Monday 16 August 2010

It might seem strange to learn one of the highlights of the Indian Pacific experience is several hundred kilometres of nothing, but we'd been told that was the way things were before we hit the Nullarbor. 

There's nothing I can think of that would prepare you for the discovery that several hours of a 360-degree vista where the horizon is unencumbered and uncluttered by protrusions of any kind is an enjoyable experience. 

At 6:00 when the wake-up call and cups of tea and coffee arrived, that was still all before us, and we had little real idea of what was in store apart from a very long stretch of unbending railway track.

Since the sun wasn't quite with us and the cabin delivered a view to the left, the Club Car, with views to both sides seemed the way to go. 

We arrived to find the place packed with people obviously there in anticipation of the Red Service call for breakfast since the area emptied remarkably quickly when the call came. 

The breaking dawn brought a misty sun over low scrub and red ochre sand hills, that rich red-orange, almost terracotta on steroids, with small trees scattered across them. 

There wasn't much that was too high. With sunrise shots taken and no one nearby to chat with, a move back to the cabin and a visit to the Rain Room seemed like a good idea. 

There wasn't much to see, those things would have to be done eventually, and the future was an unknown quantity.

I'd emerged and dressed for breakfast and was in catch up mode on the field notes while Madam showered when my HBSP pen decided to give up the ghost. 

Fortunately, I had a spare, but a brief grapple with the alternative wasn't entirely satisfactory, so I headed off in search of a substitute, investing $2 on an Indian Pacific el cheapo that wasn't much chop. 

Any subsequent decline in reportage can be attributed to the change. 

Poor workmen, their tools and all that.

Madam emerged, dressed, and expressed a desire for rest. I set off with pen and notebook thinking that there'd be space in the Club Car and I'd continue composing without seeming too unsociable. 

After all, there'd been no one in evidence fifteen minutes before. 

It's remarkable how quickly things change. 

I arrived to find all seating occupied except for a stool near the bar, and it was apparent that solitary scribbling was setting the scrivener apart from the rest of the population. I gave up and looked around to discover that the mist had closed in and turned into fog, not quite your pea-souper, but enough to prompt the hospitality manager to remark that it was something she hadn't experienced on this leg of the journey before.

Up to this point, we'd been sitting in the cabin till the meal call came, but it seemed gathering in the Club Car was the standard modus operandi so I wandered back to the cabin to suggest that Madam might care to join the throng.  

She did, but the joining lasted all of ninety seconds before the chime came and we were off to be seated for breakfast.

There isn't much room for variation in a cooked breakfast, and I went for the standard option, with poached rather than scrambled, eggs to go with the bacon, chipolata, mushroom and tomato. 

We were in the middle of ordering when the fog lifted, as if by magic, and we found ourselves gazing at the remarkable extent of the Nullarbor in all its sparse and minimalist glory.        

The other couple at the table, a farmer from the Blue Mountains and his born to shop for shoes missus, was a mine of information. He was a Sandgroper by birth and had made the crossing several times by both road and rail. 

His better half wasn't at her best in the morning person role, but this was new ground for her, so there were questions, remarks and repartee across the table as we moved further onto a vast unchanging landscape.

When I spotted something that could have been mountains, I was told it was probably cloud, and there was nothing out there to the south from the track to the highway, which lies a hundred kilometres away and beyond that to the Great Australian Bight. 

Nothing. Not a hill, not a valley, nary a river or anything to deliver variation to a dead flat and entirely even horizon. 

There was no variation on the northward side either.

As the PA announcement advised that we were on the world's longest stretch of straight railway line, I meditated on the fact that, on a full-circle vista, there was nothing to break the absolute flatness of the Nullarbor skyline. 

THe dead straight section runs for 478 kilometres between the 797 km post west of Ooldea and the 1275 km post west of Loongana. 

 That lack of variation gave plenty of time for catch-up scribbling since there was nothing new that could be added in the way of exciting detail apart from a mercifully short half-hour stop at Cook. 

Seriously, you wouldn't want to be spending more than thirty minutes at Cook, the township that dates back to the construction of the line during the First World War. 

Named after the sixth Prime Minister of Australia, Joseph Cook rather than navigator James, these days Cook is effectively a ghost town since they privatised the railway in 1997. 

The new owners didn’t want to maintain a community that increased overheads without contributing to revenue. 

As a result, the hospital and the school closed, though there is evidence, in the only substantial clump of trees on the Nullarbor, of an attempt to create an oasis in the desert.

There are refuelling facilities and accommodation for train drivers, but the purpose of the exercise is to replenish the water supply for the Indian Pacific. At first, that used water from the Artesian Basin, but in the twenty-first century, in the age of profitability, the water is brought in by train.       

As a result, the population has declined to three or four, not that we managed to sight apparent locals as passengers from the train wandered around deserted buildings. 

The residents were presumably engaged with the store, which opens while the train is in town. 

We took a clockwise circuit around the outskirts of town, getting a good look at what remained. 

