Crossing states not by train

Abandoned railway lines, tracks rusting away, sliced by roads, bridges collapsing, never to feel a train again. They make me sad. Never shall I have a chance to watch the landscape outside trundle by without a care in the world, without worrying about overtaking that truck and hitting that kangaroo about to leap off the side of the road.

What’s makes it worse is when the lines is through such beautiful countryside. After leaving Lakes Entrance the highway roughly follows the abandoned section of the Gippsland railway line between Bairnsdale and Orbost. State forests of eucalypts, waiting to be logged, line the road. Occasionally a small town, a general store and pub, appears.

When the sign says “rainforest” I first disbelieve it until we notice giant tree ferns growing in the valleys. Then we emerge into a bucolic scene of the bright green of open fields of dairy cattle and sheep.

To our left the wooden railway bridge and causeway across the legendary Snowy River is collapsing, reinforcing the abandonment of the line, most of which has been turned into a bike trail.

The old line stopped at Orbost, but we are continuing on another 161 kilometres to Bombala across the border in New South Wales. After the small settlement of Cann River, where we turn off the A1, the road goes up into the hills and becomes winding. The border crossing is unexpected and suddenly we are going downhill. But the land rises again as we drive up into a plateau of the Great Dividing Range.

Building a train line here, a second connection between Sydney and Melbourne, would have been tricky but spectacular. We arrive in pretty Bombala, cherry trees blooming like we are in Japan.

Once there was a railway line to here too and I so wish that there was a passenger service still. For now we are passing through the Monaro, a rolling landscape of brown and green grasslands, almost devoid of trees, with distant views of the snow capped Australian Alps. I dream of trains across here.

We stop at Cooma for lunch at Maido’s, a Japanese restaurant with signed sheets from Lara Bingle (where the bloody hell are ya?) and Tim the weatherman Bailey. Okay, minor celebrities, but the food by the Japanese chef Hitomi was very good.

Once upon a time you could have caught a train from Canberra to Cooma. A decent service would be brilliant today, especially in Winter. Who wouldn’t rather catch a train up to the snow rather than bother with tyre chains and traffic jams? The mountains and Monaro plains, the pretty little towns. It could open up the region.

But maybe the region is already too fragile, the snows facing extinction with climate change.

I can dream.

We drove straight to the National Arborteum in Canberra. We went to this new attraction, built on what was once a pine plantation razed by bushfires, for the playground. While we admired the views across the city Alex climbed through the giant acorn pods and slid down the twisting slide. Again and again and again.

The Arborteum also houses the National Bonsai and Penji Collection which houses some amazing specimens. Studying the fine details of the twisting trees and miniature landscapes is calming and makes you appreciate the effort that has gone into growing the specimens.

When we were driving through the Monaro I realised how large the sky looked, how far away the horizon seemed, after days of cloud and travelling along tree lined roads. I could see contrails and imagined the even vaster views from above. But these bonsai plants were their own tiny worlds, a microcosm the opposite to the drive before.

The Mercure, still Olims in my mind, is no longer opposite my work headquarters, but it proved to be the best value for our stay. Our Malaysian dinner in Rasa Sayang in Dickson was disappointing, but we did find an open Blockbuster Video shop, a working museum piece.

There is still a working train line from Canberra to Sydney so any sadness tomorrow will be at the ending of the holiday. But if I had a time machine I’d definitely go back and catch the train to Bombala, to Orbost and whisper in the authorities’ ears that they should be linked, two states and a territory in a day.