A Journey of Rediscovery

It began as a delayed mutual promise: to travel around much of Australia by rail. Often we had put the journey off, due to commitments, time pressures and responsibilities. In the end, some years ago, we simply decided to go, frazzled and pressured as we were.

The journey would take us northwards from Adelaide, two days on the Ghan train to Darwin. A car was needed for the next leg, almost 2000 kilometres through the Gulf Country, heading eastward to Mt Isa in far north Queensland. Another train would take us a further 1000 kilometres to the coast, and then we would wind our way some 3000 km southwards on a couple more trains, down the coast to home. It was to be a 9000 kilometre journey in all.

We began wearily, with long months of disrupted sleep behind us and expectations from work weighing upon us, all of it symbolised by the creaking burden of books in our packs. Initially, on the Ghan we plunged into our books and opened our computers to get some headway on the many tasks we hoped to complete on our way. Gradually, we turned less to the books and the computers began to be lie dormant for longer periods. I pulled out my camera and spent long hours walking the train and standing at windows, testing the capabilities of the camera. She slept much and gazed out the window, an open book lying on her lap unread.

In Alice Springs, Katherine Gorge and Darwin we simply walked all day. Still our talk was around projects, plans, grant funds, writing tasks and ways around problems at work. We went over difficult conflicts and frustrated projects, looking for new ways to achieve them.

The talk continued in the car we rented for the next few days. We intended to belt along the main road and get to Mt Isa as soon as possible. Soon enough a turn beckoned, into Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park. Our talk turned to other matters, of life and death and love and the endless, endless land. We stayed a night in a remote community or two, struggling to find accommodation. Until we happened upon an extraordinary road.

Named innocuously the Tableland Highway, it was barely a ribbon of undulating and wavy asphalt across vast spaces and beneath infinite skies. Water was scarce on the way, marked by the regular wind pumps of yesteryear. Now we fell silent as we were absorbed by the land. Occasionally, a native animal would pass our way, especially as dusk drew near. We stopped regularly to soak it all in, simply standing and looking out, aware that we were possibly the only human beings as far as our eyes could see.

On every roll in the road, I felt as though I left behind one more expectation, one more pressure, one more plan, one more struggle. Into the sky and the open plains went my sense of self-importance. I had begun against my best intentions to believe in the hype and to throw my weight around, feeling that I had the gravitas to do so and thereby change the world around me. As the road unwound through the vastness, that whole sense was simply taken away, little by little. By the end of that road, as we drove into Mt Isa, I had rediscovered myself.

I did not realise it at the time. In Mt Isa, I slept deep and long for the first time in months. The sleep would continue all the way home. Her process was more gradual, for she was processing much about identity apart from her work. She spent the 28 hours on the amazing Innlander train, from Mt Isa to Townsville, looking out the window and snoozing. I found this rail journey one of the most fascinating I have done for a long time. I absorbed everything around, thrilled by the experience. The train played only part of the role, for it was the rediscovery of myself now expressing itself.

By the time we left Cairns a few days later (after a short bus ride north from Townsville), we realised what we needed to do. The train helped, with its rail-bed sleepers on the run south to Brisbane. She would disconnect from what frustrated her at work, pursuing her passions in new areas, wherever that took her and wherever that might be in the world. I would resign from the many editorial boards, networks and leadership roles, disconnecting from the identity that had been forced upon me. I too would recover my passions and pursue them, anticipating the opportunity to join her wherever she went.

The return home, after the day-time XPT train from Brisbane, saw an immediate manifestation of all that we had experienced. We had a massive purge of books, thousands of them. Books we would never use again, crap books we had kept, and anything deemed fit to go. Our home opened up and we felt we could breathe again. The resignations and disconnections took another day. We were full of enthusiasm, freed, passionate and rested. The summer that followed was long, quiet and simply glorious. It was perhaps the most important journey we have undertaken for quite some time.

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New Tracks, Old Tracks

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Journeying on a restored railway line for the first time – what is it like? A new line may have its own thrill, an old familiar line another. But a restored line that is both familiar and new?

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Many years ago I had lived and worked in the country town of Armidale. Often, I walked past the grand railway station, which forlornly awaited trains that never came along disused and dilapidated tracks. Often, I would cross the line itself, on foot or on bicycle, pausing and looking up and down the tracks as though a train might be coming. Often, I travelled by bus to Tamworth, more than 100 kilometres to south, in order to catch the train there. On our way, we would follow the unused railway line, with its occasional station and signalman’s cottage. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought at the time, if this line was restored? All of the hard work had been done almost a century ago: easements, rail-beds, cuttings, tunnels and the route itself. Restoring the line would merely require some tracks, signals and repaired bridges – and political will.

