Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Indian-Pacific Railway

March 21 to 23, 2013
We left Adelaide at about 6:20 PM on Thursday, March 21.  And arrived in Perth about 9:20 AM on Saturday, March 23.  We covered 2,659 kilometers, approximately 1595.5 miles, in about 39 hours.  This was an epic adventure!

The magazine published by the railway company, the Southern Pacific, says that this route “offers travelers ..… one of the most indulgent ways to explore the vastness of Australia………….You will watch the passing backdrop of Australia’s magnificent landscapes.” 

Well, we didn’t go for the indulgent part (that would have been the Gold or Platinum private cabin and beds, not the semi-reclining Day/Nighter Red Service Seats that we had) – but it was definitely an epic journey, as they promised.

Once we got outside Adelaide, we hit the area that is generally The Outback.  I get the impression that The Outback just means the vast area in the general middle of the continent, away from the towns and the coast.  Australia, like the USA and Canada, is huge, with 75-85% of the population living within 75-100 miles (or kilometers) of the coast.  That means the majority of the country is relatively empty.  Or, in the case of Australia which has a smaller population than the USA or Canada, the majority of the country IS empty.  Totally empty.

First there was a bit of farm land.  Then a little bit of grazing land.  And then, The Outback.  In full force.  Hard red sun-baked earth and dusty green trees.  No signs of life, although I’m sure there are all kinds of small rodents and insects and reptiles living there.  All those poisonous and creepy crawly things, plus rats, all kinds of rats.  Scorpions, spiders, centipedes, snakes, rats.  Well, okay, there are kangaroos and camels, but they weren’t visible either.  It truly is a vast wasteland of dry dusty empty country.

We entered the Nullarbor Plain – this is the world’s largest limestone plain, although the limestone is covered with the same dry baked red earth and scrubbly dry green plants.  However, first the trees disappeared, then the bushes grew scarce, and finally there was barely any groundcover at all.  Just bare earth in shades from terra cotta to burnt sienna.  (Various shades of light to dark reddish brown, for my non-painter friends and family.)  It was like camouflage for all of those spiders, scorpions, snakes, centipedes, and rats – although they wouldn’t come out in the light of day, it was way too bright and sunny and hot.

There were white stones, however, the only evidence on land of the limestone beneath.  As Richard said, it looked as if they were growing rocks in some areas.  Really, the stones made long lines, presumably where the people building the railways lined up the stones they moved.  Long useless rows of white stones on the sun-baked red-brown earth.

And a constant road that would disappear into the dust, and reappear as two tire tracks when more vegetation was there – this became my iconic image of The Outback, the two tire tracks forlornly blazing their way through the endless and relentless bush.

This is an unforgiving country.  Not the nation, but the land and environment.  Harsh and unforgiving.  I don’t know how else to explain it.

On Friday, we stopped at Cook, the former “Queen of the Nullarbor.”  This was once a thriving little town, dedicated to serving the railway by providing all the usual services – water, fuel, food, garbage disposal, etc.  But once the water and fuel became automated, and the garbage disposal was moved elsewhere, there was no work for the citizens of Cook, no need to live in the middle of nowhere, and they moved on.  The town dried up.  And the Nullarbor is beginning to swallow up the town, rusting out metal buildings, drying out trees, dust blowing over walkways.  We walked around this Outback ghost town, and it was almost as if it was a movie set for an old western.  It just didn’t seem like a real town, it was so dead.

There were other little towns along our route, a few where maybe only two people lived – they drop off mail from the area or take delivery when the train comes through, and they keep the airstrip clear for emergency landings by commercial and military flights.  And they run a B&B for any pilots or guests who may end up staying overnight.  That’s it, their entire reason for living in that town.  Two people, keeping an emergency landing strip open and available.  

I guess some people like living away from everyone else, having their own space and peace and quiet.  It isn't how I'd want to live, but for someone who wants to live a quiet life away from others, well, this is the spot.

We also stopped in the mining town of Kalgoorlie, a thriving but small town literally in the middle of nowhere.  Nothing is nearby except mines.  Gold mines, apparently.  Part of the town goes back to the late 1800/early 1900s – but the mine is very lucrative at the moment, there are all kinds of people flocking their to make money, and there isn’t much of anything else in Kalgoorlie.  We arrived in the evening and had around three hours, so Richard and I walked around, looking for somewhere to have dinner.  Most places were closed (although one club was open and the music was throbbing) – we finally opted for Chinese takeout and went to a park.  It was just an odd little town, way too quiet for a Friday night.


So all the excitement was on the train.  The train was looooooooooong – I don’t know, close to 25 or more cars long.  Several cars were dedicated to the Platinum cabins and their own dining cars; another eight to twelve cars were dedicated to the Gold cabins and dining.  We were in the lowly Red Service, with seats that reclined enough to be fairly comfortable for resting and sleeping – but with 48 of us in one car, well, it wasn’t the most restful night.  Especially since Richard and I had one of those classic ladies sitting in back of us.  Really, this woman was a character.  She looked like she was the witch in Hansel and Gretel, about 150 years old, with long grey hair and flowing layers of clothes in shades of purple (and violet and lilac and lavender).  She muttered to herself.  She talked to herself.  She sang to herself.  All.  Night.  Long.  Occasionally she even yelled.  She spent some time muttering about the fact that she couldn’t find her sheet.  Then she sang along with the background music.  Then more muttering.  The first night she was alone in her row – and the train was fairly full, so Richard and I had nowhere to move.  (Okay, she did occasionally fall asleep, but then she’d slump forward and look like she had died, so it was almost comforting when she was back awake!)  

