Michael Portillo ventures Down Under to explore Australia by train.
Part 1: Port Augusta to Darwin: The Ghan
He begins by riding the legendary Ghan Railway, a train almost a kilometre in length and hauled by two locomotives, which covers nearly 2,000 miles across Australia’s red centre. Michael traces its route from the southern harbour of Port Augusta to Darwin on the north coast, along the way meeting the indigenous people of Alice Springs, visiting a kangaroo sanctuary and joining Australians to mark the anniversary of Anzac Day, the First Word War battle that defined their nation.
Part 2: Sydney to Broken Hill
He explores New South Wales by train, travelling 570 miles from Sydney to the mining city of Broken Hill. He explores the origins of Sydney as a penal colony, visiting the Hyde Park barracks where many of the first convicts were housed. He also tours the city’s iconic opera house, and volunteers for the lifesaving club at Bondi Beach. In the Blue Mountains, he learns about people’s relationship to the land from his indigenous guide, before reaching Katoomba, where he rides the steepest railway in the world.
Part 3: Adelaide to Perth: The Indian Pacific
He embarks on an adventure aboard the transcontinental Indian Pacific Railway, from Adelaide to Perth. Along the way he hears the story of an enterprising 19th-century Briton with a murky past who made his money growing vines, strikes it lucky in one of the most lucrative goldfields in the world and pays a flying visit to the doctor to hear how patients in remote Western Australia are cared for. He also hears how Edward VIII was caught up in a train accident near Bridgetown and learns about a child migration programme that cast a dark shadow on the history of both the UK and Australia.
Part 4: Canberra to Melbourne
He crosses the south east of Australia from Canberra, the seat of government, to the multi-ethnic heart of its second largest city, Melbourne. Along the way he discovers the history of the Ashes at Melbourne cricket ground, learns about the exploits of outlaw Ned Kelly and visits the home of superstar soprano Dame Nellie Melba. He also rides on the Puffing Billy narrow gauge steam railway, built in 1900, and has a go at shearing a sheep.
Part 5: Kuranda to Townsville
He travels by rail through Queensland, marvelling at the engineering expertise of a railway line built in the 1890s. He visits a plantation where he learns how to harvest sugar cane, finds out how the townsfolk of Innisfail withstand the tropical storms that strike the region and ventures into the hinterland, where he braves a crocodile safari. At Mungalla Cattle Station, he hears how aboriginal people faced brutality at the hands of 19th-century settlers and after a singalong, he makes tracks for his end destination of Townsville – the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.
Part 6: Newcastle to Brisbane
He travels along the eastern coast of Australia from the coal mines of Newcastle, New South Wales, to Queensland’s modern state capital, Brisbane. In the world’s largest coal-exporting port, Michael marvels at the skill of the loader as he transfers thousands of tons of coal from rail to ship. He visits the Koala Hospital at Port Macquarie, where he finds populations of these marsupials are in rapid decline. Michael also visits a factory where the quintessential Australian bush hat is made and in Woolgoolga, he joins a Sikh community to hear how they have integrated into Australian society.