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And then it happened: someone with political will decided to restore the line. Work began while I was living in Armidale, but it proceeded with its usual caution. Days, weeks, months passed as the line slowly found a new life. Eventually, the day came when a train once again arrived at Armidale station … but I was about to leave town, seeking my fortune elsewhere. So I never had the opportunity to catch that train.

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For more than two decades it has been on my mind – a desire to take the train to my former home. Towards the end of a hot summer, my chance came: a few days cleared and I jumped at the opportunity. My simple bag packed, I stood on the platform at my local railway station, awaiting the grand train to the northwest – all six carriages of the ‘Northern Explorer’.

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The initial part of the journal was familiar enough, winding up the Hunter Valley through vineyards, horse studs, mines and farms. We chugged over the Liverpool Range and into the Goonoo Goonoo Plains, before pausing at Werris Creek – a true railway town – to split the train. Two carriages went west to Moree and four turned northwards. Now the real pleasure of the journey began, for I was travelling on the restored tracks.

A curious experience it was. I have travelled old lines aplenty, following familiar paths, well-known habits – so much so that some are able to evoke the memories and even the feel of moments in my life decades ago. From time to time I have also journeyed on freshly laid tracks, enjoying the novelty of the experience, testing myself, before they too became habitual and were drawn into the network of the familiar.

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But the run from Tamworth to Armidale was different in unexpected ways. I knew this territory from decades past. Much of the line, the lie of the land, the occasional stops were all part of a former fabric of life. Yet to travel this way, along the railway line itself, was a new experience. I had never before seen the cuttings and twists and tunnels of the Moonbi Hills. I had not stopped at Bendemeer or Walcha Road or Uralla by train before. And I had never in my life disembarked onto the railway platform at Armidale.

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At the same time, it was an old, old line. Many decades ago trains full of people had travelled this line. When roads were rougher and cars slower and fewer, the railway line was the vital link – for people and food and produce. After being closed, it had lain idle for many a long year before being restored in a different era. I felt as though it was simultaneously a very new experience, a new venture, and yet an old one, which I knew intimately. Perhaps I can put it this way: I was discovering a way of journeying, touching other lives that felt both strange and familiar.

At some points, especially on the climb up to the New England Plateau, we travelled at the speeds of older trains – 15 or perhaps 20 kilometres an hour. The engine strained, the curves were tight, the gradient steep. Once on the plateau, we sped along in a way that older trains might have only imagined. The rolling plateau was still full of trees, perhaps more now that farmers had understood the benefits of bush on their land (instead of seeing it as a curse). The villages and towns seemed largely the same, for in country towns you do not have the sped-up process of destruction and building so characteristic of cities.

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I have to confess that I remained glued to the window, relishing each point passed, each turn of the train, each announcement of a station and the leap onto the platform to stretch my legs. But too soon did it arrive in Armidale, for the run from Tamworth is barely over 100 kilometres. At Armidale, the line stops and the train itself is parked into a secure bay to rest before the return journey the next day.

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Long did I look further up the line, where the tracks remain in a state of disrepair. The railway line once continued through the rest of the plateau, making its way eventually to Brisbane via the overland route. I began to anticipate that the remainder of the line would one day be restored, as no doubt it will when people realise the need to do so. I hope it happens in my lifetime, for I will take that train as soon as it begins that new journey over old tracks.

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The Molten Bitumen Ride

At 38 degrees Celsius, bitumen begins to melt. Shiny black bubbles, even long strips of molten bitumen appear. It sticks to my tyres; flecks fly onto the frame of my bicycle. The overheated bitumen sucks my tyres and slows their roll. Pedalling becomes more tiresome, or at least I imagine it so.

So it was for most of the 450 kilometres from an old home of many years ago to my new one, from Armidale to the northwest to Newcastle bythe coast. I had wanted to do this ride for so long, but at last my chance came – a few days free in the late summer of 2014-2015.I packed the bicycle into a box and caught the train – really a rail motor – to Armidale.2015 February 015 (320x240)

The rail line had been restored just as I was aboutto leave the place so many years ago, but I had never had the opportunity to travel along the old tracks made anew. I was mesmerised by the familiarity of the new on old, seeing the lie of a land I had once known well from a new perspective.

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Caravan of Dogs

In Armidale, it was not yet hot, at least not hot enough to melt bitumen. The town sits 1,000 metres above sea level, so while the sun can burn you quickly in summer, days are mild and nights fresh. I found myself in a camp ground by Dumaresq Creek – named after some long-forgotten Frenchman who happened find himself in these parts, far from home. Or rather, I found myself in a camp ground full of dogs and their extraordinary owners. Groomed, puffed, buffed and pampered, the dogs had their own caravans, tables and chairs and cutlery sets. Their owners lived in the dog kennels. They continued to arrive as I desperately searched for a campsite, away from the yelping, growling and barking – and that was just the owners. I thought I had found such a campsite, by a pond on some lovely grass past a sign that said, ‘no camping’. But soon enough the dogs came by one after another, walking their owners in the evening before putting them to bed.