Madam's photographic interest drew her away from the crowd, and as I watched and waited, I found my imagination moving into Hercule Poirot Murder on the Indian Pacific territory. Over the next week and a bit, I managed to put together a workable plotline, but it's one that'll have to wait its turn in Hughesy's queue of fiction projects. 

We were back on the train soon after the blast on the fire siren signalled an impending departure. 

Once we set off and signs of human occupation were gone I found myself pondering matters metaphysical. A line in a Fred Dagg monologue about becoming a  novelist refers to the stark hostility of the very land itself and evokes an outback landscape far removed from anything close to the urban existence.

Alternatively, you might wax poetic along the Dorothea Mackellar I love a sunburnt country theme, but out here that doesn't wash either. 

Concepts like beauty, in the sense of being attractive to look at, go out the window. 

Although the stark hostility of the very land itself might be just a little over the top, as the train made its way through a landscape that relentlessly refused to offer any variation, I thought it wasn't so much hostility as an indifference to the existence of humans and other life forms. 

That landscape's there.

 It's always been there. For a long time, it's been just like this. 

It will still be just like this long after the occupants of the train as well as all their descendants are long gone. 

There's a sense of timeless indifference, and if I hadn't been in the middle of an all-Australian playlist on the iPod, I could have gone for repeated replays of Warren Zevon's The Vast Indifference of Heaven, though here I wasn’t contemplating heaven but the vast, empty and unchanging earth. 

The straight stretch ended at Nurina, five hundred kilometres and close to seven hours after it had started at breakfast, but the landscape continued to refuse to incorporate a vertical dimension. 

Shortly afterwards we passed the site of an old prisoner of war camp. 

A little further on at Rawlinna a couple of stockpiles from the nearby limestone mine provided a break from unrelieved flatness, though six hours after we came into the Nullarbor there was still no change as far as the skyline was concerned.         That’s not to suggest nothing caught the eye at stops to pick up mail bags in the middle of nowhere. At one of them, around lunchtime, there were colourful patches of red wildflowers. A bit further along she sighted a solitary cow moving towards the stationary train as if intent on a rendezvous.

At least that was the way it seemed from where we were sitting. 

After some time, however, the vegetation began to gain height, and before long we found ourselves in scrub high enough to cut off the view to the horizon. 

I didn't note much in the way of intervening hills until the Blue Service was called for dinner, where I repaid the previous night's shout with a bottle of Tempranillo. 

Dinner time took us into Kalgoorlie, and a three hour stop where there was nothing for it but to hoof it around town for a while. 

That endeavour was encouraged by a significant diminution of onboard hospitality.

Throughout most of the journey, with the external doors secured, there was little need to lock cabin doors and so on.

A stationary train on the outskirts of a city meant a possibility of larceny and other forms of mayhem. Once the train was divested of its passengers, it went into lockdown with two doors and the same number of hospitality outlets open.       

It doesn't take three hours to walk around Kalgoorlie. 

The temptation to roll into a convenient waterhole, sink a couple of beers and return with replenishments probably accounted for the warning that bringing grog onto the train was verboten.

That was something that hadn't been mentioned when I looked at bringing a couple of bottles of wine for in-cabin consumption.

Kalgoorlie presented as a town that had done very well for itself in its heyday, and the buildings were similar in style to those we sighted in Broken Hill. 

There weren't many locals on the streets. While that was probably a function of the hour and Monday (ten o'clock on a Saturday may have been different), I suspect twelve hours on, twelve hours off, alcohol and substance testing ethos was a significant factor. 

Commemorative pavers revealed Kalgoorlie as the birthplace of Walter Lindrum, the Bradman of the billiard table, and many sporting identities, almost all of them unfamiliar names as far as the four of us were concerned. Given Madam's background that was hardly surprising but many of them were footballers, Gavin and Lynn were from Victoria, and we were presumably talking AFL. 

It seems football fame didn't always spread eastwards in the pre-Eagles and Dockers era. 

I was also quite taken by the wording on this storefront. 

Presumably, in the owner’s mind, gourmet precludes the culinary traditions of Italy and South Africa. 

There may, possibly, be a case for the latter, but Italian?

Having negotiated our way back to the train, the ladies made their way to the cabins. 

Gavin and I headed for our Club Car in the vain hope of finding it open. We were about to call it a night when we were joined by a young bloke I'd sighted with a camera and tripod over the preceding few days. 

He'd been carrying a copy of Uncut before dinner, and in the brief conversation that followed he turned out to be a regular reader of Mojo. 

After Gavin called it a night, we sat discussing music for a good hour before I decided an uncertainty about what lay over the horizon in Perth meant that it wasn't a good idea to continue sitting up. 

Still, it was one of the most enjoyable conversations I've had for many a year. 

Talking Derek Trucks, Little Feat, Captain Beefheart and Forever Changes with a young bloke in his twenties or early thirties on the Indian Pacific. Who'd have thought?

© Ian Hughes 2017