“I” balling from the Indian Pacific
28 October 2007-10-29 Car I East Perth Railway Station
I am waiting to board my Gold Kangaroo sleeper in anticipation of some really serious solitude. It was lovely staying with Gab & David, but now its Carole time.
I am looking forward to just being in the moment – a three day sojourn filled with reading, writing, connecting and sleeping – punctuated by some eating. This was my chance to refresh and rejuvenate prior to the next stage of my consultancy commitments.
The Indian Pacific is very, very long. To the left of car I, I can see carriages H-A and to my right, carriages J – N. There are dozens of people waiting here on the platform too. The wind is blowing cool and most are wearing jackets – I am beginning to regret not bringing a warm coat. Some passengers are elderly, some look like backpacking tourists, and there are a few young children – hopefully they are just here to see Nanna and Pa off on their journey. One or two seem to be my age, but for the most part it looks like many travelling retirees and elderlies.
We’ll be allowed to board in 10 minutes or so and I am eager to see what my accommodation is like – this is my first trip on the Indian Pacific. I’ve been online to check what to expect in the way of services and to get a vision of my cabin – it seemed to be very compact. I’ll take a couple of photos when I get on board.
There is another photo opportunity arising now as the crew invite the passengers to gather round for a welcome aboard event. There is an expectant hush in the air as the crew lines up for this little ritual complete with whoops and whistles. The train manager says his few words and introduces the crew and we are invited to ‘board the train’.
We queue politely and get on board our designated carriages, handing our tickets to the cabin crew as we board the train. Damn, I really wanted to keep that ticket as a souvenir – I should have photocopied it. Never mind I’ll take a photo of the ticket wallet as a memento.
I quickly locate my cabin No. 14 down an S shaped corridor with numbered doors on either side.
Each cabin looks pretty much the same, with seats facing in opposite directions and a pull down bed compartment. A large comfortable, fabric covered day chair dominates the small 6 x 5 cubicle. Comfortable, compact and convenient – are my initial perceptions.
Two sittings for meals they announce – the voice of Deb our attendant being piped into each room via their intercom radio system. ‘Choose from the early sitting (Red Card) or the late sitting (Blue Card)’, she says. Gavin Mee is our train manager and he announces what other features are coming up and provides a warm welcome to begin our journey.
We begin – the Indian Pacific takes off promptly on schedule at 11.55 am, WA time.
The cabin attendants move through the carriages providing information about our sleepers and give a run down on features of the carriage such as tea making and toilets, safety and functionality.
Maxine is in charge of my section and tells me how she and other attendants will make up our beds at night. I order a surge protector for power to my laptop just to be on the safe side. It seems that mobiles will be intermittent throughout the journey. Can I cope with that?
All seems organised and pleasant.
Deb then visits to distribute the red or blue cards for our choice of dining sittings. I choose the Red Card:
- Daybreak Breakfast – 7 am
- Bushman’s Lunch – 11.30 am
- Sunset Dinner – 6.00 pm
Today, first day, lunch is served at 1.00 pm followed by a ‘Gold Service’ Reception in the bar/lounge area at 2.30 pm.
First stop is Kalgoorlie at 10.20 pm tonight.
Day One: Lunch
Lunch in the dining car in solitude (by choice) with no need to exchange idle chit chat, but an opportunity to just sit and watch the scenery from the bigger windows. Small serves of great food tantalise the taste buds and a glass of crisp white Semillon Sauvignon Blanc from NZ finishes the meal. Good stuff. Now back to the cabin for a nanna nap.
Napping meant that I missed the Gold Pass reception and my free glass of champagne but no matter, the sleep did me good. It had been rather full on over the last few days.
284k from Perth and we reach Merriden – a small township with its own railway station and speed track for the young bicycle and skateboard enthusiasts. Straggling lines of houses bestride the tracks on either side and provide a break in the endless landscape of trees and plains. Merriden peak is a huge bare granite boulder that gives its name to the town. Not much more to see except for some industrial buildings on the outskirts. The terrain now changes to shrubs and bushes and the ground is flat and grey. Copses of smooth barked acacia trees (at least I think that’s what they are)_ interrupt the scrubland and pinpoint the location of small waterholes.
We’re informed that the pipeline we see transports water to Kalgoorlie and was established in 1903 by C J O’Connor – a pioneer purported to be insane, and who took his own life before he saw the fruits of his labour. I’m sure the people of Kalgoorlie will always pay tribute to O’Connor for this life giving water.
