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The Sydney Morning Herald's travel writer Ben Cubby rides the rails from Sydney to Darwin via the Indian Pacific (which went via Goulburn!) and The Ghan. A long read.
May 17, 2005
Sydney Morning Herald
From the cheap seats, Ben Cubby takes in the huge, hostile heart of Australia.
The country north of Alice Springs, seen from the air, looks like a John Olsen painting, all delicately shaded ochre smudges, meandering ridges and tiny, evenly distributed speckles of vegetation.
At ground level, aesthetics give way to awe. Time and weather have scraped away almost everything. Immense, flat expanses of red gravel tail off into dry, stony creek beds. Stunted trees grow at absurd angles, buffeted by the hot northerly wind. It is hard to imagine anywhere more empty, flat or dead.
Halfway through the third day of a four-day journey from Sydney to Darwin by train, the endless expanse outside the windows was beginning to be matched by the sense of monotony inside the carriage.
The railway line from Alice Springs to Darwin opened in January last year, finally linking the Northern Territory to the rest of Australia after a mere century of inter-governmental squabbling over who was going to pay for it. The hostile stretch of desert between the tropical north and temperate south made it seem more like a journey between warring nations, a view happily reinforced by some of the Darwin residents I met when the train eventually arrived. ("I hardly understand a word they say with the funny accents," a Darwin hotel worker said of tourists from the south.)
I was travelling in Red Kangaroo class (lower class) on the supposedly luxurious Ghan railway. No faux-wood-panelled sleeping cabins for us: beds were reserved for Gold Kangaroo travellers. My fellow Reds and I had spent the previous 60-odd hours upright in our seats or occasionally strolling the narrow aisles to remind ourselves that we had legs. By now even the families who had enthusiastically unpacked snakes and ladders and chess sets on the Sydney to Adelaide section of the trip were staring dumbly out of the windows, hypnotised by the desert.
A particularly riveting bit of scenery - a large boulder, say - had dozens of heads slowly swivelling as the train clattered past. Watching that threadbare country slide by for hours on end was a bit like watching a TV tuned to snow: your eyes soon started to see imaginary patterns and mirages. I continually mistook clumps of wind-tossed saltbush for mobs of feeding kangaroos. Once, a few kilometres north of Alice, I thought a tangle of dead branches was a man praying beside the track.
Boredom plays a big part in a four-day rail trip through the outback. The enforced passivity of the long-distance haul was taking its toll on quite a few of the people in C carriage (it could be called lack-of-cabin fever), but generally the experience was far from dull. The rolling, rhythmic motion of the train, with the stuttering whirr of the air-conditioning, was strangely soothing. It allowed you to absorb and reflect on everything you saw. It was a bit like a Zen retreat, and the main devotional lesson seemed to be that inland Australia is a flat, dry but intriguing place.
THESE thoughts were still three days off as I boarded the Indian Pacific at Sydney's Central Station, with a crowd of excited-looking families and fresh-faced German backpackers, for the run to Adelaide, after which we would switch to the Ghan, turn right and travel north for 3000 kilometres. My seat-side companion was Natsumi, a quiet Japanese exchange student who busied herself unpacking an array of soft toys, small travelling games and paperbacks and secreting them in various nooks around her home for the next four days.
Paul, the burly steward, sternly informed the occupants of C carriage that he expected no nonsense from us, that we were not to sleep in the aisles or move around without shoes. Each carriage had a unisex toilet and shower, and we could visit the dining carriage at breakfast and dinner.
Stoppages on the Blue Mountains line meant the Indian Pacific had to take a 300-kilometre loop to the south before joining the western rail link to Broken Hill. So instead of rising majestically through the sandstone heights, the train chugged slowly south-west, inching past the vast new housing estates near Campbelltown before accelerating through the Southern Highlands. At dusk we rattled through Goulburn, its mostly abandoned industrial buildings silhouetted against the evening sky, hazed over by wood smoke from the chimneys of the city's many old workers' cottages.