I woke to a veritable dog heaven, as combs and sprays and powder prepared the dogs for their day on show. But it was not heaven for me, so broke camp early and hit the road. On my way out of town, up the long hill to the south, my muscles slowly became accustomed once again to being on a bicycle. And the bodily memories flooded my senses. Here was the pre-school my older daughter first attended and began learning to read; here was the primary school my two boys attended for a couple of years; here was the park where we played baseball and some cricket; here was the running track I traced out on a daily basis, as my fix after giving up smoking; here was the church we attended on a weekly basis; and here was the weatherboard house where we lived, much the same except for two grand pine trees in the front yard. I had forgotten about the trees, which I had bought at a school fete more than two decades ago. Slow growers, I was told, but long-lived. They stunned me, a visible sign of my former presence here. They will be there for many decades to come.

Moonbi Chook to Tamworth

The day passed, at a gentle pace and with the wind on my back, through the undulating New England plateau. At the 80 kilometre mark, I was sorely tempted to stop by the creek at Bendemeer. A simple camping area surrounded the only establishment in the village, which was simultaneously shop, post office, petrol station, library, pub, medical surgery and international research station. But I had time on my hands, so with a long look back I pointed my front wheel towards Tamworth, almost 40 more kilometres down the road. ‘Down’ was the operative word, for soon enough I hit the Moonbi ‘Hills’.

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In the direction I was headed, the near-vertical drop of the ‘hills’ requires emergency stopping beds for out-of-control trucks, buses and bicycles. I dared not look at the speedometer on my handle-bars, for I was sure that I was breaking the speed limit.

Suddenly Moonbi was upon me. Moonbi! Here is the famous ‘Moonbi Chook’, I recalled at the last minute. I dragged on the brakes and pulled up, for I had to see whether the chook was still on its perch. Sure enough, at the only park in town, the chook stands as it has always done. A massive angular construction rearing into the sky, it attempts to rival the big peach, the big prawn or even the big mosquito in northern NSW. I sat beneath its shade for a while, wary of a possible giant egg dropping out its rear end. Someone had given the Moonbi Chook a new coat of paint, so it could survey its demesne over the slopes of Moonbi. And that demesne incorporated thousands upon thousands of chickens, who vastly outnumbered the human beings hereabouts.

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Tamworth at last, town of the Country Music Festival, with the massive golden guitar (no rival for the Moonbi Chook!), guitar-shaped swimming pools, guitar-shaped houses. Hell, even the town is designed in a guitar shape, around which the hoons in their machines roar around endlessly. For some reason, I skipped the strumming glories of Tamworth, keen instead on a shower, food and a long sleep.

Sticky Tyres to Murrurundi

By next morning, the heat of the day was upon me early. Soon enough it would top 42 degrees, and the ride out of Tamworth through the Goonoo Goonoo Plains was marked by the regular ‘click, click, click’ of popping globules of molten bitumen. As if the energy-sapping heat was not enough, I met two gut-busting mountain ranges. They divide the Goonoo Goonoo Plains from the Liverpool Plains and the latter from the Hunter Valley. This was not supposed to be, I thought. The ride was meant to be a gentle downhill affair, all the way from Armidale to Newcastle. Instead, I found myself in granny gear for a final ten kilometre climb, tyres dragging in the molten bitumen.

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Murrurundi was a blessed relief, especially after the drop out of the range into town. Pausing at the pub to gain my bearings, I watched warily a beaten up car, with two men inside smoking and drinking beers. More hoons, I thought, with time on their hands. The doors opened and they stepped out, only to reveal a couple of old men, somewhere in their seventies. Once a hoon, always a hoon.

The last time I had stopped for a night in Murrurundi, I was 16, on one of my last camping trips with my parents, brothers and sister. Then we had camped by the showground, fleeing cyclonic weather. My father had found a tick on his head, on the first occasion of removing his hat for over four weeks. While he went in search of a doctor to remove the tick, we packed the car with all the camping gear – a glorious feeing, since he always reserved the right to pack everything on his own, since only he knew the best way.

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These days, camping was no longer allowed at the showground, so I found the only camping area in town. Now I really felt in touch with another dimension of life. My only concerns were a good spot for the tent, cleaning the bicycle, a shower to clean off the sweat of the day, and some food. But at the campers kitchen, I happened upon the evening ‘Happy Hour’. At least four campers seemed to be happy on this occasion. Grey nomads: they drank beers, talked of their ailments (from gout to heart disease), of places visited, of vans and prices and places they might visit on their endless desire to make the most of the few years they had left.

Molten Road to a Singleton Drama

The next day was the hottest I have ever ridden: 45 degrees at the peak. Heat shimmered from the road, sweat dried the moment it appeared, and I arrived completely busted. In a slightly dazed state, I had ridden 120 kilometres from Murrurundi to Singleton. I have a curious knack of arriving in Singleton on a bicycle in a busted state. The town seems to have that strange effect on me.

