Across Australia by Train

We pull out of Sydney at 3 p.m. on a Monday; five hours later I check the map and find we’ve traveled half an inch (1.2 cm). It’s a fairly uncomfortable and chilly night as the air conditioning is good and my extra clothes are stowed in the luggage car. I wake up at 6:30 a.m. to watch startled kangaroos hopping away from the train and emus staring at us, the Outback interlopers that we are.

Broken Hill (20 hours on the train from Sydney) is the first stop; it’s already hot at 7:30 a.m. and the street is busy with early morning shoppers, most skulking along the shady walkways and hurrying to get home before it really starts sizzling. Broken Hill is a quintessential Outback town with flies, baking sun and dust.

The railway route follows the southern coast of Australia and then up north into the “red center” in the heart of the country.
The railway route follows the southern coast of Australia and then up north into the “red center” in the heart of the country.

We’re still in the state of New South Wales and don’t cross into Southern Australia until Adelaide (25 hours) around 4 p.m. Adelaide is a third of the way to Perth and there’s just enough time for a 10-minute taxi ride into town, a brisk walk around the shops and a quick beer. Adelaide is an attractive stone-built city and home to a million residents; it is surrounded by green countryside with the famous Barossa wine valley to the north and the Southern Ocean to the south. The train trundles on west at 6:30 p.m. with quite a few new passengers.

There’s good, cheap food available on the train: fast food, snacks and drinks are always available along with a couple of choices for dinner, usually rice, noodles, stew and vegetarian options. Coffee, tea and soft drinks are fairly priced, but alcohol is seriously overpriced. Some travelers bring their own food, but this is a mistake. Walking down to the dining car is a great chance to meet other travelers as well as stretch your legs.

The train is pretty full since we stopped in Adelaide and it’s quite a motley crew. There are about 20 Koreans who try to pretend that they are the only passengers. They huddle closely together, move around en-mass, avoid eye contact with everyone else and shout loudly to each other. There’s an Elvis impersonator, who has the clothes but not the looks or the voice, and a woman who walks down the carriage every 10 minutes telling everyone she is off to the toilet because she is pregnant. Sometimes she has her false teeth in and sometimes she doesn’t — but where she puts them is a question that bothers me for the rest of the journey.

Jerry, a 70-year-old who got on at Broken Hill, gets steadily drunk. The first sign of this is when he castigates me for being “a bloody Sydney-sider.” I decide it’s best to accept this accolade rather then let him know the worst — that I’m actually a “bloody pom.” Being British in the Outback is not something that will make many friends, so being a “Sydney-sider” is a great cover. His conversation sounded fascinating, if only I could make the connections between — “the undertaker” he keeps mentioning, “the bloke building a house next door,” his “Vietnam draft” and “the sandwiches me ma’m was cutting up.”

When British-based U.S. travel writer Bill Bryson wrote his number-one bestseller “Down Under” (Doubleday, 2000), he traveled Gold class. He wondered about the “forbidden coach class” of cheap travelers whose “sullen, hungry eyes follow his every move,” just as we wonder about the secretive Gold class passengers. They are only glimpsed at occasional station stops where they often appear miserable and bewildered. Bryson must have seemed like a schoolboy amongst them, as there was not a natural colored hair follicle between them. Many had matching silver walking frames to go with their mountains of matching luggage.

In the evening, videos are shown in each carriage. Unfortunately, they are limited in number and I would guess that they were probably picked up in a charity shop. The same batch of videos is recycled between different carriages on different nights, so I am compelled to relive “Groundhog Day” again and again and again en route to Perth and back.

The train rattles on through the night and we reach the 96,500-square-mile (250,000 km²) limestone desert of the Nullarbor (meaning: no trees) Plain around 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday (42 hours). This limestone plateau, in south central Australia, is flat as far as the eye can see in every direction. Scattered throughout are small tufts of pale green Spinifex — Australia’s quintessential Outback plant, commonly known as porcupine grass.

There’s a brief stop to change drivers and refuel at the almost deserted town of Cook (47 hours), in the middle of the Nullarbor. The heat is so intense that it feels like a physical pressure, exacerbated by the pampered air-conditioned luxury of the train. Cook used to be a thriving Outback railway town, but now it only has four permanent residents. They have the pick of a hundred houses, a swimming pool full of sand, an empty school and deserted hospital.

After the Nullabor desert, Kalgoorlie (53 hours), in Western Australia, seems like a metropolis; refueling and cleaning allow a two-and-a-half hour respite. But at 8 p.m. there’s not much to do in the evening except go to one of the many pubs or the famous whorehouse, which is regularly shown on TV travel programs. As a mining town, the pubs, as you might expect, are very macho.

The Grand Hotel in the High Street was packed with men eating meals off plates the size of trays. Behind the bar, Melanie was Wednesday’s “skimpy of the day.” Melanie’s attire included the flimsiest thong imaginable and a transparent teddy that almost reached down to her thong. She wasn’t dancing or entertaining, just serving pints, carrying trays and humping crates the same as everybody else.

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