She ended up with a seatmate the second night – but he was a story all by himself!  The train would occasionally stop in the middle of nowhere to drop off or pick up mail – and usually there’d be an announcement that we were stopping in Rowlinna or somewhere for a mail drop.  But we stopped in the middle of absolutely nowhere.  And sat.  And waited.  No announcements.  Just waiting.  We passengers figured maybe the rails needed to be switched, a freight train was coming, who knows.  After maybe 5 or 10 minutes, a ute comes speeding up in a cloud of red dust (old battered utility vehicle – abbreviated to “ute”) – and a young man in jeans and flannel shirt jumps out with a dusty backpack, and runs up to the train.  Well, turns out he had a ticket and was supposed to meet the train at this stop – but he was flying in from the sheep station (farm) where he’s been working, and they saw the train going by – so the pilot landed the plane, his friend drove pedal-to-metal, and the nice lady conductor kept the train waiting as she called around trying to locate the missing passenger, until they came screeching up.  

Of course, all the conductors and staff wanted to hear his story, as well as the other young travelers on the train.  And then, our carriage conductor showed him his seat – right in back of us, seated next to Old Lady Mutterer.  Well, she starts talking to him in her mumbley and hard to understand Australian – and he’s this clean cut but dusty sheep-shearing Aussie boy – and he’s trying so hard to be polite and talk to her, but he can barely understand what she’s saying – at one point, I hear him say, “So what are you speaking, German???”  I tried not to laugh, it was just SO funny!

The other big adventure was taking a shower on the moving train.  Yup, I was brave and gave it a shot.  I woke up early this morning (having set our clocks back 1 hour the first night, and 1.5 hours the second night to match Perth time) and figured I might as well shower before a line formed.  Well – imagine a tiny room just a bit larger than an airplane bathroom.  Now, divide that in half – the front half is the hanging-your-stuff and changing area; the second half is the shower stall.  Okay, now imagine getting in the shower, with a decent flow of nice hot water, and the train is jouncing and jostling and you’re keeping your knees loose so you can move with the train, soaping up and washing off – and then the train apparently goes around a long curve.  Mmmm hmmmm, so that the water goes off one way, and you go the other, and the wall from the opposite side comes up and meets you unexpectedly.  Oh yeah, and of course the plastic shower curtain swings in with the train’s motion, and also course it sticks to soapy me too.  Yeah, quite the adventure, my shower.  At least the railway has soap in the shower, and they give us towels to use.  (They didn’t give us pillows or blankets, so I improvised with rolled up clothes and my wonderful long pashmina from my friend Jestina.)

Okay, I misspoke – ALL the excitement was not ON the train – there was plenty of excitement outside the train.  Or may it was those of us on the train who were excited by the animals we’d occasionally see outside the train.

The first morning I saw a dingo!!!!  Yes, a dingo!!!!!  Skinny emaciated dog the color of the earth, loping along in the middle of nowhere, probably heading home in the early morning light.  I’m guessing he only could find those little jumping rats during the night, and didn’t have much dinner.  

During the second day, in the midst of the Nullarbor, I spotted several camel – the camels were brought to Australia by the British as a way of getting people, materials and supplies across vast wilderness of the The Outback, and the cameleers were referred to as Afghans (even though they came from the Middle East, not Afghanistan).  Anyway, there are now an estimated one million or so wild camels living in The Outback, and I saw two groups of three or four camels, just hanging out around trees.  Very exciting!  (I was also told that the camels are caught and exported to countries in the Middle East, where they can’t always breed as many camels as are needed.)

And the kangaroos – not exactly mobs of kangaroos, but the occasional roo jumping (bouncing) along, or bent over eating the grass or ground-covering, or standing up watching the train go by.  Lovely (and big) kangaroos, making sure the passengers on the train know that we definitely are in Australia.

One of my big concerns was how the railway companies keep the trains from killing all these wonderful and unique animals when they try to cross the train tracks – turns out there are miles and miles (or kilometers and kilometers) of fencing on both sides of the tracks, some fifty-to-one-hundred meters away, so that the animals mostly stay away from the trains.  This is probably a good idea for train safety, as well, to have a clear corridor – we also saw wandering steer who were grazing a bit close to the rails, and some of those were big bulls – I’m not sure if they could derail a train, but they looked as if they might be able to do that!

So – it was a long journey.  It was exciting.  It was interesting.  It was tiring.  And we get to go back in the opposite direction in just over a week! 

We’re doing the kind of traveling where getting there is half the trip.  This train journey was definitely like that!

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