We caught a train this week, one that is the most unusual and the most isolated in the world. It travels between Normanton and Croydon and that is the only place it travels. It’s affectionately known as the Gulflander and it’s been in operation since 1991 on a narrow gauge rail that is in itself unique. The rail line is completely made of iron, the sleepers, the line and it has no need of ballast.
The train was a true charmer, an old lady of a past era with no windows but blinds, leather bench seats and quaint detail right down to the brass passenger bell and chord. It also has a crank petrol engine… I did say it was unique and it truly is. In Australia, the like can only be found at Australind in WA and Puffing Billy in the Gippsland of Victoria.
Climbing onto the train is an exercise in yesteryear. There is a charming porter to help, I dare say he like the driver is also an engineer, a fettler and no doubt acts as a stationmaster and in many other capacities.
You can even chat to the driver along the way, unlike todays modern rail. He joins the passengers on the front seat and is full of wonderful history and information he is more than happy to impart. The train is run by the Queensland Government Rail… yes it is a real train, on a real line on real day-to-day run … or should I say week-to-week route. As there is now only one run a week, this week anyway, since 1929… You can travel the 240 mile line out to Croydon on Wednesday and back on Thursday on about a 5hr run.
There are a few trains, which run this track between Normanton and Croydon and some have particularly affectionate names as does part of the track known as ‘Mighty Ninety’ (miles that is… not klm). The trains are known with affection too such as the ‘Leaping Lena’ and the ‘Mad Magic’ which is has a really quaint turn to the services notoriety. Some of the station stops along the way are also equally interesting such as Critters Camp, I would love to know the history of that one.
The old lady we boarded was simply known as the RM60 and she is the oldest little old rattler on the line still in operation. She does a max of 40klm an hour and generally averages around 20klm and it’s a delightfully rocky ride, which reminded me of a carnival ride … one like no other. There is also a ‘up hill’ into Croydon I was surprised to learn about in this amazingly flat landscape.
During the Wet Season the Gulflander’s are the vital link to the Gulf Stations and people as the land floods and becomes a mire of clay and mud for weeks on end, usually around Jan-Feb in the ‘hot summer season’ and this makes it an essential service and one that is a truly unique experience.
Even the old Normanton station is a surviving relic of past years and in itself a charming way to spend an afternoon. The station is now an operating museum and you can browse its history for free. The audio presentation is well worth the time and if you look carefully you might even meet the resident owl high in the roof supports.
Normanton has a wonderful history as does the whole Gulf region. It is a history that is not commonly told and certainly not taught in our schools as with most of our history in the development of our country. Its greatest call to fame is that it is where the largest captured croc in the world was found.
‘Krys’ was a true Gulfland monster and he was captured by a lady of Normanton. You can find a detailed replica of Krys in the main street and this on its own is a real delight to find. I wrote about Krys in a recent blog so I wont repeat the story here.
Abel Tasman was the first European to sight and name what is now known as the Norman River. He named it Van Dieman’s River in 1644 along with naming the Gulf of Carpentaria. I guess he had a thing for Van Dieman as this is what he also named Tasmania. The English of course renamed most things back then in our colonial era, so we lost these other links to our past and instead acquired often quite inappropriate names for many towns, landmarks and streets. God bless Gov. Lauchlan Macquarie who insisted on using indigenous names where possible.
Normanton however was named after Captain WH Norman who was searching for the ill-fated Burke and Wills. It was then the squatters and settlers who followed the footsteps of the search parties that settled the town, they were looking for grazing land and by 1860’s Normanton was well and truly born.
Another of Normanton’s famous sons is Nardoo Burns, one of the talented Aboriginal trackers who worked for the Government of the day. He was employed by the Police Dept. and was an irreplaceable employee who tracked escaped convicts, missing persons and stolen livestock earning an admired and well deserved reputation as a highly skilled man. Slim Dusty bought his fame to light in his song of the same name.
Transportation for the Gulf however was always a problem and remains even now a challenge in the region. Distances are vast and in ‘The Wet’ often impossible to travel. Initially the bullocky drays were used but even they became bogged and mired in the season monsoons, so the rail link was born to service the gold coming out of Croydon fields. It was transported to Normanton, then a thriving riverside port and sent south by boat to feed the young state and Queensland in its growing pains. The pollies pulled the plug on completing the rail line, in linking it to the rest of the country. A particularly short sighted view but then such in politics. What remains is a truly charming and essential relic of a past age and I loved every minute of the ride into nowhere.
If you have an interest in the history of the region take a look at the Facebook page, which often features photo’s of the regions history.