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Saturday, October 16, 2021

Discovering New South Wales by rail

An old Sydney-to-Melbourne train service takes on a fascinating new avatar.

Reading Time: 5 minutes 

With a focus on offering rail tours to explore regional New South Wales, I recently joined the inaugural tour of the Golden West with Vintage Rail Journeys as the train’s Tour Director.

Over five days travelling 1500 kilometres, we visited historic townships, wineries, gardens and museums, and viewed the ever-changing landscape through the windows of the train.

The train

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In its heyday from 1962-86, the Southern Aurora provided a first class overnight train service between Sydney and Melbourne.

After the service ceased, many Southern Aurora carriages came to form part of the collections of rail preservation groups. In 2017, Vintage Rail Journeys acquired 14, renamed the carriages Aurora Australis, and scrubbed and polished them back to their original condition. Together with the dining and lounge cars, the décor is like that of an old-fashioned diner, featuring laminated walls, and fluted stainless steel exteriors, allowing guests to revisit the past.

Humming along to the tunes of Frank Sinatra, bar manager Dan serves drinks with flair. Passengers are offered quality wines sourced from vineyards along the journey. Chefs Belinda and Scott prepare hearty country fare, with an emphasis on fresh local produce. After a long day’s travel, passengers can tuck into mains including rack of Cowra Lamb or slowly braised Beef Cheeks served with lentils and sweet potatoes, followed by lemon pie with a dollop of cream or sticky date pudding with caramel sauce.

Twin-share cabins have seats that fold back to become bunk beds at night with a steep ladder to climb and a compact en-suite with fold down basin and toilet. The small single cabins have shared toilets and showers.

The journey

At Sydney’s imposing Central Station, we welcomed 124 guests onboard. The whistle blew and the Aurora Australis headed north, past rugged sandstone cliffs, dense bushland, and stunning coastal scenery. At Brooklyn we joined the Riverboat Postman that since 1910 has delivered mail and essential supplies along the river, for a leisurely three-hour cruise of the Hawkesbury River and Broken Bay.

Rejoining the train, we travelled on to the picture-perfect village of Paterson, nestled on the banks of the Paterson River. Volunteers from the Rail Motor Museum and Historical Society guided us around the towns lovingly restored historic buildings, many dating back to the early 1830s.

The next day, we joined a hop-on hop-off bus to visit the Hunter Valley Gardens with themed gardens including an Indian garden. Stops were also made at the Watershed Gallery showcasing local artists, and at several wineries to sample wine at cellar doors. Re-boarding the train, we travelled onto Werris Creek, and were met by volunteers to view the fascinating collection of memorabilia at the Railway Museum. Later that evening, with a band playing, we met friendly locals at the renowned Werris Creek Railway Hotel.

An early departure had us travelling on freight lines, with the train turning at Binnaway Junction, before passing towns including Dubbo and Wellington. The gently undulating landscape gradually changed from lush green to golden, around bends and through tunnels as we passed by canola fields, rolling hills, fruit orchards, vineyards and paddocks. Many different birds flew overhead and horses flicked their manes. It was a relaxing day, with guests gazing out of their cabin windows to view the ever-changing scenery.

Arriving in Orange, a city of 40,000 overlooked by the imposing Mount Canobolus, guests could self explore with a map in hand to view parks, Federation-era mansions and historic buildings. A tour was also offered to visit Adagio Mills that specializes in alpaca wool, to learn more about how the wool is processed.

The following day, we visited Bathurst, and explored local sites such as the impressive Fossil Museum, featuring rare crystals and fossils from around the world. We then travelled by coach towards Oberon to visit Mayfield Garden, the prettiest private garden I’ve ever seen. With meandering pathways, waterfalls, lakes and streams, surrounded by oak, maple and birch trees, this was a day to remember, with a picnic lunch by the lake.

READ ALSO: Six iconic Aussie trains: The Ghan, Indian Pacific, The Overland and more

Kandos Community Hall

This being our final night, our journey continued to Kandos, a small settlement tucked in the foothills of the mountains. Greeted with a Welcome to Country by members of the Wiradjuri people, volunteers led us to view aboriginal art galleries and the Rail Museum, before arriving at the Kandos Community Hall, for a spit roast dinner and live band that soon had us clapping and stomping our feet.

At sunrise the next morning, the huge sandstone cliffs of the Capertee Valley gave off a golden glow, as we followed the Gwabegar line, across the Great Dividing Range to Wallerawang. The scenery was breathtaking and on a line that is seldom used, the overgrown tree branches almost stroked against the train.

On our way to Lithgow, we crossed a series of brick viaducts built in the 1920s, before arriving at Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains. Passengers spent the day self-exploring on the hop-on hop-off sightseeing bus before re-boarding the train and ending our journey at Central Station.

Travel Notebook

  • The five-day Golden West journey costs $3995 per person, twin share or for a single cabin. Other itineraries to the North Coast and Riverina are also available. Contact 1300 421 422 for details. The journey provides an introduction to regional NSW.
  • If you’d prefer to explore in greater depth, a short break is easy to organise. Many expertly designed road trips are available to guide your drive there, or choose a town to serve as your base, and make day trips from there. My picks are Orange or Tamworth that are both buzzing right now. Regional towns offer so much to see and do, and while based there, take scenic drives to visit national parks and quaint historic villages, made easy by tourist drive maps that can be easily downloaded.
  • If you’d prefer to catch the train and hire a car on arrival, NSW trains are comfortable, affordable and relaxing. Go to NSW TrainLink. Visitor Information Centres are located at all major centers with very helpful staff.
  • To get you started, go to Visit NSW website.

Before making plans check the latest advice for travel in NSW.

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Petra ONeill
After growing up in Australia's outback she enjoys visiting remote destinations in Australia for the wildlife, vast open spaces and brilliant night sky and travelling overseas to exotic destinations to experience different cultures. Her bag is always packed and ready for the next trip

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