We’d boarded this special anniversary run of Southern Aurora the evening before. A few wakeful moments but we slept fairly well and woke to dawn light streaming in our window, and southern NSW countryside flashing past. Just in time for breakfast. Because we’re early risers, we blessed being allocated to the first sitting.
The mist lay low on the paddocks as NSW countryside flashed past our window. Our table mates were a little late, there were a few missing heads in the dining room for the first breakfast sitting at 7 am.
We rolled in to Albury Station soon after breakfast (for us). The second sitting was going to be later, it had to wait until after the morning border crossing ceremonies.
With the early morning sun splashing gold over the heritage-listed Italianate station buildings, we gathered to hear some short speeches including one from sitting Federal MP, Sussan Ley. She mentioned the previous MP, Tim Fischer, who was well-known for his obsession with trains, including Southern Aurora. Tim’s funeral train also passed through Albury, paying respects for the many years of hard work he put in there. According to his wife Judy, Albury Railway Station was one of Tim Fischer’s favourite places. We certainly admired it for its architecture, its planning and the amazing length of it — 455 metres, the longest in Australia!
We left Albury just as “second breakfast” began. Although it was for other passengers and not us, we were finding that the food on offer, both the quality and quantity, was making us feel like well-fed hobbits. Instead of thinking of food, I took the opportunity to attempt a shower, in a tiny cabin bathroom of a train on the move.
The trick to showering on the train is to strip off in the cabin, outside the bathroom. Leave your clothes within reach outside the bathroom door. Toiletries (soap, shampoo etc) can fit neatly on the shelf under the mirror. Go into the bathroom, close the bathroom door, then slide the shower curtain around to also cover the bathroom door. There was a very thoughtfully-provided grab rail to hold onto when the train was going around a bend. Because the bathroom is so tiny, it’s easy to reach whatever you need.
I was sitting in the lounge car sewing when we pulled in to Violet Town to be met by some local dignitaries for the occasion. Southern Aurora has a special connection with Violet Town, which I will go into in a later episode.
We left Violet Town just as the first sitting of lunch began. Lunch? Who’s got room for lunch? But it was so delicious we managed to force it down. Other passengers at nearby tables were exclaiming in delight at the food. “As good as ever,” they said. “These St James Rail tours are about the food as much as the adventure.”
We weren’t going to starve, then.
It was mid-afternoon when we finally arrived in Melbourne, at Southern Cross Station (formerly Spencer St Station). We were to spend two nights in Melbourne in a hotel across the road from the station, but coming back to the same compartment on Southern Aurora after that. The staff (who had been waiting on us with such professionalism for our meals) were going to stay on the train while it parked at a siding somewhere out in the country. I hoped they were going to get some well-earned rest.
We left our bigger bag in the cabin and took a change of clothes in our smaller bags to the hotel.
And at the hotel, we met our first glitch. They were not ready with all the rooms. Despite knowing how many were arriving, and when, despite the bookings having been made several months ahead, they were not ready. We actually didn’t mind very much because being fed so well and so frequently, we had a sort of detached attitude soaking into every pore. But the hotel staff were profusely apologetic, and invited us to partake of their Swiss-influenced ‘death by chocolate’ happy hour.
It’s amazing how much chocolate you can still stuff in, even when you are full as a tick.
While we were tasting little pots of mousse or indulging in chocolate truffles, our tour organiser Owen was working hard on our behalf. He couldn’t get us into rooms any faster, but he did manage to gain a concession.
“I’ve asked them to compensate you in some way for the inconvenience of having to wait for the room,” he began.
I downed another chocolate truffle. Inconvenience? Oh, yes, I suppose so.
“They’ve offered you a complimentary dinner in the dining room,” he beamed.
Dinner? Where would we put it?
“Tonight or tomorrow night, what is your preference?”
“Tomorrow. Definitely tomorrow.” We were very much in agreement. Maybe by tomorrow night, we’ll be able to squeeze in a morsel of food.
Our room was finally available, so we dropped off our bags and headed out to explore Melbourne. Along the way we decided to find something very light for dinner. Soup. We headed for Chinatown which we found was packed. Really packed. There were long queues outside some places. We weren’t keen on crowds (Covid makes a person a bit paranoid) so we kept moving on.
Finally we found one place that seemed to have room. We had to wait, but that was okay. As we waited, I realised that it was the same place we’d visited in February 2020, just as the pandemic was starting in China. Back then, Melbourne’s Chinatown was almost deserted. We’d been the only customers for dinner in this very restaurant. Back then, we’d been served by an older Chinese woman who treated us like beloved children who needed to be nourished. And here she was again! Of course she did not remember us, but we remembered her.
I felt so bad for her when all we could order was one bowl of soup each.
She didn’t know that we were in no danger of starving.