Aussie transport through the ages: from camel to spaceship

Guy Wilkinson
From camels to plush trains. (Photo: AAP Image)
The past meets the future — from camels to plush trains.
"Plush electric trains like the The Ghan, The Indian Pacific and The Overland traverse some of the most remote desert terrain on earth and are a must on any traveller's itinerary."
Guy Wilkinson

Here's a look at how Australian travel methods have shaped our adventures through the ages.

The Aussies are well known for their love of travel. And these days anyone with a few dollars in their pocket can hop on board a plane and explore the world. But back in the 1930s — the setting for Baz Luhrmann's 2008 hit Australia — it took a little more effort. Transport wasn't exactly state-of-the-art and distances were vast...

Back in the day... (pre-1900s)

Before the mid-19th century when the earliest trains appeared (between Melbourne and Port Melbourne) most people would navigate the country using horse-drawn carts, grunting camels, piggie-backs from mates or old-fashioned ships. Not surprisingly, these methods were both time-consuming and exhausting. At this point Australia was little more than a collection of sparsely populated colonies and something had to be done to connect the various settlements.

Off the rails (early 1900s)

Although Australia's first trains were in action from 1854, the first railway lines were a bit of a shambles. Even in 1917, someone wanting to get from Perth to Brisbane would have to change trains a ball-busting six times. One of Australia's oldest steam railways is Victoria's Puffing Billy — still probably the best preserved in the country. There are now a host of incredible rail adventures to be had in Oz. Plush electric trains like the The Ghan, The Indian Pacific and The Overland traverse some of the most remote desert terrain on earth and are a must on any traveller's itinerary.

Find out more at the Great Train Journeys website.

Tram lines (early 1900s)

Trams are more readily associated with European cities than Australian cities but it may surprise you to learn that almost all major cities Down Under had a tram system at some point in their history. Back in the day, trams were powered by horse or steam rather than electricity, with networks operating anywhere from Kalgoorlie in WA to Rockhampton in Queensland. Most of these were shut down by the 1930s for economic reasons but Melbourne still preserves its tram culture today — further adding to its bohemian, cosmopolitan vibe.

Find out more at the Trams of Australia website.

Motorhead (1950s and beyond)

Although the country was still recovering from the war, the boom in technology in the 1950s brought about massive changes to Australian travel. Increased immigration and the post-World War II baby boom meant roads were springing up all over the place. The first Aussie-made car — the FX Holden — was unveiled in 1948, and although the factory could only churn out a few at a time, production grew to 100 cars a day by 1951. From the late 1950s and beyond, the Commonwealth began pumping serious cash into road building. Today you can undertake some seriously epic road trips, with desert roads stretching literally thousands of kilometres out towards the horizon. Try the Nullarbor Plain connecting Western Australia and South Australia if you really want the ultimate four-wheeled voyage. It's not for the fainthearted.

Jetsetter (1950s to present)

Although commercial air travel began in the 1950s, it wasn't common, largely due to the cost and discomfort. Propeller-powered planes offered pant-browning, turbulent rides with noisy, unpressurised cabins. However, as the 1960s progressed, those who took time out from dropping acid or reciting beatnik poetry were afforded the chance to fly on jet-powered aircraft for the first time. By 1971, Qantas had put together a fleet of Boeings capable of carrying some 300 passengers and by the 1990s a newer fleet could carry more than 500 per trip. This changed the face of travel forever. In the decade between the mid-1980s and 1990s, it's estimated the number of international trips made by Aussies increased by around 75 percent.

Space cowboy (present and into the future)

Today, Richard Branson — one of the world's most successful entrepreneurs — is offering what used to be the stuff of science fiction: commercial flights into space. After three days of preparation, you're basically strapped to a space rocket and propelled into the stratosphere at eye-watering speeds of 4000km/h (more than three times the speed of sound).

As you look back at the curve of the earth you'll soon start floating helplessly around the cabin, fighting valiantly to hold down your lunch. After a few minutes gazing back to earth in awe, you'll plummet back through the atmosphere, the G-force causing you to pull a face like a man in the midst of a prostate examination. It's unspeakably cool but not yet within the price range of most of us. Currently flights start at US$200,000 ($314,775) but that is likely to drop significantly in years to come.

Find out more at the Virgin Galactic website.

Do you know any other Aussie modes of transport that have evolved through the ages? Keen on vintage 'voyages'? Have your say by using the below comments form.

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