‘Make sure you take a huge esky full of ice and water’, said one of my sons when I told him I was crossing the Nullarbor. ‘It’s gets so hot even air-conditioning isn’t enough’.
‘Are you taking spare petrol?’ my ex-wife asked. ‘It’s a long and dangerous ride’.
‘You should carry a spare fan-belt and radiator hose’, my father said.
Myths are certainly not dead, especially when it comes to the Nullarbor Plain – about 2000 km of desert from South Australia to Western Australia. Stories of dehydration, desperation, intrepid explorers, and foolhardy adventurers rescued at the last moment with swollen tongues and blistered skin still make the rounds, especially by those who have never made the journey.
Late in 2008 we set off to cross the Nullarbor. Long since weened of aeroplanes, we travelled by car to Kalgoorlie and then by train to Perth and back to Sydney. People kept saying to me, ‘I’d love to do that trip, but I don’t have the time’. Once again I felt like an exception for the simple reason that I don’t rush about on a mad schedule. But isn’t the slow journey over the earth’s surface the way most people through history have travelled? On the way you get to collect all sorts of images and impressions.
We had hoped to take the train both ways, six days there and back, but due to refurbishing and schedules we found there was no train available for the western run. With buses no longer running the route, most car companies unwilling to rent a car for that distance and a bicycle crossing part of future plans, I finally found one car company that would rent a car to me – no wonder Western Australia feels isolated. In four days we crossed from Sydney to Kalgoorlie, driving at least 850 km a day. And since I can longer imbibe caffeine, I did it without other stimulant whatsoever. I’m sure it is a record of sorts, especially when people on the other looked at me wide-eyed and open-mouthed when I told them.
Of the two paved roads that cross Australia, we took the southern one that bumps along the Great Australian Bight. Once you get to Ceduna, there is only one strip of bitumen for about 1800 km. There are no intersections, no turnoffs and no towns. If someone were to ask directions, you would say, ‘um yeah, go straight ahead for about 1800 km and then turn left at the intersection’.
There were endless straight stretches, bathed in mirages at either end, so many flies you didn’t dare open anything that remotely resembled meat during daylight hours for fear of seeing it disappear before your eyes, and the inane road signs. Some frustrated writer or perhaps a road planner with a literary flair was obviously let loose on this road. The South Australian section had heart-warming messages like ‘drowsy drivers die’, ‘drive to survive’ and ‘fatigue is fatal’. But Western Australia excelled with regular reminders to ‘keep the scene clean’ and that we should aspire to ‘arrive alive, survive the drive’. My only guess is that a cousin of some prize-winning author such as Tim Winton was responsible for these gems.
Along with the mirages, flies and road-signs, there were men. The Nullarbor is really a woman’s or gay man’s paradise – if you like your men with big guts and long beards who spend most of their time behind the wheel of a ‘road train’. Or perhaps if you like your man as a lone traveller, out on his trek around Australia in some beaten-up four-wheel drive, unshaven, unwashed and sun-burnt. Then again, you might like a miner, who works 12-hour shifts among flies in the heat, drinks his weight in beer at night and has one of the fattest pay packets in the country.
The Eyre Highway is ultimately and obviously an economic link, a crucial piece of what the politicians like to call ‘infrastructure’ in a fascinating case of closet Marxism. And since the railway line is at full capacity with freight trains, the other trains take to the road – the famous road-trains driven by the bearded and beer-gutted men that may fire your fancy. Many in the east have heard of these road-trains but relatively few have encountered them. In wimpy New South Wales and Victoria, road trains have only two sections and they are allowed in the very remote regions on quiet roads. But in rough and tough Western Australia road-trains have three trailers behind a massive engine. They thunder down narrow roads, along dirt tracks to mines and through towns, they snake and wobble and have massive turning circles. They also tend to hog the middle of the road so passing is always an adrenalin rush. And if the road trains are a thrill, the trucks with mining equipment blow you away. Loaded with massive chunks of yellow equipment and roaring down the middle of highway, all you can do is pull far over to the left to let them pass. Soon enough it becomes all too apparent that the reason Australia is not an economic basket-case in the current global recession is because of the mines. We all know this in theory, but it is quite another thing to see truck after truck balancing a massive load of equipment, sign after sign to a mine, the snake of a road train emerging from a mining road, and geologists turning up in the some remote corner after a day prospecting for uranium.
