Friday, April 9, 2010

Across the Nullarbor by Train in 1993

Perth in winter was quiet. In 1993 there were not a great many occupants at the Francis Street Youth Hostel. This is where I had stayed when I arrived in Perth; it had a nice feel to it. Ross and Linda ran it, and they made the hostel, in my opinion, the best place for backpackers in Perth. They were friendly people, and Ross was making improvements all the time. There was a chance to work for your rent as well. I had no hesitation in returning. The weather was overcast and the temperature a chilly 18 degrees Celsius (that is chilly for Perth). It also rained a fair bit.
Life quickly became just a little bit tedious. There were only so many pubs, museums and galleries to visit; even playing on the kid’s toys at SciTech lost its lustre after a while. How many times can you mime in front of a blue screen to John Farnham’s Pressure Down song? Quite a few, if you want my opinion, particularly when there are fake guitars and drums to play. We needed a visit to the pub after that!

Then, on the spur of the moment, I decided to visit Sydney. I had met some people just after I arrived and they had all gone east to stay in the Glebe Youth Hostel. A friend of mine from Plymouth University was also in Sydney. I took the train to East Perth Station to see when the next train to Sydney left. It was sitting in the station and I was reliably informed that it was leaving in two hours.

After buying a ticket, I had only ninety minutes to get back to the hostel, pack a bag, check out, and get back to East Perth. In such times, the gremlins ensure that the local trains are running late. I waited for what seemed like an eternity before a train came to take me back into central Perth. Ross was nowhere to be seen when I wanted to check out (I think I might have left a note saying I would be back in three weeks). I need not have panicked; the train was half-an-hour late in leaving and I made it with fifteen minutes to spare. Next stop Sydney! Actually, it was Midland just little bit further east, and then Kalgoorlie, and then Adelaide etc. I’m sure you get the idea.

Some of you would be asking, ‘Why take the train when you can fly?’

The answer is simple. I had a lot of time to spare, at least four weeks, and I enjoy travelling by train. For many years, travelling on the Indian Pacific had been a dream of mine, and I was now in a position to make it happen.

I have always liked riding on trains. There is something quite relaxing about the smooth motion, and ease by which you pass through the countryside. This was no exception. To aid matters I had managed to get on the same carriage as a group of medical students from Adelaide, who had been to a conference, or something. I could not quite make out where they had been, because wherever it was, they had been celebrating for a few hours.

Being sociable sorts they wouldn’t hear of me not having a drink with them. Well, all right then, twist my arm if you have to. We partied on into the night before, one by one, calling it quits. Fortunately, we had two seats each, the carriage only being half-full. This, and the anaesthetic effect of the beer, meant that we all slept.

I woke up somewhere east of Kalgoorlie, staring up at my feet. There are only so many ways to sleep on a train seat, and the flat torso, head on armrest with feet and legs vertical against the window, is an accepted method. It also leaves a significant ache at the base of your skull. After some considerable effort, I managed to get myself into a sitting position and consider my hangover. The glare from the desert outside was not helping.

Once enough of us were conscious and able to function, we played a game. It was very similar to the game kids often play in the car. You know the one. I-spy. However, there are only so many times you can you can say, ‘I spy with my little eye, something beginning with S,’ and get the same volley answers.
‘Sand dune.’
‘Sandwich. I got it from the restaurant car.’
‘OK then, but we were looking out the window.’
‘Oh. Right. Slightly singed tree?’
‘Only kidding. I was looking at the sand dune.”
That exhausted at least ninety-percent of all possibilities.

The day’s games became less and then died out altogether. There is only so much you can do to pass the time, and most people gradually withdrew into their own personal method of dealing with the endless hours of travel. My own method was to sit and stare out of the window in a semi-trance, hypnotised by the endless landscape that refused to stop passing by. In places it was so flat that I fancied that I could see for fifty kilometres. I think it is only possible to see about five because the curvature of the Earth, but I was in my own little world.

The Nullarbor Plain, for that is what we were trundling across, is famous for not having any trees. It is Latin for no trees. The train line has a straight stretch of four hundred and seventy-eight kilometres that crosses this unique landscape. It is also very flat, except for the occasional patch of sand dunes.