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But the drama that unfolded at the caravan park more than compensated. As I made my way lustily through two family-sized pizzas, the bikie next door told me his life story. Smoke in one hand and beer in another, he was watering his mother’s garden. He had passed me on the road into town and thought I was a complete idiot at the time for being out on such a day. His mother was a permanent at the park. She clearly wore the toughness of life, aware of decisions made at crucial junctures, now living alone, but with a son who did his best to help. He found that such help also entailed the imbibing of copious amounts of both legal and illegal substances, so that by late evening he was in a state of loving the universe.

Meanwhile, at the campers’ kitchen, the real drama was unfolding. A young girl of 14 had disappeared with a man in his twenties. She had been under the care of her grandparents, who lived at the park. Soon, the girl’s angry and concerned mother appeared, having just finished her nursing shift. Phones rang, the man’s mother appeared, more phones rang. Eventually, the girl returned, only to be roundly told off by her mother and grounded for a few weeks. The young man was nowhere to be seen, although his voluminous mother did her best to apologise. The possibility of another teenage pregnancy was clearly on everyone’s minds.

I and the grandfather in his stained white singlet talked politics. Instinctually Labor, he could not stand the current conservative government and sincerely hoped the prime minister’s days were numbered – ‘before he ruins the country!’ The inebriated bikie vehemently agreed, so we stood for a while cursing the rich ruling class who had no concern for the everyday lives of people who do it tough. I was inspired: there it was, the innate Left of the lower working class. Yet the party that has their allegiance shows little enough attention to their concerns.

Headwind Home

By morning I realised that I should have taken a rest day. Instead, I broke camp and mounted the bike for one more day. I will take it easy, I thought, since it will be a short day’s ride. In this case, ‘short’ meant 97 kilometres. As for taking it easy … it was at least cooler, but that was only because I had a gale-force headwind. But much of the ride was along a new section of expressway. Such types of road may seem like the last type of ride a bicycle tourer might choose. Far better, is it not, to find lonely country roads, single lanes meandering through farms and national parks? But an expressway seems to draw me, with its wide shoulder, gentle gradients and rest areas where I can switch off and think.

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This piece of road intrigued me more than most. I cursed the sheer expense, running into the billions. I thought of many better projects upon which the government money might be spent. Yet I was intrigued by the state-of-the-art engineering and especially by the way the environment around the expressway actually seemed to be improved. Water courses had been cleaned and treated with natural features to ensure their health. Animal crossings abounded, both under the road and over it. Regular rope lattices were strung across the expressway to enable possums to cross. And the whole road had been developed and planned with extensive consultation with the local Awabakal people. Song lines – ancient maps – were evoked, features named for important local animals, thousands of artefacts found and given to the people, and the abundant sacred sites in the nearby hills had been carefully noted and skirted.

The ride remained with me for days afterwards. My body reminded me of the pain and thrill at being taken to the edge of my endurance. But my mind remained longer on the ride, pondering the innate Left of the lower working class and Marx’s insight that human beings have always been part of and engaged with nature and land in the process of labour.

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Old Ghosts

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His lame leg is stiff and twisted awkwardly at the ankle, the belated effect of childhood polio. The grey moustache bristles with the effort of pitching the worn tent. The lean frame bends stiffly at the waist as he works in the pegs and poles. But he has done it so many times before and insists on doing it mostly by himself. My youngest daughter, his favourite grandchild, assists him with tenderness and adoration – holding a rope here, a peg there.

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I had not expected to meet him here, an old ghost who had once frequented these parts. Yet here he is; his presence palpable as I pitch my tent on the same spot. Some twenty years ago, he had come here eagerly along with my mother. They were keen to take time with their grandchildren, sharing a love of camping in the bush. Since then he had died and I have become used to not thinking of him for long stretches of time. But then he returns, unexpectedly.

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Or perhaps I should have expected it, for this is one of my favourite places in the world – in the Yengo Wilderness. The long day on the bicycle, or two at a more reasonable pace, is full of anticipation. The dirt track for the last six kilometres even more so.

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A last turn of the track and I glimpse the simple shelter on a nondescript shoulder of the ridge. Around the small clearing the trees and wallabies and pademelons and goannas quietly carry on as they have always done. Nothing much has changed for two decades, if not much, much longer. Here one can be entirely removed from the world and get in touch with a far better one.

