Friday, 18 December 2009

Indian Pacific 3: Cook to Perth

The final chapter of my three-day journey from Sydney to Perth aboard the Indian Pacific, the train that traverses a continent...

Friday 4 December 2009

10am, Cook

We’re on the longest straight stretch of rail in the world - 478 kilometres without a single bend - when we arrive at Cook.

It’s another place named after an early Australian Prime Minister. Our previous stop, Watson, was presumably named after Chris Watson, the world’s first Labor PM in 1904, and Cook is named after Joseph Cook, PM from 1913-1914 (and surely there must be a Deakin stopping place somewhere about here as well).

It’s a tiny town of just four people, we’re told. One of them is the proprietor of the souvenir shop, the only place open. There are no kids here any more so the school is closed, and the neatly maintained houses set back beyond a broad white stony track are apparently mostly empty.

I wander around the clearing between the buildings, as does everyone else, then return to the shop to buy a card marking the world's longest rail straight to send to my Polish friend Magda, whose Warsaw address is the final destination of an intermittent trickle of postcards from the more exotic places I visit.

It’s hot, dry and desolate here, but you can tell it was once a viable if tiny township, servicing the trains that passed. I can’t help thinking about what a great writers’ retreat it would make - no distractions, not even the Internet. But a couple of my colleagues look aghast when I mention the idea. “Writers’ prison, more like,” one suggests. But I like the idea.

4pm, Rawlinna

Finally we’re across the border into Western Australia, though there’s a lot of the state to cover between here and the coast. At 4pm we pull into Rawlinna, a stop serving a vast sheep station of a million hectares, within which it can take hours to traverse a single paddock.

After the bleakness of Watson and Cook, it’s surprising to step off the train onto a small but healthy patch of lawn in front of the closed station building. A short distance away is the former post office, also closed and dilapidated, but with signs of having been abandoned not many years before.

There are hardly any children at this stop, rather an assortment of adults from the sheep station and other unknown locales; they're generally of the Akubra hat wearing, hard working stockman type. Shannon Noll and his guitarists perform within the shade at one end of the station verandah, the audience enjoys the music, then Santa hands out his gifts to the few young ones in attendance.

While that’s going on, I chat to a young French guy named Robert, who’s travelling in the sit-up Red Class. He caught my eye at a previous stop as he appears very young, maybe about 20, way below the age of the elderly travellers common on the train.

“I’m from Lyons,” he says.

Why did he choose the three day sit-up option?

“Because I wanted to see all the country,” he replies. “I’ve seen Sydney and Melbourne, and I wanted to see what was in the middle.”

“And it was cheaper, too,” he adds.

Then we’re off.

8.30pm, Kalgoorlie

After 24 hours we’re back in the realm of mobile phone reception and Internet connectivity. Just outside the big mining town it kicks back in, everyone’s phones start beeping, and I dash off a few postings via Facebook and Twitter.

Then, after the train pulls into the impressive stone station in the first big settlement we’ve seen since Adelaide, I walk into town with a bunch of my colleagues. We’ve decided to pass up the scheduled tour in favour of having a drink at one of Kal’s many elegant 19th century pubs.

Though the Exchange Hotel, where we end up, ain’t too elegant - in fact the ladies behind the bar keep taking off layers of clothing as the night wears on. Perhaps it’s the hot desert weather? Something seems to be raising the temperature in here.

At 10pm we return to the train via through the mining city's massively wide streets, past colonial-era buildings and the famous statue of Paddy Hannan, the discoverer of Kalgoorlie’s gold in 1893. There are party pies laid out in the lounge car - as if we haven’t had enough food -and people are cheerfully but a little sleepily relating their brief Kal encounters.

And now to bed. In the morning - Perth!

Saturday 5 December

7.30am, on board

We’re well into the flat, dry wheatfields region east of Perth now, passing fields dotted with giant wheels of hay, looking like clever pastoral art installations.