Yet there was something else that gave the Nullarbor its distinctive feel. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but then at the end of the crossing it hit me: along the road there are no schools, no churches, no children, no villages, and no old pubs offering a bed for the night. All you find every 100-200 km are roadhouses where you need a bank loan to pay for the food, fuel and accommodation. And these roadhouses are recent affairs, purely functional constructions to assist those making the trek. Or at least this is true of the non-indigenous presence on the Nullarbor. The Aboriginal story is a bit different, especially when you pass through Yalata, ‘the lands’ as they are called, indigenous land that was ‘given back’ in the mid 1970s. Here there are settlements but there is a catch. Tired of non-indigenous interference, the Yalata people will not allow anyone on their land without a permit. Even the Yalata Road-House is now closed, signalling more strongly that the non-indigenous hold on the land is very tenuous indeed.
Compared to driving – something I have always loathed – the train back was pure relaxation. The Indian-Pacific runs through some of the most remote regions of Australia, but what I enjoy most is the time to snooze, read, walk about, and explore the inventive use of space (where sitting and sleeping all take place in a space no larger that a double phone booth). I also watch people. There was the man chain-smoking on the platform at Perth East station while putting a nicotine patch on his arm – nothing like building up one’s reserves for the long haul. There were the two women thrown together in the intimacy of a shared sleeper berth. Unknown to each other before we left, they became good friends. The process was boosted by the decision on the second day to begin drinking. After their stash of grog was exhausted they blew the family fortune on the wine available on the train – nothing like a monopoly market on alcohol. There was the man in the floral shirt, calf-length pantaloons and a silly hat who decided he didn’t like me for reasons that are still beyond me. A shoulder shove in my back in the narrow passageway, a head turned when I greeted him, and a whispered ‘well, f**k you too then’ from me in reply didn’t help matters. If eyes were knives, I would have been dead on the floor of Adelaide station.
And then there were the stall holders at Broken Hill station where we stopped for a couple of hours to take on yet more water. Four times a week they pull out their fold-out tables and display their wares for the passengers desperate for a stretch. Here elderly women sit behind tables full of crocheted pillows, woollen gloves, baby clothes and bags of lollies for the journey, as well as an old miner with gnarled hands displaying his home-made wooden knick-knacks, replicas of mining gear, Australiana, and the most extraordinary pens made out of bullets from 303 rifles. I couldn’t resist the pens.
The train itself is much like an ad hoc village in perpetual motion. People are thrown together through the need to get somewhere, for the sake of a journey, for work, for clandestine plans, for a meeting, or perhaps for a love affair. If the trip takes a few days, friends are made, enemies emerge, and possible lovers are found. The intimacy of sharing a seat or a bed close by someone you don’t know is a curious form of the one (or two or three…) night stand. I have sometimes said to the person next to me, ‘well, we’d better get to know each other since soon we’ll be sleeping together’.
There is a story about the old Ghan, which used to meander along an old, wobbly, slow track from Adelaide to Alice Springs before the new track was put through to Darwin. A woman approaches a conductor and says,
‘Excuse me, I’m about to give birth. Will we be near a hospital soon?’
‘Madam, you shouldn’t have boarded the train in that condition’.
The Indian Pacific is one trip many Australians dream about, a once in a lifetime journey, but rarely do we act on that dream. For that reason it is all too easy to get carried away by the ‘romance’ of train travel. It is not a term that attaches to commuter trains, or even the intercity ones from, say, Sydney to Newcastle. Yet for some strange reason ‘romance’ does seem to apply to long-distance trains like the Indian Pacific. I don’t travel by trains as part of living out a dream, or for the ‘experience’ (as one option in the feedback questionnaire asks), or for romance, or because I belong to that subculture of ‘train-trekkers’. I do it because I want to get somewhere.
By contrast, Serco, the private company that bought the Indian-Pacific as well as the Ghan and the Overland when it was privatised back in 1997, realise perfectly well that most people don’t use long-distance trains to get from A to B. So the bulk of carriages aim at the overseas tourist market – Gold class and the new Platinum class make up about 80% of the train. Luxurious, expensive, with meals provided and spacious lounge cars, quick tours of Kalgoorlie (at midnight!), Adelaide and Broken Hill, the marketing has successfully snared that group of wealthy overseas retirees who have time and money to do trips like this.