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While I pitch the tent, gather wood, light a fire and wash with a cup from the water tank, I pause often to look out, suck in the air, absorb the trees, greet the animals. I may see my small children playing with a ball (or a goanna running off with the ball), chopping wood, being washed in a bucket, eating a meal at a foldout table, brushing teeth before bed, reading while wrapped in a sleeping bag. I may recall the strange visit a decade ago (after too long a gap) when I was conscious of the tap on the tank while one of my sons – unknown to me until later that day – was in an intensive burns unit after his house burnt down. Or I may revisit my times here since, regretting that it has been too long since the last time a couple of years ago and vowing to return far more often. But above all, I sense my father, appreciating ever more deeply why he felt the call to come to places like this.

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I too feel the pull more strongly this time. Much has to do with a profound sense of turning, of a recovery of what I like to do rather than what others expect me to do (for their own benefit). With each pedal of the day, I had felt as though one unnecessary expectation after the other had been dumped. So by the time I arrive, they are gone, as if simply being here counts as completion of the process.

No wonder I have time for old ghosts on All Saints.

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Red Centre, Red Eyes: The Ghan on a Budget

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‘I wonder far back the seat goes?’ I said, pulling on the lever.

‘Oh!’ said a young Spanish woman into whose lap I had plunged. She was seated directly behind me.

‘Obviously, it goes quite far!’ I said.

She laughed as I levered myself back into a sitting position.

We were on The Ghan, the rail service that runs between Adelaide and Darwin. A little over two days it takes, running through the Red Centre of Australia, stopping at Marla, Alice Springs and Katherine on the way. And we were in seats all the way.

The Ghan?

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The route of The Ghan has been more than a century in the making. The dream may have been to run the line all the way to what would become Darwin, but the beginnings were somewhat more modest. Construction began in 1878 and, over the next thirteen years, it crawled some 800 kilometres between Port Augusta and Oodnadatta. The narrow gauge (1,067 mm) line followed the same route as the overland telegraph, believed to be the route taken by John McDouall Stuart in his final, frenetic effort to reach the north in 1862. But Oodnadatta is still a long way from Alice Springs – more than 600 kilometres – so the last leg required camels. Finally, in 1929 was the line extended to Alice Springs.

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The route chosen had one advantage: it ran near water, crucial for the steam locomotives. But water in the outback also meant regular washouts after downpours. So the train had a flatcar behind the locomotive, stacked with spare sleepers and tools. Upon encountering a washout, crew and passengers would set to work repairing the line. So notorious were the train’s delays that a woman once approached a conductor.

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‘Excuse me, sir’, she said. ‘I am about to give birth’.

‘Madam’, said the conductor. ‘You should not have boarded the train in that condition’.

‘I didn’t’, she said.

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By the late 1950s, a standard gauge line (1,435 mm) began to be constructed, reaching Marree. North of here, people still took the old Ghan, which finally ceased service when the new line reached Alice Spring in 1980. By now diesel had replaced steam, so the route followed a more reliable and drier line to the west of the original route.

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But the original dream remained – to run all the way to Darwin. Against the tendency to favour roads at the beginning of the new millennium, construction on the 1500 kilometre stretch from Alice Springs to Darwin began in 2001 and on 4 February 2004 the first passenger train reached the far northern capital. It had taken 126 years of dreams, plans and waiting. The cost of the final leg was a modest AUD$1.3 billion.

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But how did it come to be called The Ghan? Theories abound, but the most reliable is that it came from a joke in 1923. At this time, the train still ran to Oodnadatta, but the time was drawn out by overnight stops. South Australian Railways decided to try a brand new idea: attach a sleeping car and run the train through the night. On 30 August, 1923, a crowd of local people gathered at Quorn station – en route – to see the new contraption. As the train pulled into the station at dusk, an Afghan passenger leapt from the train, found a quiet corner, kneeled facing Mecca and recited his prayers. A railway worker joked that if he was the only passenger on the sleeper, the train should be called the Afghan Express. The name caught on, not least because of the ‘Afghan’ cameleers who had taken camel trains with crucial supplies for decades before the trains came through. Soon enough, it was shortened to the Ghan Express and then to the Ghan.

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The Journey

A long journey it is, covering some 3,000 kilometres through the heart of Australia. The outback starts early hereabouts, appearing after only a few hours of trundling through the wheat fields of South Australia.

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Even here, the landscape is flat, with occasional mountains worn down by millennia of weathering. On the far-distant horizons they run a line for a while, only to retire from sight. After Port Augusta and the last sight of the sea, we reached semi-arid parts, with low trees, salt-bush, saltpans and the ubiquitous oxidised red soil. No wonder Australia is one of the main global sources of iron ore.

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For some, the red heart is monotonous. Endless reaches of desert stretch out on either side, with no relief in the way of rivers, mountains, or indeed forests. Yet this is to miss the sheer variety of this part of the world. Each kilometre seemed to bring new sights. I would stand at the vestibule windows, eagerly moving from one side to the other so as not to miss what would come next. A freight train might lumber past, since the line is primarily a freight run to and from the northern port of Darwin – which is closer to Jakarta than it is to Sydney. A line of river gums would announce a river-bed, dry most of the time, flooded when a rare downpour happened. But the trees know that water lies further down, pushing their roots deep down to tap the moist soil. So also do the local Indigenous people, who know where rare water might be found, accessing it without destroying it for another who may pass this way.

