The silver serpent
Four nights, three days and a race with a few ambitious emus are all that separate our country’s two great coasts.
Like a five-day growth, grey saltbush-stubble flecks the stony, treeless landscape, which disappears into the horizon on either side of the track. Camels roam in the distance and galahs perch on the telephone line in lieu of tree branches. Nullarbor is not an Aboriginal word but rather Latin for ‘no trees’. And that’s about 99.99% true.
I’m crossing the Nullarbor on the Indian Pacific, a journey between Sydney and Perth, covering 4352km in four days and three nights.
Two days earlier at Sydney’s Central Station, as local commuters rush to catch suburban trains, I stroll to my Gold Class carriage, where I’m escorted to my cabin. Unlike flying, there is no queuing, security scans or waiting at gates.
The sleeper is roomier than expected, with a three-seater lounge that converts to twin bunks in the evening and a separate en suite. (Single-berth cabins share bathroom facilities.) There are nooks and crannies for storage, a small table and three power points. OK, it’s no cruise ship-size stateroom, but the Queen Mary doesn’t have to comply with standard gauge tracks, does she.
Settling down by the expansive window, I browse the map of our journey tracing a line from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian, and only then does the penny drop about the origin of the train’s name.
To celebrate departure, and drown my ignorance, I go to the Outback Explorer Lounge for a glass of bubbles. We leave Sydney behind and the train rocks’n’rolls through the Blue Mountains.
Soon the comfy lounge car is abuzz with chatter as guests get to know each other, along with the friendly staff, including moustachioed hospitality manager Jos Engelaar who’s been with the train’s operator, Great Southern Rail for 15 years.
Meals are served in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant, a traditional dining car where hearty breakfasts, two-course lunches and three-course dinners match any fine restaurant.
Sleeping with my blind open, I wake to a landscape of red dust and spiky spinifex; we’re approaching Broken Hill.
Off-train excursions here include the emotionally moving Miners Memorial atop the enormous tailings mound or the colourful Pro Hart Gallery.
Back on the train, the landscape subtly changes from orange dirt to grey sand, brittle brown grass to lush golden wheat. Emus bounce comically along trying to outrun the train; kangaroos merely stop and stare. Abandoned stone cottages whisper of yesteryear and modernist turbines look to a future of wind generation.
In Adelaide, a tour of Central Market arouses the senses, from the aromas of ground coffee, baked bread and melted chocolate to the vibrant displays of fresh flowers, fruit and vegetables.
We sample our way through organic peaches, Kangaroo Island honey and Barossa Valley cheese, finishing with a glass of South Australian wine.
Early next morning we reach the longest section of straight rail track in the world, stretching 478km between Ooldea and Rawlinna on the Nullarbor, itself the world’s largest single exposure of limestone bedrock.
It’s said when Aboriginal people first saw a steam train at Ooldea, they thought it was a great white snake carrying evil spirits. Now they travel hundreds of kilometres across the plain each December to meet the silver serpent as it disgorges Santa from the Indian Pacific Outback Christmas Train, which supports the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
At the desert railway siding of Cook, population four, we amble though the quirky ghost town, once home to 200 people. A rusty basketball hoop dangles from a rotted backboard, colourful murals decorate derelict buildings and the swimming pool sprouts weeds, not water. An outhouse declares “EFTPOS deposits here”, and signs beg: “Our hospital needs your help. Get sick.” And: “If you’re crook, come to Cook.”
Last stop before Perth is Kalgoorlie-Boulder, home to the largest single open cut mine in the world, but it’s the enormous dump truck at Hannans North Tourist Mine I find intriguing and I scramble into a wheel for a photo.
By the time we awake on day four, we’re in the lush Avon Valley just east of Perth.
Gone is Australia’s vast interior, encounters with its resourceful people and stories of its pioneering past. Unless I take the train back to Sydney, of course.
Briar Jensen was a guest of Great Southern Rail.
RACV can help
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