Melba Austen of Grafton gives a welcoming hug to her long-time friend from Kiama, Norma Dick, who has been travelling on the Southern Aurora.
Melba Austen of Grafton gives a welcoming hug to her long-time friend from Kiama, Norma Dick, who has been travelling on the Southern Aurora. Adam Hourigan

Travelling in fine style

TALK about a time capsule. The Southern Aurora was like travelling inside one: the stainless steel carriages tastefully restored, retaining every inch of their 1960s style, lots of curves, pastel hues, laminex and hand-painted murals of our wildlife adorning glass dividing walls. It was the ultimate trip down memory lane courtesy of what was once hailed 'the finest train in the world'.

Thirteen gleaming carriages pulled by three locos, designated carriages for sleeping, eating and socialising - it was no XPT and the passengers no ordinary commuters.

Most were seasoned rail travellers, people who love the history and romance that comes with this genteel form of transport.

There's nowhere to rush, except perhaps to dinner, but even then you have a designated table to avoid any seating quibbles. That evening those lucky folk were to taste our Yamba Prawns and Clarence River oysters, according to the custom-printed menu.

Socialising seemed to be the focus on board the Aurora, the lounge carriages constantly hosting a sprinkling of travellers, the turnover frequent and refreshing.

Travellers like Norma Dick of Kiama, who was well into her 10-day tour aboard. She certainly knew how to dress for dinner, as did couple Ron and Diane Bayley who were celebrating the anniversary of their honeymoon, which they spent on this train back in 1965. Their outfits mirrored the times and so did quite a few of the on-board activities, such as lessons in napkin folding. Evidence of that floated by as ladies returned back to their carriages with arms full of 'lotuses', 'fans' and 'birds' they had constructed in the dining car.

Also in that carriage you could enjoy the chef's talk and learn tips on food preparation and storage, and economical and tasty recipes from quirky hors d'oeuvres to winter casseroles. It was a hit with the eager group of retirees and established homemakers.

Back in the lounge carriage, in among the city-based travellers, was South Grafton train fancier Dennis Tomek who took advantage of the fleeting chance to ride this locomotive blast from the past from Brisbane to Grafton. The dedicated Dennis caught the XPT from Grafton at 2.15am to the Queensland capital to catch the vintage train back home. "Cheaper than the XPT," a clearly impressed Dennis reckoned. And he wasn't alone. Sitting next to Dennis was Peter Jones from Brisbane who had the same idea, only in reverse, so was keen to find out how he could kill a few hours in Grafton before boarding again in the wee hours to head back to Brisbane.

And although most of the travellers were 'out-of-towners', it was surprising to discover just how easily you can find a Clarence Valley connection.

During a chat to Sydney couple Norm and Wendy, Norm mentioned his brother had been featured on the front page of the paper (copies of The Daily Examiner were distributed to guests before they arrived in Grafton).

"My brother Frank Heppell was on there with his (vintage) caravan, but when I told him I was coming through Grafton on Anzac Day, he said sorry I'll be down on the South Coast in the van."

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