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A low hill, an escarpment or a gorge may appear, drawing my gaze as I wonder about its place in the local mythology. And the vegetation is full of surprises. Occasional low trees, well accustomed to the rigours of desert life, provide welcome shade for animals and succour for smaller plants.

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Tight clumps of saltbush, like khaki balls low to the ground, flourish with minimal nutrients and moisture. Yellow desert grasses rise between cracks in the rock or around tree roots.

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A couple of red kangaroos watched us pass at dusk on the first evening, while in the last hours before Darwin water buffalo chased each other around the edge of a water hole. In short, the desert is full of the variety of life, most of it not even glimpsed as the train ambles past.

No Locals

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Inside was full of life as well, for in our two full carriages a temporary community formed. A backpacker asked the conductor at the beginning of the journey whether the train had wifi. The negative answer drew a gasp of disbelief, until those affected absorbed the dreadful news and hit upon the innovative idea of reading books. The skinny and hairy young man across the aisle performed elaborate travel yoga, ate nuts and kale, and laid us low with killer farts.

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He struck up a friendship with a wok-bearing woman who joined him in the yoga postures. The bear-like trio ate only the meat on their plates, leaving aside anything that was remotely fresh. They supplemented the protein with vast bags of chocolates. The giggling Belgian girls were followed for much of the time by a young male sniffer. Two Korean women spent most of the time photographing a teddy bear in all manner of positions and in all types of scenery.

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Together we ate, juggled for space in the dining car, looked out of the windows and tried to pass the time as best we could. And we talked. Hardly was there a moment when some conversation or other did not sound through the carriage. But to understand them all one would have had to possess the gift of interpreting tongues, for it was truly a Pentecost of languages. Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Belgian French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Swedish … all corners of the earth seemed to be represented in our carriage.

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Four stops we had on the way: Port Augusta, Marla, Alice Springs and Katherine. Why so few? The first was to drop off four passengers, the second for a sunrise experience in the desert (someone had lit a fire or two for us) and the third and fourth to sell tours while the train paused for a few hours. They ranged from a basic bus ride into town for $20 to helicopter flights for well over $300 per person. In Alice Springs we avoided the tours and sauntered around town, finding our way to the Araluen Cultural Centre. In town, Indigenous people speak their own languages, coming as they do from some of the big tribes and their clans in these parts. I had been in the Alice once before, some 27 years ago. It had changed much.

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In Katherine we gave in and took the cheap option: a bus to Katherine Gorge, where we did some bushwalking and sweated in the heat. Others opted for canoe trips or the aforesaid outrageously priced helicopter rides.

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So why the few stops? The range of languages spoken and the tours indicate an answer: trains like The Ghan are geared for tourists. Even in our relatively cheap ‘Red’ carriages, the vast majority were international tourists. But I must admit I had expected a rather different approach, that is, a train that would regularly drop off and pick up locals in the way north. Very occasionally it happened, as with the people who alighted at Port Augusta or the young woman and her son for the few hours between Katherine and Darwin. But that was it.

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For a train geared to tourists, one need not stop regularly, except where more money is to be made. Of course, the fact that it does not stop so much also means locals cannot catch it so easily. It may be a business model that works for now, with some slick marketing focusing on rail nostalgia and the ‘Red Centre’, but much had changed over the century or more of The Ghan.

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How to Sleep in a Seat for Two Nights

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Let me go back to the seats – the very red ones. What were we doing in seats? Would we not have to sleep in them two nights running? Why not one of the two types of sleeper compartment, as is our wont? The simple reason is that the cost of such a compartment begins at $2,250 each in a shared compartment. This is the so-called ‘Gold’ class. Much higher still is the ‘Platinum’ class. To be sure, meals and drinks and shuttles to and from the train are included in the cost, but that is hardly reason to fork out so much. Once upon a time they had budget ‘Red’ sleepers, which we have used on the ‘sister’ train, the Indian-Pacific. But with the advent of a ‘Platinum’ level, the old ‘Red’ sleepers were retired, except for a sole carriage used by staff to catch up on some rest.

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So seats we had, the only section left on the train that counted as ‘Red’. Our two carriages were tacked onto the end of the train. At stops we would be at the furthest distance from the station building (‘Platinum’ would of course be directly on the station). We had one attendant dealing with all matters – from cleaning the toilets to cooking meals in the dining car. Indeed, this car – the ‘Matilda’ – had seen better days. As had the meals. Breakfast involved a ‘Big Aussie’, with sausages and eggs and grilled tomatoes. Lunch involved pies and pasties and wraps. And dinner meant a small terrine of unidentified meat, surrounded by lettuce leaves to make it seem larger. We opted to buy our food before departure: beans, bread, sardines, gherkins, peanut butter, fruit, celery, carrots, oats and long-life milk. We ate far better than those who dared sample the dining car fare.

