Saturday, 5 December 2009

Indian Pacific 1: Sydney to Broken Hill

As a wise Australian philosopher once wrote, it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll. It’s also a long way from Sydney to Perth, especially if you catch the train.

From Sydney’s Central Station to the East Perth Terminal, the Indian Pacific train crosses almost 4400 kilometres of cityscape, mountains, bush, outback and the featureless Nullarbor Plain.

It’s one of the world’s great train journeys, and I’m writing about it right now in the sumptuous Outback Explorer Lounge car, as the extraordinarily flat, scrubby desert landscape flicks past the windows, utterly treeless and fascinating.

This is the (edited) story of how I travelled from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean in the company of a media pack, the singer Shannon Noll, and Santa Claus, on a mission to spread festive cheer...

Wednesday 2 December 2009

11am, Sydney

It’s fitting that I should start my journey in the quintessential part of Sydney, in fact my favourite spot in Sydney - sitting on the restaurant deck outside the Museum of Contemporary Art and gazing across the ambling tourist crowds and Circular Quay ferries to the Opera House. I sit here for an hour admiring the view and marvelling at how well the barista has made this coffee, considering the beans come from a big roaster I’ve never been impressed with before.

Then it’s off to Central Station, and the big long silver carriages stretching down both platforms 1 and 2. There are 26 cars in total, including two locomotives. The train’s so long that it has to be split in two for boarding, then connected on departure.

My Gold Class twin cabin is a very compact space about two square metres in area, lined with pine panelling in a vaguely retro style than could fit anywhere between the 1920s and he 1960s. It’s small but well organised, with a mirror, two small cupboards, and a sofa that turns into bed, with another bunk bed above. The bathroom is a clever bit of engineering, with a fold-down metal sink above a fold-down metal toilet bowl, and a shower head above (a wrap-around shower curtain stops the toilet paper getting wet).

Two carriages along is the Outback Explorer Lounge. It’s a plush, comfy carriage, with curving lounges set cleverly against opposing walls to allow conversation while maintaining a walkway down the middle. It’s safe to say that the only exploration happening here will involve an examination of the beneficial effects of combining gin and tonic.

Beyond the lounge car is the Queen Adelaide Restaurant dining car, with neat booths at white tablecloth-covered tables. Menu is surprisingly diverse and modern, a big jump up from the sort of cruise buffet set-up I was half expecting.

At 2.55pm, we pull out and Sydney starts sliding away...

7.40pm, Bathurst

After almost five hours of travel, we step out onto the platform of Bathurst Station to find crowds of schoolkids standing in a temporary stage area, screaming out and waiting for Shannon Noll to step off the train. I should explain - the train we’re on is the annual Christmas Special, via which Great Southern Rail thanks the communities it passes through by presenting them with short concerts and a Santa visitation along the way.

The kids sigh impatiently through a couple of announcements, then temporarily give up, turn to face the audience, and belt out some Xmas numbers including the inevitable Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

They’ve done enough for their reward - Shannon Noll bounds on stage and sings a few numbers, bantering with the audience and getting the kids to sing along. I find myself smiling; it’s good to be out of the train for a while, standing on the platform of an 1876 station in a cool breeze, watching the sun fade and a bunch of locals with their kids having the best time because a famous singer has been brought to their town by the Indian Pacific.

I momentarily feel a bit like Santa; then Santa Claus himself appears from the train (we've brought our own) and hands sweets to the enthusiastic kids, who are happy to refocus their attention on an even bigger celebrity.

Thursday 3 December

6.15am, on board

You think (hope) you’re on a trip like this to relax and lie around the cabin reading a book. However, there are points when the train stops long enough for passengers to go on a short tour, and due to timetable dictates it may necessarily be at an inconvenient time. I’m struck again by how much the train is an “event” to these isolated towns, an unstoppable visitation from the outside world, as predictable and unavoidable as the changing of seasons.

In this case we’re due to blow in to Broken Hill at 7am. So at 6.15am we’re consuming pastries and coffee, and glancing out the window at the new scenery. It’s changed significantly overnight - last time it was light we were in the green hilliness of the Blue Mountains, now it’s a much drier, somewhat redder environment with a lot of low scrub and fewer trees. It’s a hint of the wilderness that awaits us further ahead. On cue, we spot a few kangaroos hopping lazily across the dusty earth.

7am, Broken Hill

At Broken Hill, the train is so long that we have to be led through several carriages ahead of us to reach the platform. It’s an interesting jaunt - one carriage has economy class passengers in sit-up, one has curvy walls to its sleepers which make you feel as if someone slipped something dodgy into your drink the previous night, one is a kind of maintenance car which resembles a slum of this long travelling town. It’s surreal to thread our way ever forward, forward through the narrow corridors, until finally we arrive on the stark unembellished platform to a board a coach for a local tour.

The problem with a whistlestop tour like this is that, well, it’s a whistlestop - it has to be brief. We’re driven through the streets by a classically laconic Aussie guide who doesn’t mind speaking plainly about his home town. Broken Hill is slowly dying, he says, because mining work is subsiding and there’s nothing else to do, so young people have to move away to work.

Underlining the point, he indicates two retirement home complexes in the centre of town as we drive past, describing their comparative advantages. Call me Mr Negative, but as a Texan friend once said when we were living in Egypt, “I don’t mind living here, but I don’t want to die here.”

Continuing the downbeat theme, he takes us up to a hill above the town, that lies along the ore seam that separates Broken Hill into north and south. There’s a memorial here to all the men who died in the mines over a century or more; their names inscribed on glass plates within a suitably industrial-looking rust-coloured monument. Next to each name is a slot for flowers, and there are many roses placed within them, brightening up the sombre monument. There are even roses for men killed back in the 19th century, which is touching.

8.20am, on board

Back onto the train for breakfast. The squeezy nature of the seating is actually an asset, as it forces people to be sociable. I’m sitting next to a French woman who lives in Oz and writes for Francophone publications internationally, a radio journalist from Sydney, and the Adelaide man who’s been commissioned to play Santa on our trip. The conversation is interesting.

Now we have about six hours to Adelaide. Return to my cabin to read or sleep, or hang about the lounge and socialise? I go for the solo option, and make a start on Paul Theroux’s recent Ghost Train to the Eastern Star while watching the landscape slip by.

What lies ahead in the desert? Will gin and tonic prevail, or should I try some of that nice sangiovese? Who is rigging the traffic lights of Adelaide? And is Theroux still such a grumpy traveller? Find out the answers in next week’s episode as I continue my progress west...

[read the second instalment (Adelaide to Watson) here]
[read the third instalment (Cook to Perth) here]

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail.