MELBOURNE'S busy Southern Cross Station is a railway terminus with a thoroughly 21st Century appearance, its high roof undulating like a pod of blue whales. So it's quite a contrast to arrive here on a Friday night and hear the whistle of a steam locomotive.
That loco, City of Melbourne, was built in Glasgow in 1951 and is a welcome phantom from the past. I'm about to board the train; it's hauling a collection of heritage carriages collectively known as the Grainlander. The cheekily derivative name hints at its destination - the lightly populated Mallee and Wimmera regions of western Victoria, famous for their wheat fields and, in more recent years, the brightly painted murals of the Silo Art Trail.
We'll be seeing defunct wheat silos, repurposed for art, the next day. But first there's a late supper in the two lounge cars at the centre of the train, a spread of wine, cheese and other nibbles served by the cheerful crew of this weekend excursion. The operator, 707 Operations, is a non-profit volunteer-run organisation, so this is quite an undertaking for its capable team.
As the train gathers pace and heads out of Melbourne, my wife Narrelle and I retire to our compartment. There's an assortment of sleeper berths in the train, depending on the carriage, and we're in the plushest: a sleeper from the former Southern Aurora, which ran between Melbourne and Sydney from 1962. It's a comfortable space, its two berths folding down during the day to create a lounge. It also contains an ensuite bathroom with toilet, basin and shower.
I grab some shut-eye as we trundle along, then wander into the lounge cars for breakfast about 7am. Dawn is breaking over the gum trees to the east as I pile my plate with quiche and croissants picked up from a Ballarat bakery in the early morning. Lacking a dining car, the Grainlander relies on finger food for meals in its lounge cars, much of it sourced from bakeries along the way.
Not that every meal is taken aboard. When we reach the Mallee town of Sea Lake about midday, we disembark and walk to The Juke, a restaurant within the Royal Hotel. This establishment has made a name for itself as part of the town's tourism revival, and our set lunch is a cut above standard pub food, comprising pumpkin soup, a chicken brioche roll, a mini-sausage roll and a sticky date muffin.
Sated, we board coaches for the main excursion of the trip: a tour along the Silo Art Trail. After a quick sightseeing visit to the local salt lake, Lake Tyrrell, we head south to five silos over six hours, starting with Sea Lake's vast mural of a First Nations girl dreaming of the stars. Other silos, at Lascelles, Rosebery and Brim, feature local farmers or rural themes. Finally, just on sunset, we sip a glass of sparkling wine and admire the silo art at Sheep Hills, a colourful soaring depiction of Wergaia and Wotjobaluk elders from the region.
It's been a long day, packed with good food and impressive art. There's more food to come, via dinner at the pub in Wycheproof, where the train has parked while we've been silo-spotting. The following day we'll view one more silo mural at Nullawil, featuring a famous local sheepdog, before beginning the long but relaxing journey back to Melbourne. But for now, it's time for some sleep on a quirky train that's temporarily at rest.
707 Operations runs regular rail tours to the Silo Art Trail and other regional destinations within Victoria. The next tours are August 5-7 and September 2-4.
Click here for more information.
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