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How does one sleep in a seat for two nights and then sit in it for almost three days? The layout helps a little. They are not as tight as a long-distance bus or a budget airline, which are designed to give one varicose veins in short order. In fact, they recline into the laps of those behind, as I had already found. And if your legs are not too long, you can put a bag on the floor and rest your feet upon them. Ample leg room it was, even for someone like me with longer legs.

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That said, it was still a seat. During the days, I made sure that I was up and about on a very regular basis. It may have been for a walk, for photos in the vestibule, for a time in the dining car, or merely for a stroll driven by curiosity. At night, I drew upon my stock of travel pillows, eye-masks and ear-plugs to close off the sound of sleeping companions around me – or, for that matter, the ones who could not sleep so well. Yet, I could not quite lie on my side, for to do so would have left me with a permanent back injury. Needless to say, the sleep is not so deep and sound as one might like. Waking up in your clothes also gives the distinct impression of having been out for a night on the town and having fallen asleep on a park bench.

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How was I to overcome such a feeling, apart from putting it down to the experience of rail travel? The showers at either end of the carriage were a blessing. Towels and soap were provided, so I made the most of one of the almighty pleasures of travel: the train wash. Afterwards, I felt like a new man, even to the point of shaving. And as is my wont, I hung my washed undies and socks out in the main carriage to dry. But the shower was not the only option. For some strange, the second night made a difference. It was not that I was getting used to sleeping in the seat, but that I was weary enough to sleep anywhere.

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The Innlander: One of the Unknown Great Rail Journeys

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I believe I am on one of the great unheralded rail journeys of the world – The Innlander. The train leaves from beneath the smoke stacks of the Mt Isa mine, in northwest Queensland; in fact, the station is part of the mine and the line is integral to that venture in the northern outback. It runs for almost a thousand kilometres, west to east, until one reaches Townsville a day later. And yes, given the distance and the time, it is a slow train, rolling contentedly across the arid landscape.

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We board as two of thirteen passengers, at a nondescript corner of the mine. The train has an engine and four carriages: one for luggage and freight, one for staff and two for passengers. Many seats will be filled at the stops on the way.

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We have seats only for the overnight journey, but comfortable and wide seats they are – three only across the width of the carriage. Two toilets at one end and a shower at the other, spacious and, again, comfortable.

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We are greeted in that curiously warm northern way, with an offer of free sandwiches, tea and coffee, and, should the need arise, a request to press the call button in the event of any ‘emergency’ – such as the need for chocolate. Dinner packs too seem to be complimentary, as is breakfast. So much for the pile of food we had brought for the journey (based on experiences from other trains).

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I am mesmerised by much all at once, the cares of the world falling away in a moment. The arid land out of the window, with its ant piles, tough trees and bushes, rough hills and red dirt constantly drawing my gaze. But then I find the lounge area – completely unexpected, for this is usually granted to first class passengers.

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Except that there is no first class on this train. Or rather, we are all first class as a matter of course. At discount prices. So here I sit, trying to look out of all windows at once, amazed that more people do not travel on this train. Perhaps they will, as we stop at station after station on the way.

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I talk with one of the attendants and find out that less than twelve months ago, the former conservative state government had cut out the dining car and sleepers, which attracted more to travel on the long journey. The logic is baffling unless aforesaid (and rather unpopular) government’s agenda was to close the line completely. Fortunately he and his minions are gone and the railway people are struggling successfully to have services restored. The lounge section is one such example, as are the free meals. An old couple follow me into the lounge, regular travellers on the service. He is stone deaf and would do well with an ear-horn; she is unable to make the hot water work for her tea. As she ponders what to do, we talk about the train – at some length. The sleepers, they tell me, should be back in a few months, for they have been fighting for them.

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I am unable to determine whether the scenery or the people on board are more intriguing. While I continue the relish the desert, its dust storms and bare hills, I become involved with the passengers. Some alight at Cloncurry, while others join us. A few solo men in search of work or adventure set off on the few streets of the town. One has a work shirt on, the other an old pair of jeans and pack with nothing but a book and a toothbrush. But the greater number are local Aboriginal people: a mother and two children, a triple of younger people, a few men and women travelling alone. At first there is relatively little interaction, but interact we do after a while. One woman with a weathered face discusses power options for recharging a phone or a computer. I offer to watch her phone while I sit in the lounge car. A large man waits while I take a photo, before we discuss toiletry needs.

