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Alan And Robin Catch A Train

In theory it was very simple.

"I'll get home from work about 6.00pm on Friday," I explained to Robin. "We'll have a leisurely tea and then pack our cases."

"What time do we have to leave?" she asked.

"We'll go to bed early," I said, cleverly avoiding the question. "I'll set the alarm."

"What time will it go off?" she asked suspiciously. She knows me of old and was determined to add at least half an hour to whatever time I suggested.

"3.30am," I said. "That will let us get to the airport in good time to check in for our 7.40am flight to Sydney."

However the man in charge of the fog machine at the Meteorological Office had a secret agenda and on Friday morning he superglued the switch into the 'On' position. Then he went home and took the phone off the hook.

Wellington airport was fog-bound and closed all day Friday. There was little or no chance that we'd be able to fly to Sydney the next morning. Indeed, towards the end of the afternoon, our flight was officially cancelled.

A lot of frantic rushing around revealed spare seats to Sydney on flights leaving from Auckland. There was much hurried rearranging of tickets. Now all we had to do was pack in a tearing rush and drive through the night to the other end of the country. Easy!

I slept in the back of the car. Robin snored, so presumably she slept as well. Ross drove and Simon sat in the front passenger seat and talked to him to keep him awake. The fog thinned out and vanished as soon as we reached the outskirts of Wellington and apart from a small patch around Huntley we saw it no more. We reached Auckland about 5.30am, in plenty of time to check in for our flight and we breakfasted on black coffee in the Koru Club lounge so as not to fall asleep in the comfy chairs and miss the last call for our flight.

We boarded the plane. The pilot was obviously going for a world record because we took off on time. Even more surprisingly, we arrived in Sydney on schedule as well. We took a taxi to Sydney's Central Station where we were due to board the Indian Pacific train for three days of sybaritic luxury across the Nullarbor to Perth.

The platform was empty, not an Indian Pacific to be seen.

"It's late," said the man at the enquiry desk. "It's got a flat tyre."

"What time is it due?" I asked.

"It'll probably be here in a couple of hours, but it will have to be cleaned before they'll let you on. You won't be able to get on for ages yet. Hours and hours." He shook his head, taking a gloomy pleasure in his news. "Hours and hours and hours."

We sat in the less than salubrious station bar/café and ate cholesterol and chips. I have sat in railway station cafes all over the world – St. Pancras in London, Nottingham Midland, Beijing Central and the Finland Station in Moscow. Railway cafes are all assembled in a factory in Redditch, to an original design by Bloody Stupid Johnson, and then they are exported to stations worldwide. The one in Sydney is a typical example of the type.

"Pass the heart attack on a stick, please," said Robin. I passed it over and she took a big bite.

The Indian Pacific pulled in on platforms 2 and 3 simultaneously.

"Stand in the middle," said Robin, flourishing a camera. I felt very Harry Potterish as I stood (it seemed) at platform 2˝ to have my photograph taken.

There were eight of us in our group, and we had hired our own private carriage; the Chairman's Carriage. It was equipped with easy chairs in which we could lounge luxuriously and sip complimentary champagne. We were all exhausted – some of us hadn't slept for 48 hours. My underpants were making themselves known to the world. Everybody else was just as uncomfortable. We all had a shower and then we went to the lounge car for the reception for Gold Kangaroo passengers. Gold Kangaroo service is available to many, but only we had our own private carriage in as well. We sipped vividly blue champagne cocktails designed to represent the colour of the two oceans that are linked by the train. We indulged in fairly zombie-like conversations with our fellow Gold Kangaroo companions and then we were summoned to the dining car. I dined on trout and Robin had steak. And then, at last, to bed.

The train rattled and rambled and shook its way across Australia and I kept waking up scared, convinced that we were experiencing an earthquake. Nevertheless, I slept refreshingly well and I awoke for the day just before dawn. I could see the stars of the Milky Way smeared across the sky. I don't remember ever seeing so many stars before.

And somewhere in there the day turned in to Sunday. We were safely on the train, we were fully rested and all we had to do was allow ourselves to be waited on hand and foot for three days. It seemed like a minor miracle that we had made it at all.

Our first stop was at Broken Hill. It was supposed to be quite a long stop with a chance to explore, but the train never made up the lost time from being late out of Sydney and so we only had ten minutes – just enough time to take photos of the station and to browse through the items for sale from the tables of the local entrepreneurs who just knew that the passengers were all eager to buy a tatty paperback to read on the train, or to purchase lumps of the broken hill itself masquerading as jewellery. Simon bought a pack of cards in case he got bored.