But there is a minority on the train who do use it for cheap transport – those in the red coach class. I found these two carriages (out of 30) by far the most interesting. Backpackers, kids with a parent or two, solo travellers, an ex-con on his way to see his family, and the aviophobics for whom flying was to be avoided at all costs – all of them lived, slept, sweated, played in their seats and got bored and/or drunk for three days and nights. They did have a shower to share and towels were provided, but they were the first out for a stretch at the longer stops and they slipped into the dining car whenever they could, nursing a coffee for hours on end so they could escape the ban on using it as a lounge room.
This is where the ever-present conductors enter the scene. One of my pastimes on a train is to walk its length, from the guard’s van at the back to the locked door of the luggage carriage at the front. On the Indian-Pacific you can theoretically walk for half a kilometre within a self-contained vehicle in motion. I write ‘theoretically’, because the only way you can in fact walk the length of the train is if you work on it, have paid for a private carriage (there are up to three at $10,000-15,000 a pop), or by stealth. I tried the last option, since I was in the ‘red sleeper’ section with a cubby-hole that somehow managed to turn into a bed at night.
I didn’t get very far. As soon as I opened the door to the next class up – Gold – an ever-watchful conductor stopped me in my tracks with a ‘where are you from?’ In the total world of the train, the answer could only be one of five: red carriage, red sleeper, gold, premium and private carriage – in a rising scale of class status, cost and luxury. I mumbled ‘red sleeper’ and was politely told to go back to my own class. Claims of a traditional walk, or a request to see what the upper classes were like for a possible next trip were met with an impassive look, arms folded and feet planted to block my passage.
We are all used to economic distinctions in travel, especially first, business and economy on planes. But on the Indian Pacific class consciousness has gone mad, except that the conductors are the ones who are all too conscious, enforcing it on wayward passengers like myself who don’t know their station in life. In the world of the train, conductors are a mix of secret service and riot police, but also friends, counsellors, shepherds, waiters, cleaners, clerks, accountants and first-aid specialists all rolled into one. I couldn’t help wandering what a revolution on the train might look like …
Apart from the reminder that class is alive and well, the economics of the train is not restricted to its internal world. The trans-Australian line is of course an exercise in nation building. The run was first completed soon after federation, although then you had to travel to Melbourne, cross to Adelaide and then pass over to Perth, with any number of train transfers due to the different gauges from state to state. Only by 1970 was the standard gauge line completed via Broken Hill. All too soon it became a white elephant and was privatised within three decades. The recent completion of the Ghan line from Adelaide to Darwin is a comparable effort of national consolidation. And it too is a white elephant, at least as far as freight is concerned. But if there are any doubts at this vast exercise in nation building, then all you need do is consider the ‘stations’ on the Nullarbor: Forrest, Fisher, Deakin and Cook are some of them. Most are merely signs in the middle of the desert, signalling perhaps a siding where trains may pass. Only Cook has inhabitants – four of them, one or two a resting driver, and another two to keep the machinery in order for taking on water. Yet they are all names of former prime ministers of Australia, ostensibly to mark the way the nation came together. I couldn’t help wondering whether the emptiness of the ‘stations’ reflected on the achievements of these great leaders.
That nation building came at a cost. I do not mean the actual expense of building and maintaining the line, but the way camels and their ‘Afghan’ owners and riders were squeezed out. Until rail came through, the camel trains were the only way to transport goods across the deserts. The cameleers came from Pakistan, India, Iraq and Afghanistan, although they were all lumped together as ‘Afghans’. They were certainly not glorified and people were by no means thankful. Racism was rife, they were accused of inflating prices and of practising a strange religion (many were Muslims). Employers and transport operators had to argue long and hard to ensure that their camel drivers could avoid the language test at the heart of the White Australia Policy. However, when the rail line went through, the time of the camel trains rapidly came to a close. Camel drivers were sent home, even though a good number wished to stay, had married, sometimes with Aboriginal women, and passed on Islam to a small number of Aborigines. In 1920 the order went out in Western Australia and South Australia that all camels were to be shot. Many camel drivers begged the governments not to do so, or at least to spare their camels. The fact that camels are now part of our desert fauna shows the futility of the law, for many drivers released their camels into the wild. To name the train to Darwin the Ghan is perhaps the ultimate insult that obscures this history.
Ultimately, a train like the Indian-Pacific is a paradox. In the height of modernism, the train was a symbol of all that was sleek, fast and modern. The shining silver train, blowing its whistle in the remote and barbarous areas of countries like Australia, signalled the spread of ‘civilisation’. But now it is an unhurried and lurching thing of the past that takes three days to cross the country, a means for people like me to slow down and dawdle while travelling. Next time I might plan a quiet coup in the process and see how the upper train classes travel.