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Night eventually falls and weary do I become. Time to finish writing, brush teeth and put my feet up with a book to read until sleep comes upon me. Such is the arrangement of seats that I am able to stretch out my legs horizontally, recline the seat and fall into a deep slumber. Other passengers take different options. The large man I had met earlier opts to sleep on the floor, right across the aisle. He does so for about half an hour, with some of us simply stepping over him to make our way through. A conductor comes along and wakes him. Unlike most trains, she does not scold him and tell him to get back in his seat. Instead, she takes him to the other passenger carriage where he can stretch out in a similar fashion. A teenage Aboriginal boy stretches out beneath the single line of seats and sleeps well into the morning. During the night we creak into quiet stations across the north of Queensland, pass through a dry bush full of nightlife, and stop for more than an hour due to an electricity pole that has fallen over the track. Police and electricity maintenance vehicles light up the night sky as they deal with the pole.

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I wake after more than eight hours of good sleep and make my way to the end of the carriage for a highlight: the train shower. Towels and soap are present and the hot water flows freely. For some reason, beginning a shower at one place and completing it at another – in motion – never ceases to give me a thrill. I return to my seat to find a breakfast package waiting for me. A new conductor, who has joined us through the night, walks by and lets us know we will be an hour or so late, due to the electricity pole. We’ll get there, she says, at some time. As with previous announcements, no loudspeaker system is used, but rather quiet announcements to each group of passengers.

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After breakfast, I return to the lounge car and my spot of the previous day. Now I am joined by some more Aboriginal people, who snooze, talk in their local language and identify sights along the way. The laughing deaf man and his dapper wife soon appear, full of jokes and their ubiquitous cups of tea. Given their knowledge of the train, my sense is that on any journey on this train they will be here.

Too soon does the journey come to an end, with the now unfamiliar sights of buildings and human occupation. Townsville it is, one place in the massive tropical parts of Australia. We haul our untouched food supplies along in the sun, soon enough sweating away. We will eat it, some time soon.

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As we walk, I wonder: how can this rail journey be so unknown? Why do train travellers coming to Australia opt only for the overpriced Indian-Pacific and The Ghan? They are missing one of the quiet gems of rail travel.

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Two Trees

The best time to plant a tree was twenty year ago; the second best time is today. Or so the ancient Chinese saying has it.

This proverb came to mind at one of those luminous moments when a felt experience of the past strikes in all its vividness. At the beginning of a long bicycle ride, I had paused to look around a town where I had live some decades ago – 22 years ago to be exact. Here was the kindergarten where one of my daughters began to read her first words. Here was the school where the boys went. Here was the bicycle route I rode often to work.

And here was the house where we once lived. As is the way of country towns, it was much the same as we had left it. Rare indeed is the pattern of tearing down and building anew, so characteristic of cities in their frenetic and unthinking pace. The house may have had a coat of paint at some time in between, but now it had much the same, well-worn look. The weatherboard walls, the red tile roof, the paved area out the back behind a besa-brick wall, even the corner at the back of the garage where my younger son built himself a small cave out of large blocks of firewood. It had been a typical bitter winter, with its frosts and persistent westerly wind, so the wood fire of the house required a constant supply of timber. He had disappeared for a few hours, his whereabouts unknown. Until I happened upon the completed cave, with his beaming face peering out of a small window he had constructed.

But one – or rather – two items were not the same: a couple of grand pine trees in the front yard. More than two decades ago, it had been quite open, with grass and a low wall upon which one could sit. One of my daughters, three at the time, would sit on the wall, at times for an hour or more, waiting for visitors from afar.

Yet it was no longer the same. One Christmas, I had been eagerly digging through the second-hand items for sale at the school fete. Having acquired a bag full of items I thought might be useful at the time, I meandered over to the plant nursery, run by the Wilderness Society. Some saplings caught my attention, barely five centimetres high. ‘Slow growing pines’, said the notice. ‘Plant in a sunny, well-drained spot, and water a couple of times a week’. I bought two.
Later that same day, I dug a couple of holes in the front yard, giving them plenty of space. For the next few weeks, I watered them as directed, erecting a small shield around them. I could barely tell if they were growing at all. After a few months, they seemed to settle in and grew a massive one centimetre in height. And by the time we left town, they had shot up in spring, rearing another centimetre or two to the sky.

In the full years that followed, in which I seemed to live four or five lives, I completely forgot about the little trees. Until today: now they towered into the heavens, and spread wide until they touched each other. Whereas they had required some protection when saplings, now they shielded the house from prying eyes and the harsh summer sun.

I paused long to ponder the two trees, marvelling at the way they had grown so large and strong, thinking of the way small acts may have stunning consequences decades later. Many acts pass without notice, forgotten in the sweep of time, but some endure.

Towards the end of this small piece of eternity, another proverb came to mind, this time a Greek one: optimism is when old men plant trees knowing that they will never sit in their shade. I would like to plant a few more trees, I thought, but then realised the extra kick to the proverb. Being old and being an optimist is a difficult and rare combination.

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