Back to the train and we stared through the windows in air conditioned luxury at never ending scrubby red soil. Some wallabies wallabied and once we saw a wedge-tailed eagle soaring majestically.

Next stop Adelaide and we took a coach trip around the city with the most boring tour guide in the world. He told us lots of local scandals involving road building and corrupt politicians. He hated anybody who wasn't from South Australia and he reserved a special hatred for people from New South Wales.

"Don Bradman is the only New South Welshman who ever had any sense," said the tour guide loudly. "He came to live in South Australia."

The train stayed in Adelaide for about two hours. It felt like two days. They were supposed to put the train through the equivalent of a car wash, but in an attempt to make up lost time, they decided to leave it grimy. We left Adelaide only an hour behind schedule.

We had to adjust our watches and clocks as strange Australian time zones caught up with us and then passed us by. Moving from South Australia to the West required the watches to be put back two hours. However the train crew decided this was too big a change to do all at once so we did one hour on Sunday to be followed later on Monday by another hour. And so for almost a day we lived on train time – a mobile time zone different from everywhere else in the world. I felt very Einsteinian for a moment and I began to realise why all the explanations of relativity in the physics text books began with an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman getting on a train.

Monday morning, and the scrubby red soil sprouted spindly trees. Interspersed between them lurked glum, blue-tinged bushes. Perhaps they were blue with cold? Relatively speaking, of course. The soil was red and rusty and the engineering works from the railroad had gouged great gashes in the lumpy landscape. Every so often isolated patches of solar panels sucked greedily at the blazing, pitiless sunshine. It was not immediately obvious what they were powering. Possibly a great, but unknown, underground city?

Suddenly, within half a kilometre or so, the landscape changed dramatically. It became perfectly flat and much less red. The trees disappeared completely and only the scrubby blue bush remained all across the face of the earth from one horizon to the other. This was the Nullarbor, God's ironing board, the flattest, dullest, most unchanging place upon the planet. There is a certain hypnotic fascination to the never ending sameness of it. We saw a herd of feral camels sneering and swearing at the train as it invaded their territory. And always, stretching on forever, the unchanging Nullarbor; brown, sere and washed out.

Cook is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. The Nullarbor stretches as far as the eye can see in every direction, flat and empty. Ramshackle buildings huddle together for protection. Cook has a permanent population of two people and fifty million friendly flies. The train re-waters at Cook and swaps drivers. The retiring drivers wait for the Indian Pacific coming in the opposite direction and return to Adelaide on it. While they wait, they count flies. There isn't anything else to do in Cook.

I had a pee in the station toilet and got back on the train. I couldn't help feeling that I'd just passed more water than Cook had seen in a decade. Except for the train water in the holding tanks, of course.

The water we took on at Cook had obviously been sitting in holding tanks exposed to the full glare of the sun. For the next day or so the water that flowed out of the taps marked 'Cold' was almost the same temperature as that which flowed from the taps marked 'Hot'.

And always the flat and dreary landscape baked unchangingly across the whole of the visible world.

A signpost flashed past the train. Blink and you'll miss it. 'Prisoner of War Camp' it declared. There was no evidence of any buildings, no indication that anything had ever been here. It was unclear whether the site was reserved for future implementation or simply a relic of the past. Either way, this would be a terrible place to be incarcerated.

The desert stretched on endlessly. God bless air conditioning.

Kalgoorlie was the next stop. It is a mining town with a fearsome reputation. "We lock all the carriage doors in Kalgoorlie," said the lady in charge of our carriage, "to stop undesirable elements from looting the train."

Kalgoorlie sounded like fun. A pub crawl was obviously called for,

The town was almost deserted. It was Monday evening and everybody was at home watching television. We found an empty pub which had Swan beer on tap. When in doubt, always drink the local beer. We ordered a Swan and discovered why the pub was empty. Swan beer has a putrid aftertaste and a rancid duringtaste. After one sip, the evil anticipation involved in the beforetaste is overwhelmingly off-putting. We went back to the train.

"Are you an undesirable element intent on looting the train?"


"What's the password?"


"Enter friend."

And so to bed.

The following day we had breakfast and then packed our bags. Next stop Perth and the end of the journey. We arrived at 9.15am almost exactly on time. It was the end of a great adventure.

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