The promotion for the train says that you will be able to see a great deal of wild of wildlife. The plain is a limestone plateau covering about 200,000 square kilometres. It stretches over 1000 kilometres at its widest point. It used to be an old seabed that has since been uplifted and is riddled with caves. Some of them are huge. Cocklebiddy Cave in Western Australia is one of the largest, being over six kilometres in length. Most of it is filled with water, but that hasn’t stopped intrepid cavers from seeing how far they can go. The record is just over six and a half kilometres. Nobody knows how much further it goes? This limestone tableland eventually reaches the Southern Ocean and terminates in cliffs that fall straight down to the water, some 70 metres below.

Another reason I remember Cocklebiddy is from when we drove over to the east from Perth, when I was about eight years old. We stayed in a small motel and were kept awake all night by the breeze blowing off the land towards the sea. I don’t know who decided to call it a breeze, it was a howling gale that rattled all the windows and shook the walls. Loose bits of galvanised iron bashed against other galvanised iron in a symphony of metallic screeching. As you can see, it was burned into my memory. The flat plain provides not protection, so this wind just blows as much as it likes. I preferred cruising past in the comfort of the train. The train also arrives in three days, while driving across would take at least a week.

The promotion for the train says that you will be able to see a great deal of wild of wildlife from the window. This is probably true, but only if you haven’t become totally vacant, focused on a speck of dust on the window, and are now dribbling in a catatonic state.

There are eagles and other birds of prey that occasionally glide majestically by on their thermals; there are wombats, kangaroos, emus and even camels, but I can’t remember seeing many. The Eyre Bird Observatory near the Western Australian and South Australian border has recorded somewhere in the region of two hundred and thirty different species of bird. I only wish that I could have spotted some of them.

The day dragged on.

And on.

And on.

It was, however, comforting, even out here in the middle of nowhere, to have the traditional unexplained stops and then periods of trundling along at only just above walking pace. There is probably a good reason for this; hot tracks, perhaps a train coming the other way, but it seems that it is company policy wherever you are in the world not to tell the passengers what is going on.

The train occasionally passes old towns, or just abandoned stations like Forrest, a lonely wooden building that has been left to suffer the tender mercies of time. We stopped in Cook, named after the sixth Prime Minister of Australia, Joseph Cook. This was a welcome chance to get off the train and stretch our legs. It was hardly a town at all, just a collection of three or four buildings next to the railway with a dirt track heading off into the flat tableland. There are four people who live here, the rest moved when it ceased to be an important stop once the railways were privatised and support operations moved elsewhere. It was very quiet. Adelaide seemed a very long way away.

We managed to arrive in the South Australian capital on the second morning. The usual contortions had resulted in the usual ached and pains so I took the opportunity to get off the train for a couple of hours and have a really good fried breakfast. A short tour of Adelaide was offered, but why would I want to get on a coach? just I had been cooped up on a train for a day and a half, and had another similar stint ahead of. Was he mad?

The day passed uneventfully enough. My medical mates from Adelaide were now safely home and the carriage was much quieter. Late that afternoon we pulled into Broken Hill. This is where the journey became even more of a drag.

I had managed to get a seat in a non-smoking car, because of the scarcity of people on the train. My ticket, the only one left when I bought my passage in Perth, was for a smoking car. I had been able to ignore this restriction up until now, however my luck had run out.

I moved to the smoking car and spent the rest of the day sitting next to an old guy who smoked like a chimney. He did apologise, but that did not help very much. When I left England, I had not realised how many people smoked. I played cricket, and one of the clubs I played for had developed a grey haze by about eight o’clock on a Saturday evening. A lot fewer people smoked in Perth, and I now found that sitting in the smoking car was making my eyes sting.

Consequently, I spent at least half of the third day standing in between the cars staring out of the window. Sydney could not come soon enough.

After yet another night of gymnastic sleeping, this time with only one seat and a carriage full of smoke, we pulled into Sydney early on the third morning, some four thousand three hundred and fifty-two kilometres after leaving Perth. I was exhausted and crawled into the first taxi I could find, mumbled, ‘Glebe Youth Hostel,’ before I passed out.

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