Saturday 12 December 2009

Indian Pacific 2: Adelaide to Watson

In which I continue the chronicle of my three-day journey from Sydney to Perth, via the mighty Indian Pacific transcontinental train...

Thursday 3 December 2009

3.45pm, Adelaide

After 25 hours on the rails, we arrive at Adelaide Parklands, the euphemistically renamed interstate rail terminal at Keswick, an industrial zone next to the green belt that rings the city’s centre.

I’ve been here before at the end of the Overland train journey from Melbourne’s spectacular Southern Cross Station, and it’s as much of an anticlimax when compared with the grandeur of Sydney Central.

Several of us lob onto a coach for a whistlestop tour of the city. The tour tracks around the edge of the urban core which was set within parks by Adelaide’s founders, allegedly for defensive purposes.

I say “allegedly” because our guide issues explanations which sometimes sound unlikely, and which I suspect might be urban myths. We pass by elegant stone mansions, parks, major landmarks such as the GPO and Town Hall, and the high-class residences of North Adelaide.

It’s all very well for an hour or so, but the tour drags on, we never get out of the coach, and the driver’s commentary becomes ever more eccentric until he’s telling us that the traffic lights have been fixed so motorists have to use more fuel while idling so the government can pocket extra fuel excise! We hard-bitten journos (OK, soft travel writers) roll our eyes particularly emphatically at this gem.

The food on the train is good - I had curried braised chicken for lunch - but the portions are relatively modest, so I buy a baguette and coffee at the terminal’s cafe on our release from the tour. For sheer weirdness you can’t beat a ham, cheese and pineapple baguette, so I order that. Remember, this is the city that gave us the pie floater - a guilty pleasure at any time.

6.40pm, on board

Heading north once more out of Adelaide. It’s worth noting that the city has quietly become the hub of Australian train travel. From Adelaide you can catch a regular train to four state or territory capitals: Perth, Melbourne, Darwin and Sydney. Only Sydney can beat this, with services to Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne and Canberra.

10pm, Port Augusta

We stop briefly in Port Augusta for servicing, and everyone’s allowed off for a bit of air on the platform while the train is rolled forward a short distance. It’s always refreshing to be out of the train, to realise there is a world out there that isn’t contained within a long steel tube, and it’s cool and quiet on the platform. Above us is a brilliant star field, with the intensity you only see far away from big city lights.

Friday 4 December

8am, Watson

This is totally different, our first truly desert experience. We’re standing in a stark, open space at the stopping place known as Watson. There’s nothing here to denote civilisation: no town, no platform, no man-made structures at all.

But there are galahs - two of them fly over the train just after we disembark - and people, plenty of them, gathered here to hear Shannon Noll sing and to meet Santa Claus. There are many Aboriginal kids who’ve been driven here from two schools hours away, and they smile at the swarming media as they wait for the stars in their school uniforms.

When Noll emerges, he takes his place on a low gravel mound alongside his two guitarists, completely unplugged, and belts out What About Me. Behind us is a lone tree that’s been festooned with streamers by people who’ve camped overnight, a rough and ready Bush Christmas tree. After he finishes, neatly placing his hat on one of the schoolkids’ heads, Santa climbs down from the train and is mobbed.

I can’t help smiling at the unlikeliness of it all - the long silver train, the wilderness we’re standing in, and its inhabitants and passengers mixing in the company of a pop idol and Father Christmas. It’s yet another impossibility summoned into existence by the Indian Pacific.

What lies further west? Is Cook the place I want to settle down? Who keeps the lawn at Rawlinna looking so nice? And is the desert heat really the reason that Kalgoorlie’s barmaids dress so minimalistically? All is revealed in the final Indian Pacific episode next week...

[read the first instalment (Sydney to Broken Hill) here]
[read the third instalment (Cook to Perth) here]

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

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