After dark, passengers ventured towards the dining carriage, two carriages forward of my sleeping bag-lined nest at C49. To someone who hadn't yet found his "train legs", this simple-sounding operation took some doing. I realised why Paul had recommended we wear shoes when moving around. To cross from carriage to carriage, you had to yank open the door at the end and proceed in the buffeting night air across a floor of grinding, sliding metal plates, loosely surrounded by a sort of fabric concertina designed to prevent you from falling off the train altogether.
Sadly, after five minutes and three carriage lengths of lurching, staggering and inadvertent toe-treading (none of the others had their train legs, either), the dining carriage was a disappointment. The menu suggested a promising array of hot and cold food, but the reality was a steamed-up bain-marie containing watery chicken curry and about three limp, unpromising cubes of lasagna. The best thing on offer was cheese-and-tomato toasted sandwiches, which were plain but at least wholesome.
After that depressing morsel, gobbled in the lounge car, it was back to my seat to read and make some notes. Outside the landscape was utterly black with a few stars visible. We were passing the dry farmlands north of Yass.
I had thrown three books into my backpack to see me through the journey: The Blowtorch Trilogy by Chopper Read, George Orwell's Complete Essays and The Chaser Annual 2004. With hindsight, these had been typically hasty choices, so the only option was to try to sleep. I stretched out as far out as I could (I am about 180 centimetres tall, which was an irritating five centimetres or so too much) and dozed.
By dawn we were far out into the desert of western NSW. Everything outside looked clean and fresh in the morning light, the red dirt powdery and cool. The train, by contrast, was stuffy and warm, crammed as it was with people who had spent an uncomfortable night sleeping in their clothes.
To the south stretched the almost featureless Nombinnie Nature Reserve. It was sprinkled with small gum trees and parched-looking wattles, all the way to the flat horizon. There was no sign of animal or bird life.
The Indian Pacific crawled on straight for 200 kilometres, past the great dry lakes of the inland, which hold three times as much water as Sydney Harbour when full but now were simply vast salt pans around the tiny township of Menindee.
Eventually we saw evidence of habitation. Dirt tracks, wire fences and pieces of rusted, broken machinery indicated we were nearing Broken Hill. It was midmorning before we hissed and creaked our way into the terminal beside huge mounds of spoil from the city's many mines.
Unfortunately, because we were running late, we had only five minutes to stretch our legs on the platform before we headed off again. There was no time to explore the place, and my most memorable impression from that brief glimpse was of the large metal and wood sculptures that dotted the hills around the town, forming part of an art installation. They looked eerily like Easter Island statues, which seemed fitting, because Broken Hill's best, or at least wealthiest, years are behind it. Silver, lead and zinc have paid the town's bills since 1883, when a boundary rider named Charles Rasp stumbled on what he mistook for a tin deposit, but supplies are dwindling.
The area around Broken Hill supports more than a million merino sheep, but it was hard to see how from the train. The line continued west for 200 kilometres through arid plains of whitish soil, before crossing the invisible border into South Australia. As the train veered south towards Adelaide, the country gradually became more fertile. Giant fields of crops lay across the rounded hills like rumpled quilts.
Late in the afternoon we passed through Adelaide's densely populated northern suburbs and soon the Indian Pacific hissed to a halt at Keswick station near the centre of the city. Paul bowled in to tell us the Ghan was leaving for Darwin in five minutes, prompting a mad scramble to grab our gear and lug it onto the platform.
A few moments after the last bewildered backpacker clambered on board, the Ghan headed north. Half a kilometre long, with two dozen fat carriages and two extra ones behind the engine adapted for carrying cars, it was a massive, gunmetal tube. The exception was the engine, which was decorated with indigenous designs in lurid colours. The inside of the Red Kangaroo carriages resembled the Indian Pacific down to the mint-green curtains and cracked plastic trays that fold down from the back of each seat.
We rolled north, back through the agricultural belt, passing the industrial town of Port Pirie on our left. Night fell, bringing with it the perennial problem of how to kill a few hours before going to sleep. At this point I discovered the "smoking room", a foul-smelling cubicle at the end of the last carriage. This two-metre-square sealed box, with a hard, narrow bench around the inside, was served by two big extractor fans, but still filled with the eternal reek of cigarettes.
Before going on the trip I had decided not to light up for the duration. Non-smokers will no doubt be disgusted, but for want of anything better to do (I tell myself) I joined the crowd in that polluted cupboard, and was glad of it. It turned out to be the social nerve centre of the train, full of interesting ratbags and devil-may-care types who shunned the more socially acceptable pleasures of playing cards in the dining car.
I met Klaus, a young carpenter from Thuringia in Germany, who was travelling the country collecting snakeskins, half a dozen of which he kept in his coat to show others. For some reason he had a savage dislike of Gunter, another, slightly older German wanderer who was also a regular visitor to the smoking room. People assumed they were friends, but Gunter, provoked by his compatriot's constant sniping, dispelled this idea by hurling a can of Coke at Klaus's head after he had drifted off to sleep that night.
Raymond was an elderly contractor who had been born in North Queensland but lived most of his life in Papua New Guinea, where he claimed to have been cursed by a witchdoctor. Diane and Michelle were friendly, dreadlocked girls from Nottingham in England who could blow the finest smoke rings I have ever seen.
The night passed as we neared Alice Springs. A few kilometres south of the town, if you look into a shallow valley on the left of the railway line, in the distance you will see several white domes looking like a little cluster of mushrooms growing in the desert.
This is Pine Gap, the military intelligence base run by the CIA. Pine Gap's speciality is electronic eavesdropping, or listening to radio and telephone communication across a significant slice of the world, including much of China. The installation looked out of place and incongruous in the outback.
Alice Springs lies in a crater-like bowl of hills. The train passed through a short ravine carved in a steep, rocky ridge and was suddenly inside the bowl. Outside the cradle of hills, the landscape looked like a good place to fake a landing on Mars. Inside, it is as if an ordinary Sydney suburb had been cut out like turf and replanted in the desert. For the first time that day we saw lush green grass and trees.
There is no platform at Alice Springs, so we climbed down portable steps onto the hot cement. Unleashed from the train for a three-hour visit, Ghan travellers dispersed in all directions, inadvertently meeting up again half an hour later in the air-conditioned main shopping arcade. Next to the station I found a tiny cemetery full of ornate and rustic headstones from the town's early days.
The explorer John McDouall Stuart trekked through this valley in 1862, and the tiny town that grew up around the telegraph station a decade later was originally known as Stuart Town. The station was romantically named after the wife
of Charles Todd, the then superintendent of telegraphs for South Australia, and the town was gazetted as Alice Springs in 1933.
Even in the 1930s, the population was only about 2000, so the current town of 28,000 has a brand new look. Wide, eucalyptus-lined streets surround a small central business district packed with motels, shopping arcades and conference centres. Todd and Wills streets are the main thoroughfares, but even there traffic was leisurely and pedestrians wandered about at a glacial pace.
The most striking thing about Alice Springs is the apparent huge divide between black and white inhabitants. Indigenous folk sat around in groups in the shade while white folk moved around in ones and twos on business. A brief visit to the Museum of Central Australia is enough to show there are many examples of cultural exchange and happy integration, but there was little of that to be seen on the streets. Black and white seemed to be from different worlds.
This impression was brought home even more sharply the next day in Katherine, the little seahorse-shaped town just off the railway line 1000 kilometres further north. The Ghan stopped to take on fuel and water, and we paid $4 each to catch a bus five kilometres into the township for a couple of hours. "Have fun, go to the cafes and spend some money," the tourist guide said, a little desperately, to her load of captives. And we did, but the lasting impression was disturbing.
