred Km or more westward to reach that kind of thing.
At the moment we are sat in a siding waiting for the return train to pass us. This is a single line and it’s distance truly staggering. There are people on here travelling on quite a way after we end our 11 hour stint. Three kangaroos, and they are big old real kangaroos for sure, are lying by the tree line watching a horse grazing. It looks a little comical, they are like three giant rabbits. The very high tree tops are rustling and swaying as you would expect at that height, and there are some VERY tall trees here, but at ground level it’s as still as an empty room. I keep scanning for snakes, or maybe some other exotic animal but I’m told by my self appointed guide that in mid winter there is very little chance of that. There are surprisingly few birds in this clearing despite an abundance of ibis and magpie and also quite a few pelicans just a few miles back. A shocking pink bougainvillea breaks the colour monopoly and there also appears to be many more evergreens and thin spiny pines. There’s also a new kind of plant, or is it a bush? It looks exactly like a fibre optic lamp with many thin green stalks growing up and then outwards to hang back down under their own weight. I have seen party wigs similar also.
I have moved seat to the other side of the train at the request of my man/boy Sam. We are passing through a place called Kempsey. It is very neat and all the gardens are beautifully tended and colourful. It also has the cleanest looking church I have ever seen at its center. It’s a cattle town, a fact given up by the market on the edge of the town. It looks a lovely place. We are back in scrub land again and I am told that since the seven year drought broke it has been consistently wet and a lot of the land now looks waterlogged, almost swampy in parts. A dead cow sunk up to its hind quarters is a testament to its depth. Reservoir levels went from only 30% to full very rapidly and they are now overflowing and I’m looking at the result. Most of the trees here have evidence of lots of lush new growth and the bewildering number of shades of green are hard to evaluate and take in. We are nearing the end of the journey as Coffs Harbour is less than an hour away. Parts of this area are completely under water in the very low lying areas and coloured flowers pop out of the green more frequently. I just glimpsed the sea through the woodland to my right and it’s starting to feel a bit like jungle. Our last stop before Coffs Harbour is suddenly outside of the window. A single platform with a single building that’s housing electrical equipment and not for human use. It’s strangely tiny and insignificant as a stop on an epic train journey like this but it’s part of what I have come to love about Australia, it’s tempestuous and spontaneous and so vast that it will never cease to spring these little surprises. This journey has given me a perspective I could not have experienced any other way and I would certainly be up for doing this again one day. It’s just a lovely way to travel and think at the same time.