February 5 - 7, 2015
Days 203 - 205
The Indian Pacific train was about thirty cars long, enormous for a passenger train. There was only one “Red Class” (non-sleeper) car, along with a dining car for the Red passengers. The vast majority of passengers paid big bucks for the luxury of a bed and all-inclusive service, but on this train, even the cheap seats were pretty nice. The seats folded town to about 45 degrees and there was plenty of legroom. The train didn't go 300 kilometers per hour like the bullet trains I had ridden in China. But if speed were my top priority, I would have flown to Perth. The main reason I was on the train was to see the nothingness of the Outback.
When we pulled away from Adelaide, our host came into our car to discuss the trip. The usual rules applied – no smoking, no sleeping in the aisle, etc. Tomorrow we would switch our clocks to “Train Time,” ninety minutes behind Adelaide. This unofficial time zone was needed because Australia's states were huge, and their time zones were synchronized with their biggest population centers. But tomorrow we would spend a good portion of our day crossing the nullarbor, the land with no trees (or anything else).
It didn't take long to reach Adelaide's outer limits. Australia is roughly the size of the contiguous United States, with one-thirteenth the population. Yet it's also one of the most urbanized countries on Earth, with its cities concentrated along the coasts. Australia's interior is vast and largely unpopulated.
Sometime in the middle of the night, we stopped at Port Augusta. The town is a crossroads – where the country's main north-south and east-west routes meet. Historically, Port Augusta has had a reputation for attracting riffraff from all over the country, but tonight I didn't get to see it. As the train followed the track that would take us thousands of miles across one of the biggest countries on the planet, I was busy trying to fall asleep in my seat.
I didn't sleep much. The forty-five degree reclining seat wasn't the real issue; it was the jostling. Rather than a clickety-clack lulling me to sleep, the entire carriage jerked forward every five seconds or so. Luckily, I had the foresight to bring a box of coffee with me, because I was going to need it all on this trip.
Plenty of interesting characters were with me in the Red carriage. There was an American man named Chris, who had bought an unlimited train ticket and planned to spend about five weeks riding trains around the country. An Australian man, also named Chris, was on his way home to Perth to attend university; someday he hoped to design artificial limbs. And I found out that our host was even getting into international travel: next year he'll head to Antarctica on a National Geographic expedition. The boat will only hold seventy passengers, so it should be far more personalized than the trip I took to the White Continent on a 500-passenger cruise ship.
But beyond anyone else, two young Australian men were making their mark on our carriage. One was really tall and skinny; the other was really short and pudgy. Both wore cowboy hats and flannel shirts. They were heading to work on separate sheep ranches, each over a million acres and more than 250 KM from the nearest town. They planned to work on the ranches for the next few years, but for now, they seemed to be getting their human interactions out of their systems. Unfortunately, most of these interactions were negative. Especially the short guy's – he attempted to flirt with the women, and he made obnoxious comments to the men. But I couldn't get mad. These two were going to endure living in a desolate and forlorn place for so long, I actually felt bad for them.
Around midday we stopped in Cook, one of the most isolated places on Earth, 800 KM from the nearest town or fuel station. Cook was built to support the trains coming through, but new technology and privatization later made this support unnecessary. Nowadays, Cook was empty, other than a caretaker and his wife who were rumored to be living there. The train still needed to refuel and stock up on water, though, so we stopped for thirty minutes.
Walking around Cook was creepy. Old signs served as reminders of residents past. Clothes hanging on a clothesline seemed to indicate that someone indeed still lived there. It was an oppressively hot day, and the only tree in sight provided little shade. Cook sounded like a dreadful place to live, and now I made sure to stay close to the train to avoid being left behind.
We spent the rest of the afternoon passing through the nullarbor. This was the longest stretch of straight railway in the world, at nearly 500 KM. Whenever I looked outside, I saw nothing but scrub brush and dirt, all the way to the horizon. The train made two stops in the afternoon, to drop off the ranchers. A pickup truck met them at their respective stops and drove away, seemingly toward nothing at all.
Late in the afternoon, we started to see more vegetation. We were still in a desert, but the fact that we were leaving the nullarbor was exciting.
Early in the evening the train stopped for three hours in Calgoorlie, the first non-ghost town since Port Augusta. Calgoorlie was a mining town with a reputation for its rowdy strip clubs, brothels and taverns. The story was the same as every other mining town I had visited. Men worked in the mines all day, made a lot of money and had nothing to spend it on but booze and women of the night. Chris and I walked around the whole town twice in our first hour there. A bunch of the Gold and VIP passengers hit the bars, but Australia's ridiculously expensive alcohol (due to high taxes) kept us from imbibing. Instead, we returned to the train, along with a few of the other Red passengers. The heat and monotony of the day had gotten to me; I was asleep before the train had even started to move again.
At sunrise we were already seeing signs of life. We passed a few small towns with empty roads and playgrounds, interspersed with ranches and open fields. Then we entered suburbia and we knew we must be getting close to the coast. Before long, there was an announcement that we only had 15 minutes until our arrival.
After a mere forty hours, my time on one of the world's great train journeys was over. When we pulled into Perth's train station, everyone got out and stretched. The luggage car was all the way at the back of the train, about half a mile from us. This was a good chance for the passengers to stretch their legs and connect with loved ones. As for me, I still had to make plans for my last few days in Australia.