After my wee nap I’m ready to tackle some genealogy. Great grandmamma Mary Francis and Grandmamma Mary Jane would have been perplexed with this journey. I’m sure they would not have had such luxuries and would have found travelling arduous and tedious. Mary Jane would have approved of the table settings for lunch and dinner though. Mary Jane spent her pre-marital years as a servant, sometimes as a waitress and often as a maid. The records show her moving around within her county of Surrey, not far from where she was born in Croydon, in 1873. Dining would have been very different then with different fare and perhaps more formal services.
My dinner was superb – a prawn and smoked salmon entrée, followed by a spinach and ricotta ravioli in tomato sauce. I choose a glass of Traminer Reisling to wash this all down – nice and sweet. Some company for dinner – Ted and Nancy from Campbelltown near Sydney – made the time pass pleasantly. Next, a rather long stationery period during dinner- enables several huge freight trains passed us by. I have never seen such huge freight carriages – some two storeys high. There must have been about a hundred of them (at least it seemed that many) slowly railing past in no particular hurry enabling us to have a ‘stable’ dinner. Another passenger train, sleek, streamlined and ultra modern whipped past rapidly – it made me wish we had such trains between Wodonga and Melbourne.
Back to cabin 14 and my bed is already made up and waiting invitingly! Roll on night! (Note to self: leave camera out tonight to take a picture of the bunk bed.)
Day Two: Morning already!
A rather fitful night’s sleep was interrupted finally by the cabin crew announcing that it was time for the ‘first breakfast’ sitting.
Now we are approaching the Nullarbor Plains, the longest stretch of waterless plains in the world. Reddish brown earth dotted with sparse scrubby bushes and swathes of pale yellow tufts of grass.
A run of small boulders parallels the track – seemingly placed so by human hands. Absolutely flat terrain stretches out to the horizons.
Away in the distance I can see a few majestic eagles lazily floating in a clear blue sky, hunting down their next dinner; nothing else for miles.
In the dining car there is a buzz of voices and the clinking of cutlery as ‘red’ breakfast begins. On the menu is a selection of cereals and two choices of cooked breakfast. Having woken up thinking of scrambled eggs – don’t ask me why – that is what I order. This morning I have my solitude back again and my brain is grateful – a little bleary-eyed and foggy-brained this morning after a fitful night’s sleep. I just might need a Nanna Nap today.
Clumps of sage brush now fold into view, over and over again; bringing a grey-green hue to the landscape before me. An occasional discarded beer bottle or flattened cardboard container, can be seen strewn near the tracks – throwing distance from the train. A clump of waiting to be used concrete sleepers for the train tracks and a desiccated dead cow lies forlornly on a bare dirt track reminding me of the harshness of this land. An example of ‘train kill’ perhaps? “No milk left”, I hear beside me and I donate my unwanted milk jug to table 3.
The early morning commentary reminds me that the Nullarbor Plain is the longest straight stretch of railway track and is also the largest plain underscored by limestone, in the world. It is also the driest plain of Australia, only occasionally supporting a few wildflowers after a brief sprinkling of rain. I can’t imagine this terrain supporting much of anything let alone flowers – such a long way and a lifetime from my home in Baranduda, where my grey water irrigated roses are blooming wildly – a sharp contrast to this barren vista I see from the train window.
We’ve stopped again – another freight train passes us by, whilst we wait in yet another siding. Did you know that the sidings are all named after past prime ministers of Australia. My mind is at peace this morning knowing that I have two more whole days of this – bliss! Whilst I breakfast my cabin is restored to its daytime décor and I can return to gaze from that window as I contemplate what to write today.
Kathryn is a most cheerful and energetic attendant who brings a bright and happy presence to the breakfast car this morning. She is just the right kind of waitress in this environment – obviously very happy in her work and most confident.
Note: I must remember to describe the job of Indian Pacific meal car attendant to Shiona – I think my daughter would also be a welcoming waitress. I can just see her in a job like this – meet groups of happy people and get your accommodation and meals all in – nice job!
Eagle sightings! – I see four more eagles before I return to cabin 14. I check my map for our current location and notice that the outback as it is called is divided into several segments. We are in the South West and the train track follows the curve of the Great Australian Bight.
I found the shower room, a cubicle like a vertical coffin – windowless and wet all round. Showering in this confined space was an exercise in logistics – how not to get the dry clothes wet and not drop the toiletries on the floor while trying to sway in rhythm with the rocking of the train and wash all the essential bits. Not easy – but nevertheless refreshing!
So that done I can now settle down once more to this journal. The endless scrubby plains keep rolling on by, not offering much in the way of stimulus for writing – so I conjure up something fanciful just for fun, straight from the imagination.