Fifty or so Aborigines sat aimlessly on the broad central nature strip down the middle of the Stuart Highway, apparently doing nothing but watching an occasional ute swish by. It was hard to buy anything without someone plucking at my elbow to beg a couple of dollars. It was hard to communicate on any level: conversational gambits met with a sullen silence. It was strange and sad, and it seemed so wrong that such a beautiful place - red earth, green trees, vast blue sky - had this worm of a problem gnawing away at it.
And then on to Darwin. A couple of hundred kilometres before you arrive, the country becomes greener, definitely subtropical now. Cattle grazed beside the tracks, and the fields were full of ant hills, two or three metres tall. We passed the township of Rum Jungle and 30 minutes later were skirting Darwin's outer suburbs. Our first glimpse of the Arafura Sea was through vast banks of mangroves, with a handful of small, white towers rising from the city's CBD.
The Ghan hissed slowly to a halt at the vast, new railway station, surrounded by hectares of empty red earth awaiting development. It was 39 degrees and intensely humid. The denizens of the Red Kangaroo carriages unfolded themselves from their seats for the last time. We shared some weary laughs over our creaking knee joints. Children, freed at last from the train's constraints, burst onto the platform like a flock of sparrows. It was good to walk again. After four days, three nights and far too many cheese-and-tomato sandwiches, the journey was over.
HOW MUCH IT COSTS
The fare from Sydney to Darwin on a Red Kangaroo day-nighter seat is $628 one way. A cabin costs $1750. The Indian Pacific leaves Central Station, Sydney, on Saturdays and Wednesdays at 2.55pm. Passengers change to the Ghan at Adelaide, arriving at Darwin at 4pm on Tuesdays and Fridays.
GOOD REASON TO CELEBRATE
As the first Ghan passenger train prepared to roll into Darwin's new passenger terminal on February 3 last year, a crowd of dignitaries and happy onlookers was waiting at the station to greet it. With the clock ticking on and on and no train in sight, they exchanged nervous glances. After the mammoth effort of laying 146,000 tonnes of steel track on more then two million concrete sleepers, could some hitch have occurred at the last moment?
They needn't have worried. The Ghan had pulled in, quietly and unnoticed, at a different siding 30 minutes earlier. It wasn't long before the crowd discovered its new venue, and the party for Darwin's tourism industry, which accounts for a tenth of the Northern Territory's economic activity, has been going on ever since.
The train was a big hit even before it started, logging more than $1 million in advance ticket sales. Great Southern Railway, which operates the route, said it carried almost 40,000 people in the first nine months. The enthusiasm has ebbed a bit now that the bi-weekly service has been operating for more than a year, but the boost to Northern Territory tourism remains huge.
The Ghan can carry 550 passengers at a time, and it is usually close to capacity, which means 1000 more tourists a week arrive in Darwin. And most people spend at least a day or two in the city before heading off east to Kakadu National Park.
The Ghan's tourism boom has also sent ripples back down the line. Katherine, about 320 kilometres to the south, has become a regular stop for the Ghan. Passengers stretch their legs and explore the town for a couple of hours, or perhaps pay about $150 for a short helicopter flight over the nearby Katherine Gorge.
Maureen Thearle, who co-ordinates tourism in Katherine, said the arrival of the train and its 500 tourists each trip, had made a big impact. "The shops have noticed the inflow; maybe even a couple of them have been rescued by it. When it comes through, there are a lot of efforts to make people happy and find out what they would like to do when they're here. Even if they just have a couple of cups of coffee at the cafe, people notice the difference."
So now that Australia's last great rail connection has been made, has the territory lost its frontier reputation?
No one in Darwin seems to think so. "Most people that move here from down south are running away from something, be it a wife or a crime or whatever," a Darwin taxi driver said. "They will always keep coming here to look for something a bit different."
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