Grainlander Steam Train to a highlight of backcountry art

It’s not every day that you come across the pattern of one of the towering murals painted on old grain silos in western Victoria. It’s even less likely when it’s a dog. But here I am in Nullawil (population 92) in the Wimmera-Mallee area, and the kelpie that is pictured in huge size on the local silo sits obediently below, next to a model of the silos and a train at steam.

If that sounds complicated, get this – there’s also a real steam train under the silo, and that’s how I got here from Melbourne.

The mighty red and black locomotive, City of Melbourne, was built in Glasgow in 1951 and hauls the Grainlander, a collection of heritage cars named to mark the destination. The art rising above is part of the Silo Art Trail and was painted by the artist known as Smug. Depicting a local farmer in a plaid shirt with his trusty kelpie beside him, the vibrant work makes me smile just to see it.

Nullawil’s is the last of several silos I visited on the Grainlander Rail Tour run by 707 Operations, a volunteer-run organization that runs regular rail tours of the Victorian countryside. We boarded on a Friday evening at Melbourne’s bustling Southern Cross station, where station staff and commuters alike were delighted to hear this modern structure sound to the whistle of a steam locomotive.

Given the historic nature of cars, bedding is an eclectic assortment of options. I’ve marked a compartment in the fanciest car: a sleeping car from the former Southern Aurora, which ran between Melbourne and Sydney from 1962. It’s a comfortable space, with two berths that fold into a living room. There is also a bathroom with WC, shower and sink. A wine and cheese dinner gives me the opportunity to chat with the other passengers, a friendly group of people of various ages and backgrounds.

Dawn breaks over the eucalyptus trees as I have lunch with a quiche and croissants, from a Ballarat bakery as we drive through this town overnight. Without a dining car, Grainlander staff serve finger foods for meals on board in two comfortable lounge cars. A few hours later, lunch is taken at Juke, a restaurant at the Royal Hotel in the Mallee town of Sea Lake. It’s an impressive menu consisting of pumpkin soup, chicken brioche roll, mini sausage roll and sticky date muffin.

We leave the tracks at this point for a coach tour along the Silo Art Trail, beginning with a detour to the salt lake Tyrrell, after which the nearby town is named. We head south to see five silos throughout the afternoon, starting with the expansive Sea Lake mural of a First Nations girl dreaming of the stars. Other silos in Lascelles, Rosebery and Brim feature rural themes, including more depictions of local residents. Finally, as the sun sets, we are served a glass of sparkling wine as we watch a lively performance by the elders of Wergaia and Wotjobaluk at the Sheep Hills silos.

It seems fitting that the day ends in a country pub. Our train is parked overnight at Wycheproof Station, so we have dinner at the Terminus Hotel in town. As a group we are tired but cheerful and the conversation is lively as the chicken parms, steaks and seafood come out of the kitchen.

The last day will see us travel the short distance to Nullawil to see this very good dog on a silo and in the flesh; then we’ll return to Melbourne with a stop at the awe-inspiring Maryborough station. For now, it’s time for a good mood… then sleep aboard a stationary steam train.

THE DETAILS

STAY

Courtyard by Marriott Melbourne Flagstaff Gardens is a sleek new hotel not far from Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station, with rooms from $195 a night. See marriott.com

STROLL

707 Operations runs regular rail tours to the Silo Art Trail; rates start at $750 per person. See slowrailjourneys.com.au

AFTER

traveller.com.au/victoria

Tim Richards was a guest on 707 Operations.

About Oscar L. Smith

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