The call for breakfast has just been delivered via the PA system, but I’m determined to upload my first Indian Pacific blog posting while I’m actually on the train, so I curse softly as I wait in my cabin for my iPhone to maintain reception long enough to click on ‘upload’. Bang on 7.30am I’m able to do so, the blog is updated, and I troop the three car lengths back to the dining car.

It’s our last meal onboard and everyone is cheerful but tired, having enjoyed the journey and companionship but, I think, looking forward to arrival. It’s going to be odd to rejoin a world which contains dimensions heading off in all directions - not just length - and to not have the day’s rhythms dictated by a neat schedule of meals, tours and socialising that becomes surprisingly comfortable and satisfying once you settle into it.

Just after 9am we finish our measured slide through the eastern suburbs of Perth, and pull into the East Perth Terminal precisely on time. We’ve travelled 4,352 kilometres across a continent, eaten good food, enjoyed excellent company, visited the wildnerness, and heard Shannon Noll sing Santa Claus is Coming to Town eight times. It’s been an experience.

[read the first instalment (Sydney to Broken Hill) here]
[read the second instalment (Adelaide to Watson) here]

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail.

[And as this is the 50th blog posting I’ve uploaded this year to Aerohaveno, it seems a neat point at which to rest. I’m taking a break from travel over Xmas and the New Year, and will post again around the end of the first week of January 2010. See you then... and happy travels!]

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Indian Pacific 2: Adelaide to Watson

In which I continue the chronicle of my three-day journey from Sydney to Perth, via the mighty Indian Pacific transcontinental train...

Thursday 3 December 2009

3.45pm, Adelaide

After 25 hours on the rails, we arrive at Adelaide Parklands, the euphemistically renamed interstate rail terminal at Keswick, an industrial zone next to the green belt that rings the city’s centre.

I’ve been here before at the end of the Overland train journey from Melbourne’s spectacular Southern Cross Station, and it’s as much of an anticlimax when compared with the grandeur of Sydney Central.

Several of us lob onto a coach for a whistlestop tour of the city. The tour tracks around the edge of the urban core which was set within parks by Adelaide’s founders, allegedly for defensive purposes.

I say “allegedly” because our guide issues explanations which sometimes sound unlikely, and which I suspect might be urban myths. We pass by elegant stone mansions, parks, major landmarks such as the GPO and Town Hall, and the high-class residences of North Adelaide.

It’s all very well for an hour or so, but the tour drags on, we never get out of the coach, and the driver’s commentary becomes ever more eccentric until he’s telling us that the traffic lights have been fixed so motorists have to use more fuel while idling so the government can pocket extra fuel excise! We hard-bitten journos (OK, soft travel writers) roll our eyes particularly emphatically at this gem.

The food on the train is good - I had curried braised chicken for lunch - but the portions are relatively modest, so I buy a baguette and coffee at the terminal’s cafe on our release from the tour. For sheer weirdness you can’t beat a ham, cheese and pineapple baguette, so I order that. Remember, this is the city that gave us the pie floater - a guilty pleasure at any time.

6.40pm, on board

Heading north once more out of Adelaide. It’s worth noting that the city has quietly become the hub of Australian train travel. From Adelaide you can catch a regular train to four state or territory capitals: Perth, Melbourne, Darwin and Sydney. Only Sydney can beat this, with services to Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne and Canberra.

10pm, Port Augusta

We stop briefly in Port Augusta for servicing, and everyone’s allowed off for a bit of air on the platform while the train is rolled forward a short distance. It’s always refreshing to be out of the train, to realise there is a world out there that isn’t contained within a long steel tube, and it’s cool and quiet on the platform. Above us is a brilliant star field, with the intensity you only see far away from big city lights.

Friday 4 December

8am, Watson

This is totally different, our first truly desert experience. We’re standing in a stark, open space at the stopping place known as Watson. There’s nothing here to denote civilisation: no town, no platform, no man-made structures at all.

