Indian Pacific Across the Nullarbor
For anyone in any doubt of Perth’s isolation, a trip on the longest straight stretch of track in the world (478km) aboard the Indian Pacific should soon put it into perspective. Myself and my travelling buddy rocked up to the East Perth rail terminal on a Wednesday morning after yet another of those ‘all you can drink for $10’ nights, somehow managing to drag our ten tonne backpacks across the platform without being sick. We eventually found our allocated seat in the ‘Red Kangaroo’ section, to be our home for the next 48 hours.
Our first port of call was the frontier gold mining town of Kalgoorlie. Gold was first discovered here in 1893 by Irishman Paddy Hannan and the fine Irish traditions are still evident from the row of public houses than line the main street. There was an option to go on a nighttime tour although we instead opted for the pub, giving us our first taste of rural Australia. We got talking to a local man and the subject turned to our favourite Australian export – ‘Neighbours’. He said this was his favourite show to which I thought ‘yeah, right’ until he was able to discuss the merits of bringing back Paul Robinson in depth. He also used the phrase ‘Fair Dinkum’ and we decided that all we needed to hear now was someone saying ‘don’t come the raw prawn with me, mate’ Alf Stewart style, and we could go home happy.
It seemed like no sooner were we out of the Perth suburbs than we were in the desert – the Nullarbor Plain to be exact. On either side of us were endless landscapes of red earth stretching all the way to the horizon. I was beginning to get a sense of how vast and how empty much of Australia actually is and watching the sun fade from the sky across the Nullarbor seemed as much of a “must see” as the harbour bridge and the Opera House in Sydney.
It’s definitely a journey for journey’s sake, after all no one was doing this for speed or convenience. Many an hour was whiled away playing the card game ‘shit head’ and there were a few interesting characters. In the lounge car some English boys who had a guitar started a bit of a sing-song and while I didn’t pain everyone with my ‘singing’ – unlike the exchange student next to me who didn’t sing in time or after a while even the same song (too many VB’s I reckon) – it was quite surreal when the backpacker classic ‘Hotel California’ was played while the train slowly made its way across the desert.
The difficulty of sleeping in the day-night sleeper seats of the Red Kangaroo section (with no cabin, for those of us on a budget and hoping to see more of Australia than just the train!) proved fortunate for us. We awoke on our first morning aboard the train and took a walk to the lounge car witnessing the sunrise and the forbidding expanse of red soil, and to our surprise a group of Kangaroos! Now we were really in Australia.
Later in the afternoon we arrived at the hamlet of Cook. I had always thought that the small village where I come from was in the middle of nowhere but Cook is properly in the middle of nowhere. With a population of 2, and a solitary shop as the only building of significance, Cook is bang in the middle of the desert, 1521 km from Perth, 1138km from Adelaide and 2829 km from Sydney, it would be hard to imagine a more isolated place. If you were looking for ‘outback’ Cook seems to pretty much define it. The boarded up school and the sign for the longest serving railway worker, Murray Sims (long since dead), only seemed to reinforce this further. Despite crossing 3 different time zones on the journey across 3 different states (WA, SA and NSW) we made very sure we were back on board the train at Cook.
The Red Kangaroo Buffet car provided all of our culinary needs for the duration of the journey – in fact choosing what to have for dinner was probably the most taxing decision of train life (along with VB or Carlton). Here we met a lovely Perth couple who were travelling to Melbourne and who, like me, would find any excuse not to board a sealed aluminium container. It turned out they had Scottish ancestors who owned a castle, the first of many people we would meet who were tracing their ancestors and our first reminder of how short a history white Australia actually has.
Having now spent 48 hours on the train we were not too sad to be parting with it for a few days… good though it had been. So we arrived in the capital of South Australia – Adelaide – in the only state that was started as a free colony rather as opposed to one of the convict variety. We spent a few days seeing the sights and catching up on sleep – going to the massive botanic gardens, sunbathing on Brighton beach and going to the cinema. The cinema turned out to be a curious experience. After purchasing our ticket we had to wait for the doors to be opened before we could go in (while cleaning commenced following the last film) and when we did sit down it was on blue plastic chairs. I wondered for a second if I might need to stop and thank a guy who had cranked the film throughout at the end.
We recommenced our journey the following day, this time in slightly better shape… arriving in Broken Hill in the late afternoon. The name to me conjures up images of an old frontier town – the kind with sawdust on the floors of bars and real outback characters surviving a hard fought battle with the surrounding desert. However I was a little surprised to learn that this applies much more to Cook and its brave souls). Broken Hill is actually fairly big – with the identical range of shops and businesses you would find in any rural Australian town – including the obligatory MacDonald’s. It started life as a boom town upon the discovery of ore and you can visit the remaining working mine. You can also visit the Royal Flying Doctor service and the school of air but due to time constrictions we again went the pub. This is when I began to sense a pattern emerging.
In the early hours of the following morning the train slowly clanked through the Blue Mountains – so called because of the mist from the oil of the Eucalyptus trees, stopping at the picturesque town of Katoomba – again the difficulty of sleeping meant we didn’t miss any scenery. We then travelled through Sydney’s outer suburbs, past endless Hungry Jacks and Red Roosters, getting ever closer to the end of our journey and the Pacific Ocean. We finally pulled into Sydney Central in the early afternoon, exhausted but happy that our first sights in Australia had been of desert and kangaroos rather than the concrete and glass that meet most people as they begin their descent. So all that remained was to find our hostel (much debating about which way we had to go) and of course the pub.