WEST OF COOK, SA -- Greetings from the Nullarbor Plain of southwest Australia, site of the longest stretch of straight railroad track in the world: 297 miles. I’ll be darned if the advertising isn’t right: not a curve to behold.
Unfortunately, not many sites to behold either. The Nullarbor gets its name from the fact that there is null (zero) arbor (Latin for tree), just 360 degrees in panorama of flat sagebrush. Not that the fact that we’re speeding at 65 mph down the middle of the desert is unimpressive. But I’d really like an observation deck that one could go into and take pictures of the straight track ahead or behind. But the front is blocked by the locomotive and the rear by the auto-carrying carriages.
We, within the last hour, left the ghost town of Cook, South Australia. Once one of the many towns that popped up to serve the transcontinental railroad, complete with a small neighborhood and a two-level schoolhouse, Cook is now the domain of just five hearty folks who cater to the tourists while the train refuels and waters. There’s no road to the town, save for the railroad and a couple dirt tracks. With just five residents and about 15 houses, I’d imagine the inhabitants could pick a new home to sleep every night.
Cook, a ghost town in the desert.
Close quarters in the cheap seats do make things more social. As my wife would no doubt attest, I’m not the most outgoing of folks. But – motivated more by the need to recharge my laptop in one of the few spots available to “daynighter” class than the overpriced food – I’ve spent ample time in the dining car.
Last night I spoke with Chris, from Albuquerque, N.M., who’s on his 10th day in country out of will be a year-long stay in Australia. He was a military brat who went to school in Colorado and has gone to the Coachella music festival annually (save for this year). He’s heading into Perth to meet an American-born friend who immigrated to Australia.
We exchanged pleasantries with a pair of older ladies whose names I didn’t catch. One was returning back home to Kalgoorlie after a trip to Sydney. The other was from New Zealand. She visited her son in Brisbane and had always wanted to take a cross-country train ride, so she set it up while she was here. She noted that about 800,000 New Zealanders live in Australia, which brought out my response of “There must be no one left there but Hobbits and Orcs.”
When we pulled out of Adelaide, they didn’t turn the train around, they simply moved the locomotive to the other end and flipped the back of the seats so we were now moving forward. They also loaded up a lot more passengers – I now have a seatmate: Nicol from Germany. Nicol, like Chris, is also spending a year living and working in Australia, but she’s 10 weeks into her sojourn. This will be her first time to Perth, but she told me that she found Darwin’s climate a mite oppressive. Nicol and I haven’t spoken much (her English is good, but she still feels the need to carry a German-English phrasebook). She also has fondnesses for salami and cream cheese sandwiches on white bread and laughing at some German comedy on her iPod Nano.
I spent breakfast with another fellow named John, but he was from Brisbane, not Burbank. He was taking the train over for a visit and was going to drive back east “this time.” I asked what he meant, and John told me that had three times bicycled around Australia on a fundraiser for the Sydney Children’s Hospital.
John and I spent more than an hour yapping on various topics, including why I had chosen to visit Australia (there should be a FAQ for real life) and what my initial impressions of Australia were (it’s more America-like than I thought, but my observations only consisted of a few hours in Sydney and a lot of time on the train – both hardly representative).
He told me, based on his bicycling adventure, that he will never eat parmesan cheese again because the smell is similar to that of a decomposing kangaroo (I still have yet to see one, alive or dead) and that he had a buddy who gave tours to unsuspecting Japanese tourists and regaled them with tales about drop bears and rumors that most bush fires are caused by koalas who spontaneously explode after ingesting too much oil from eucalyptus leaves.
As he began speaking about how alcohol is the source of most problems in Aboriginal areas, I thought I’d be getting another lesson on the evils of socialism, but John instead poke of his grand plan to organize a bicycle circuit around Australia for Aboriginal youths, complete with training, caravans and other logistics, in order to help young people get exposed to the wider world. A logical plan and I wish him the best of success (plus I gave him the address to this blog, so I can’t share some of the more risqué stories he told).
Back to the subject of the intimate cheap seats on the Indian Pacific, Bill Bryson, in his 2000 book “In a Sunburned Country,” wrote the following (page 41):
“… Looking up, I discovered we were in the forbidden coach section. I have never felt so stared at in all my life. As we followed David through the two coach cars, 124 pairs of sunken eyes sullenly followed our every move. These were people who had no dining car, no lounge bar, no cozy berths to crawl into at night. They had been riding upright for two days since leaving Sydney still had twenty-four hours to go to Perth. I am almost certain that if we had not had the train manager as an escort, they would have eaten us.”
Except for the fact that we did have access to a dining car, it’s not a bad description.
We just crossed the border into Western Australia and passed the Indian Pacific going the other direction – waves all around. Next stop, Kalgoorlie, world famous for its brothels. Sadly, I only have three hours there. (Ouch! Claire just somehow mentally kicked me in the shin.)