‘Beneath the rusty red desert dirt and far below the roots of the grey/green sagebrush, lies another world! A world inhabited by the creatures of the dreamtime and the great gods of the earth; a place of adventure and mystery. The entrance to this DesArt realm is afforded by a great pothole, sculpted by the wind and water and whose whereabouts has long been kept secret. A long low barrow is the only visible marker for the seekers. They come in their droves each year, in the spring, just after the rains. The seekers come to the great pothole to search again and again for the lost world and the dreamers who dwell there. Stories handed down from generation to generation draw them in to the region to learn for themselves if the legends of their ancestors are true!’
At around 10.30 am Western Australian time, we arrive at the Deakin siding, 2900 kms to Sydney and about 1300 kms from Perth. Soon we’ll be crossing over into the South Australian deserts. I pinpoint this on my map too.
Maps like these are located in the small library on board, in the lounge car.
Lunch today will be at 11.45 am prior to our arrival into Cook, where we can do our own self-guided tour of this virtual ghost town. The weather is 22 degrees Celsius and there is a slight breeze. I look forward to getting out of the train and walking around for a short time. Whilst at this siding we will be passed by the westbound Indian Pacific; there will be an exchange of goods and then we’ll continue on to Cook. Several passengers wait patiently in the corridors, cameras at the ready, for a glimpse of this momentous event. I headed off to the lounge car so I could capture this on video – that worked quite well as the train was travelling quite slowly. Like our own Eastbound version, this train was extremely long with many carriages. Whilst in the lounge we listened to a commentary, this time from Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell, who tells us how the Nullarbor was formed millions of years ago by the sea which left a 300 kilometre stretch of limestone, riddled with caves and potholes. ‘Extraordinary, relentless and infinitely unique to Australia is this treeless plain stretching 1000 kilometres – the Nullarbor.’
Now we hear some of the history of the Indian Pacific:
‘1911 saw the first rails laid by teams of men lead by Henry Dean. The first trains to use the tracks were driven by steam.
Meanwhile in Germany, Rudolph Diesel invented a new form of engine – diesel electric.
Dean recommended these as ideal for the rugged waterless terrain used by the trans-Australian railways, but steam prevailed, with difficulty, until the 1930’s when finally the diesel electric trains were imported and used to span the land.
A small town up ahead, marks the beginning of the 478 kilometres of straight track across the Nullarbor; Wilban – a town steeped in war history, a home for hundreds of Italian prisoners of war who helped build the tracks under austere conditions. Further on, near Forrest, lies a small airline hangar – a refuelling depot and stopping point for small aircraft crossing Australia in the early days. “We’ll pass through several prime sidings such as Reid, Deakin, Fisher, Watson and Hughes”, says Bud as he nears the end of his commentary. He reminds us of the contentious issues of time zones in Australia and warns us that as we cross over the South Australian border that our clocks will need to be wound forward a half hour.
But before then we have a stopover in Cook – a chance for a self-tour and to get out and walk, maybe take some photos. Bud goes on to tell us that we’ll get our first glimpses of surface lying water – if there’s any left in this drought – as we forge on past vast tracts of land once explored and surveyed by Len Burdell as he found the locations for the nuclear testing grounds in Woomera and Marralinga. Directions to these places have long since been removed, a warning says loud and clear, ‘Keep out’, we’re told, the areas are still considered contaminated. Thoughts in my head are all starting with ‘why’. Why did we do this? Why was it so important to have such weapons? And Why did we destroy some of our outback in the pursuit of progress?
Our Aboriginal tribes were driven from their ancient lands and suffered from the doings of the white man in their land. Bud reminds us of the pioneering support that was initiated by one Daisy Bates, who devoted her life to the care of the displaced aborigines. Many of whom deserted from their homes in fear of white man magic. Uldeer was one of those towns, a meeting place of the roads that led to the testing grounds, a place of change to the aboriginal way of life.
Next stop after Cook is Tarcoola – and we’re half way across the land on our way to Sydney.
The westbound Indian Pacific arrives alongside for the exchange of supplies. People begin to wave across the tracks between the two trains – people watching people. A few minutes is all it takes and then they’re off again in the opposite direction to us. We can now see the final carriages bearing the cars of some of those passengers who chose to transport their own vehicles across the desert. A smart idea for those who had more travel and sight seeing to do on reaching Perth. We’re now nearing the SA border.
Well a whole day has passed since I last wrote to you.
Cook was a quiet little place, suddenly populated with the hundred or so from the train, swamping the few remaining inhabitants. A shop and a supply depot for the trains – not much else to see apart from the vacant concrete and corrugated iron shacks once occupied by workers – a ghost town.