But there are galahs - two of them fly over the train just after we disembark - and people, plenty of them, gathered here to hear Shannon Noll sing and to meet Santa Claus. There are many Aboriginal kids who’ve been driven here from two schools hours away, and they smile at the swarming media as they wait for the stars in their school uniforms.

When Noll emerges, he takes his place on a low gravel mound alongside his two guitarists, completely unplugged, and belts out What About Me. Behind us is a lone tree that’s been festooned with streamers by people who’ve camped overnight, a rough and ready Bush Christmas tree. After he finishes, neatly placing his hat on one of the schoolkids’ heads, Santa climbs down from the train and is mobbed.

I can’t help smiling at the unlikeliness of it all - the long silver train, the wilderness we’re standing in, and its inhabitants and passengers mixing in the company of a pop idol and Father Christmas. It’s yet another impossibility summoned into existence by the Indian Pacific.

What lies further west? Is Cook the place I want to settle down? Who keeps the lawn at Rawlinna looking so nice? And is the desert heat really the reason that Kalgoorlie’s barmaids dress so minimalistically? All is revealed in the final Indian Pacific episode next week...

[read the first instalment (Sydney to Broken Hill) here]
[read the third instalment (Cook to Perth) here]

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Indian Pacific 1: Sydney to Broken Hill

As a wise Australian philosopher once wrote, it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll. It’s also a long way from Sydney to Perth, especially if you catch the train.

From Sydney’s Central Station to the East Perth Terminal, the Indian Pacific train crosses almost 4400 kilometres of cityscape, mountains, bush, outback and the featureless Nullarbor Plain.

It’s one of the world’s great train journeys, and I’m writing about it right now in the sumptuous Outback Explorer Lounge car, as the extraordinarily flat, scrubby desert landscape flicks past the windows, utterly treeless and fascinating.

This is the (edited) story of how I travelled from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean in the company of a media pack, the singer Shannon Noll, and Santa Claus, on a mission to spread festive cheer...

Wednesday 2 December 2009

11am, Sydney

It’s fitting that I should start my journey in the quintessential part of Sydney, in fact my favourite spot in Sydney - sitting on the restaurant deck outside the Museum of Contemporary Art and gazing across the ambling tourist crowds and Circular Quay ferries to the Opera House. I sit here for an hour admiring the view and marvelling at how well the barista has made this coffee, considering the beans come from a big roaster I’ve never been impressed with before.

Then it’s off to Central Station, and the big long silver carriages stretching down both platforms 1 and 2. There are 26 cars in total, including two locomotives. The train’s so long that it has to be split in two for boarding, then connected on departure.

My Gold Class twin cabin is a very compact space about two square metres in area, lined with pine panelling in a vaguely retro style than could fit anywhere between the 1920s and he 1960s. It’s small but well organised, with a mirror, two small cupboards, and a sofa that turns into bed, with another bunk bed above. The bathroom is a clever bit of engineering, with a fold-down metal sink above a fold-down metal toilet bowl, and a shower head above (a wrap-around shower curtain stops the toilet paper getting wet).

Two carriages along is the Outback Explorer Lounge. It’s a plush, comfy carriage, with curving lounges set cleverly against opposing walls to allow conversation while maintaining a walkway down the middle. It’s safe to say that the only exploration happening here will involve an examination of the beneficial effects of combining gin and tonic.

Beyond the lounge car is the Queen Adelaide Restaurant dining car, with neat booths at white tablecloth-covered tables. Menu is surprisingly diverse and modern, a big jump up from the sort of cruise buffet set-up I was half expecting.

At 2.55pm, we pull out and Sydney starts sliding away...

7.40pm, Bathurst

After almost five hours of travel, we step out onto the platform of Bathurst Station to find crowds of schoolkids standing in a temporary stage area, screaming out and waiting for Shannon Noll to step off the train. I should explain - the train we’re on is the annual Christmas Special, via which Great Southern Rail thanks the communities it passes through by presenting them with short concerts and a Santa visitation along the way.

The kids sigh impatiently through a couple of announcements, then temporarily give up, turn to face the audience, and belt out some Xmas numbers including the inevitable Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

They’ve done enough for their reward - Shannon Noll bounds on stage and sings a few numbers, bantering with the audience and getting the kids to sing along. I find myself smiling; it’s good to be out of the train for a while, standing on the platform of an 1876 station in a cool breeze, watching the sun fade and a bunch of locals with their kids having the best time because a famous singer has been brought to their town by the Indian Pacific.

I momentarily feel a bit like Santa; then Santa Claus himself appears from the train (we've brought our own) and hands sweets to the enthusiastic kids, who are happy to refocus their attention on an even bigger celebrity.

Thursday 3 December

6.15am, on board

You think (hope) you’re on a trip like this to relax and lie around the cabin reading a book. However, there are points when the train stops long enough for passengers to go on a short tour, and due to timetable dictates it may necessarily be at an inconvenient time. I’m struck again by how much the train is an “event” to these isolated towns, an unstoppable visitation from the outside world, as predictable and unavoidable as the changing of seasons.

In this case we’re due to blow in to Broken Hill at 7am. So at 6.15am we’re consuming pastries and coffee, and glancing out the window at the new scenery. It’s changed significantly overnight - last time it was light we were in the green hilliness of the Blue Mountains, now it’s a much drier, somewhat redder environment with a lot of low scrub and fewer trees. It’s a hint of the wilderness that awaits us further ahead. On cue, we spot a few kangaroos hopping lazily across the dusty earth.

7am, Broken Hill

At Broken Hill, the train is so long that we have to be led through several carriages ahead of us to reach the platform. It’s an interesting jaunt - one carriage has economy class passengers in sit-up, one has curvy walls to its sleepers which make you feel as if someone slipped something dodgy into your drink the previous night, one is a kind of maintenance car which resembles a slum of this long travelling town. It’s surreal to thread our way ever forward, forward through the narrow corridors, until finally we arrive on the stark unembellished platform to a board a coach for a local tour.

The problem with a whistlestop tour like this is that, well, it’s a whistlestop - it has to be brief. We’re driven through the streets by a classically laconic Aussie guide who doesn’t mind speaking plainly about his home town. Broken Hill is slowly dying, he says, because mining work is subsiding and there’s nothing else to do, so young people have to move away to work.

Underlining the point, he indicates two retirement home complexes in the centre of town as we drive past, describing their comparative advantages. Call me Mr Negative, but as a Texan friend once said when we were living in Egypt, “I don’t mind living here, but I don’t want to die here.”

Continuing the downbeat theme, he takes us up to a hill above the town, that lies along the ore seam that separates Broken Hill into north and south. There’s a memorial here to all the men who died in the mines over a century or more; their names inscribed on glass plates within a suitably industrial-looking rust-coloured monument. Next to each name is a slot for flowers, and there are many roses placed within them, brightening up the sombre monument. There are even roses for men killed back in the 19th century, which is touching.

8.20am, on board

Back onto the train for breakfast. The squeezy nature of the seating is actually an asset, as it forces people to be sociable. I’m sitting next to a French woman who lives in Oz and writes for Francophone publications internationally, a radio journalist from Sydney, and the Adelaide man who’s been commissioned to play Santa on our trip. The conversation is interesting.

Now we have about six hours to Adelaide. Return to my cabin to read or sleep, or hang about the lounge and socialise? I go for the solo option, and make a start on Paul Theroux’s recent Ghost Train to the Eastern Star while watching the landscape slip by.

What lies ahead in the desert? Will gin and tonic prevail, or should I try some of that nice sangiovese? Who is rigging the traffic lights of Adelaide? And is Theroux still such a grumpy traveller? Find out the answers in next week’s episode as I continue my progress west...

[read the second instalment (Adelaide to Watson) here]
[read the third instalment (Cook to Perth) here]

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail.