The final chapter of my three-day journey from Sydney to Perth aboard the Indian Pacific, the train that traverses a continent...
Friday 4 December 2009
We’re on the longest straight stretch of rail in the world - 478 kilometres without a single bend - when we arrive at Cook.
It’s another place named after an early Australian Prime Minister. Our previous stop, Watson, was presumably named after Chris Watson, the world’s first Labor PM in 1904, and Cook is named after Joseph Cook, PM from 1913-1914 (and surely there must be a Deakin stopping place somewhere about here as well).
It’s a tiny town of just four people, we’re told. One of them is the proprietor of the souvenir shop, the only place open. There are no kids here any more so the school is closed, and the neatly maintained houses set back beyond a broad white stony track are apparently mostly empty.
I wander around the clearing between the buildings, as does everyone else, then return to the shop to buy a card marking the world's longest rail straight to send to my Polish friend Magda, whose Warsaw address is the final destination of an intermittent trickle of postcards from the more exotic places I visit.
It’s hot, dry and desolate here, but you can tell it was once a viable if tiny township, servicing the trains that passed. I can’t help thinking about what a great writers’ retreat it would make - no distractions, not even the Internet. But a couple of my colleagues look aghast when I mention the idea. “Writers’ prison, more like,” one suggests. But I like the idea.
Finally we’re across the border into Western Australia, though there’s a lot of the state to cover between here and the coast. At 4pm we pull into Rawlinna, a stop serving a vast sheep station of a million hectares, within which it can take hours to traverse a single paddock.
After the bleakness of Watson and Cook, it’s surprising to step off the train onto a small but healthy patch of lawn in front of the closed station building. A short distance away is the former post office, also closed and dilapidated, but with signs of having been abandoned not many years before.
There are hardly any children at this stop, rather an assortment of adults from the sheep station and other unknown locales; they're generally of the Akubra hat wearing, hard working stockman type. Shannon Noll and his guitarists perform within the shade at one end of the station verandah, the audience enjoys the music, then Santa hands out his gifts to the few young ones in attendance.
While that’s going on, I chat to a young French guy named Robert, who’s travelling in the sit-up Red Class. He caught my eye at a previous stop as he appears very young, maybe about 20, way below the age of the elderly travellers common on the train.
“I’m from Lyons,” he says.
Why did he choose the three day sit-up option?
“Because I wanted to see all the country,” he replies. “I’ve seen Sydney and Melbourne, and I wanted to see what was in the middle.”
“And it was cheaper, too,” he adds.
Then we’re off.
After 24 hours we’re back in the realm of mobile phone reception and Internet connectivity. Just outside the big mining town it kicks back in, everyone’s phones start beeping, and I dash off a few postings via Facebook and Twitter.
Then, after the train pulls into the impressive stone station in the first big settlement we’ve seen since Adelaide, I walk into town with a bunch of my colleagues. We’ve decided to pass up the scheduled tour in favour of having a drink at one of Kal’s many elegant 19th century pubs.
Though the Exchange Hotel, where we end up, ain’t too elegant - in fact the ladies behind the bar keep taking off layers of clothing as the night wears on. Perhaps it’s the hot desert weather? Something seems to be raising the temperature in here.
At 10pm we return to the train via through the mining city's massively wide streets, past colonial-era buildings and the famous statue of Paddy Hannan, the discoverer of Kalgoorlie’s gold in 1893. There are party pies laid out in the lounge car - as if we haven’t had enough food -and people are cheerfully but a little sleepily relating their brief Kal encounters.
And now to bed. In the morning - Perth!
Saturday 5 December
7.30am, on board
We’re well into the flat, dry wheatfields region east of Perth now, passing fields dotted with giant wheels of hay, looking like clever pastoral art installations.
The call for breakfast has just been delivered via the PA system, but I’m determined to upload my first Indian Pacific blog posting while I’m actually on the train, so I curse softly as I wait in my cabin for my iPhone to maintain reception long enough to click on ‘upload’. Bang on 7.30am I’m able to do so, the blog is updated, and I troop the three car lengths back to the dining car.
It’s our last meal onboard and everyone is cheerful but tired, having enjoyed the journey and companionship but, I think, looking forward to arrival. It’s going to be odd to rejoin a world which contains dimensions heading off in all directions - not just length - and to not have the day’s rhythms dictated by a neat schedule of meals, tours and socialising that becomes surprisingly comfortable and satisfying once you settle into it.
Just after 9am we finish our measured slide through the eastern suburbs of Perth, and pull into the East Perth Terminal precisely on time. We’ve travelled 4,352 kilometres across a continent, eaten good food, enjoyed excellent company, visited the wildnerness, and heard Shannon Noll sing Santa Claus is Coming to Town eight times. It’s been an experience.
[read the first instalment (Sydney to Broken Hill) here]
[read the second instalment (Adelaide to Watson) here]
Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail.
[And as this is the 50th blog posting I’ve uploaded this year to Aerohaveno, it seems a neat point at which to rest. I’m taking a break from travel over Xmas and the New Year, and will post again around the end of the first week of January 2010. See you then... and happy travels!]