We did get a good opportunity to stretch the legs and to do some photography. The only worthy subjects of this photo shoot you’ll see on the next page,
I noticed one passenger who had crossed the track and was standing very close to the second track where other trains were known to fly past at this town – a fact we were warned about clearly as we alighted from the train. You just can’t help some people, I thought.
Right, time for a snooze and a read and I’ll be refreshed ready for dinner at 6.00 pm
Pre-dinner drink in the bar and time to meet a few more passengers. Joined a trio from Lithgow for the meal and was able to persuade chef to serve the fish without the creamed mash – instead he provided a scattering of boiled baby potatoes – perfect! All very pleasant and free drinks tonight as the excursion to the big pit at Kalgoorlie had not eventuated and the guide told us they were as disappointed as the tourists – so would we accept free drinks. Hell yes – and I didn’t even go on that tour!
We were later informed of the early morning arrival into Adelaide and that we would receive a pre-packaged breakfast at 6.00 am. Okay, I can cope, get up early, shower then see what the package has to offer. By the time I returned to cabin 14, the box was there on my table – meagre fare for a lactose intolerant diner – just need to make do.
An announcement rallied us to be ready to step off the train and board the tour bus when we reached the Adelaide Train station. I did that promptly as requested and found a toilet at the station as we were asked not to use the train ones whilst stationary at the platform. This delayed me a little while. I was greeted with rows of grim faces on the bus – I was last to board. Maybe they were eager to get going and tired of waiting for stragglers like me or maybe they were just grumpy at having to get up early. Kept to myself for 1.5 hours, avoiding their frowns and glum faces, and enjoyed listening to the commentary about the beautiful terraces surrounding the CBD of Adelaide. What a pretty city!
Back to the station by 9.00 am allowed me time to order some breakfast; I settled for toasted raisin bread and earl grey tea, to fill in the time prior to boarding the train again bound for Sydney – one day to go.
A short browse in the souvenir shop and a chance to post my letter cards – I wonder if I’ll arrive before this mail.
Finally we boarded the train once more and we were introduced to our new cabin attendants. I overheard a new passenger, who boarded at Adelaide, if she could move to another cabin where she could face in the opposite direction – apparently she did not like sitting with her back to the engine. I wonder why that is so?
Announcements – lunch and dinner and reception for blue dinner pass guests.
The mighty Indian Pacific glides gently out of Adelaide and I catch a glimpse of Mt Lofty in the haze and the last high rise buildings of the city.
Lunch passes comfortably and the train steadily rails through to Broken Hill – a short stopover and another tour of this silver town. Broken Hill was built around the silver mines and mining is its only industry, apart from tourism that they are now building into a viable employment opportunity. On the way out to the newly relocated Royal Flying Doctor service we pass through some high density, low maintenance prefabricated houses and I wonder why anyone would want to live here. Its surrounding terrain is bleak, dirt, mounds of it, where the silver mines have scarred the earth; and leaving the town prone to nasty dust storms. Temperatures here in summer climb to 40 degrees and drop to about 10 degrees in winter and I don’t fancy living in such housing under those conditions.
Our one hour tour takes us next to a local art store where many pieces of jewellery can be purchased. I look for a special silver locket for Shiona’s necklace and find just the thing at a reasonable price. I noticed that this shop usually closes at 4 pm but was open specially for a bus load of plastic card waving tourists at 6.05 pm – the guide was right the tourism is a growing concern.
Back on board the train we settle down for the evening and await the call for the ‘red’ diners once more. I join an English/Italian family holidaying in Australia and spend a pleasant hour or so in their company. An extra glass of white tonight – its our last supper.
Tonight I’ll do some more writing and see if I can become very sleepy before I hit the sack, hoping for a better night’s sleep. You’d think the rocking motion of the train would be sleep inducing, but I heard several people say at breakfast next morning that they did not sleep at all well. Bed bunks have fairly hard mattresses and little room to move around – but I managed to sleep until 5.30 am before the bladder began to urge me to the bathroom. I might as well have a shower now and beat the rush before our final breakfast.
Some further opportunities for connecting online. I check in online to save time at Sydney airport and book a hire car from Melbourne Airport with Budget. Plenty of time for finishing this travel diary this morning. Pity I ran out of batteries for my camera – last images were taken on PDA and I packed the connector cord in the big suitcase in the hold. I would have like to add photos here straight away – completing my journal with a flourish. This will have to wait.
Below are the three really good shots of the eucalyptus ficifolia trees in Cook.