Drama in the outback

The Indian Pacific snakes across Outback Australia near Broken Hill. Picture supplied
One small Kiwi in the vast Aussie Outback — I ventured into the desert at Cook for a photo.
The Indian Pacific about to head out on the longest stretch of straight train track in the world.
The Indian Pacific travelling through the Blue Mountains.
I turned my cosy cabin upside down and tore the sheets and duvet off the bed.

Justine Tyerman’s imagination runs riot in the middle of Outback Australia . . .

There’s a down side to having a vivid imagination. It can cause sleepless nights and all sorts of nocturnal disturbances. One such drama occurred at 3am, midway across the Nullarbor Plain on my recent four-day, 4352km Indian Pacific train journey from Perth to Sydney.

Earlier in the day, while savouring a delectable camel tagine with coconut rice and coriander in the Queen Adelaide restaurant car, one of my Aussie train mates pointed out the window at the desert and mentioned the words ‘taipan’ and ‘lots’ in the same sentence.

I laughed nervously, nearly choked on my camel and confessed to having snake phobia which played right into the Aussie’s hands. Out came all manner of horror stories.

Soon after, we stopped at Cook, population four, to take on water and fuel. The place brings new meaning to the term remote. Cook is 1138km from Adelaide, 1523km from Perth, 2000km from Sydney, and the closest major road, the Eyre Highway is 100km away. The nearest town is Ceduna, a five-hour drive and the local doctor is at Port Augusta, a 12-hour drive.

Small service settlements like Cook were established 30km apart on most remote sections of track on the Nullarbor to support the trans-Australia rail link that was completed in 1917. But the town effectively closed down in 1997 when the railway was privatised.

Once a thriving town of 200 residents, Cook is now a ghost town, its school, hospital, tennis courts, swimming pool, golf course, shops and houses lying eerily empty.

In its death throes, Aussie humour still prevailed with signs like: ‘If you’re crook, come to Cook’ and ‘Our hospital needs your help. Get sick.’ (photo at right)

There’s a long-drop with ‘EFTPOS Here’ written on the corrugated iron wall and ‘Deposits Only’ beside the wooden toilet seat.

The town’s jail was a sobering sight. Built to hold the unlawful or unruly until the next train transported them elsewhere, the ‘his’ and ‘her’ cells had a small barred window at the top and a peephole in the heavy padlocked door. With summer temperatures reaching 49 degrees C, imagine the heat inside those corrugated iron boxes. I doubt there was much recidivism!

The residents here were obviously an optimistic bunch. In 1982, volunteers planted 600 saplings in ‘The Greening of Cook’ campaign. A few survived, a testament to their endeavours, and are now the tallest on the Nullarbor.

As I wandered around the deserted outpost, feeling somewhat like an alien interloper, I tried to visualise children running around in the school grounds and people playing tennis, golf and swimming in the pool but all I could see were faint shadows, ghosts perhaps?

With my Aussie mate’s words echoing in my brain, I plucked up just enough courage to take a few wary paces into the desert for a photo.

The word Nullarbor is derived from the Latin ‘nullus’ meaning nothing or none, and ‘arbor’ meaning tree. Apart from the hardy specimens that have survived against the odds at Cook, there are no trees and the horizon is dead flat . . . or ever so slightly curved.

Known to the Aboriginal people as ‘Oondiri’ meaning ‘the waterless’, the Nullarbor is staggering in size covering an area of nearly 20 million hectares, twice the size of England.

For a Kiwi accustomed to landscapes bristling with mountains, the sight of a flat horizon as far as the eye could see was surreal.

I was mesmerised by the vast terracotta landscape scattered with white rocks and stubbly vegetation the colour of dried sage leaves.

‘A blissful state of nothing-to-do-ness’

Back onboard, the Indian Pacific continued its journey on the longest stretch of straight train track in the world — there are no corners for 478km, from Ooldea to Loongana. Late afternoon, when the train finally came to a slight bend, I registered surprise and peered out the window. I could just make out the tail-end of our 28-carriage, 700-metre train.

On a train, you can choose to socialise or not as you please. Some passengers enjoyed the peace and privacy of their own cabins while others inhabited the Outback Lounge and bar from dawn until well after dark.

I discovered a new-found pleasure in my own company and loved my cosy cabin and super-comfy bed. Solitude and the rocking motion of the train allowed me to drift in a dreamlike state. Nowhere have I experienced such blissful nothing-to-do-ness. It seemed to lower my heart rate, quieten the incessant voices in my head and allow me to become introspective, reflective, meditative . . . a welcome escape from an overcrowded life.

There was no wifi and only sporadic internet signal which turned out to be a blessing. There were times when I switched my phone and iPad off completely which would have been unheard of at home.

I also relished the absence of choices. The days were mapped out for me. I didn’t have to navigate or make decisions about what direction to take. The most stressful activity each day was choosing what to eat from the extensive breakfast, lunch and dinner menus.

Around 6pm, I joined the daily entertainment in the lounge where musician Matthew was singing train-themed songs like Slim Dusty’s catchy tune about the Indian Pacific which is still on constant replay in my head:

From the waters of the western sea to the eastern ocean sand, the Indian Pacific spans the land . . .

Barman Brennan was mixing cocktails and pouring beer and bubbly (included in the train fare), and all around smiling faces greeted me with great warmth and friendliness.

Dinner was another three-course gourmet affair with mouth-watering choices and superb Margaret River wines. Life onboard the Indian Pacific was indeed sweet.

But that night, around the witching hour, the taipans appeared . . . in my dreams. I imagined they were under my bed. I stripped off the sheets and duvet, turned the entire cabin upside down including the contents of my suitcase, investigated every nook and cranny in my ensuite bathroom and even stuffed a towel into the air-con vent before I was satisfied that there were no snakes of any description in my room.

My neighbours must have wondered what the hell was going on next door . . . but I slept soundly after that.
Towards the end of the journey, on a trek in the Blue Mountains, my guide Dylan mentioned the word funnel web and pointed at the bush. Before he could say another word, I deployed my earplugs and began singing the Slim Dusty song I learned on the train. He thought I was very strange . . .

Justine Tyerman was a guest of Rail Plus and Great Southern Rail.
The Indian Pacific is a four-day, three night 4352km, 65-hour journey from Sydney to Perth and vice versa operated twice a week by Great Southern Rail: https://www.railplus.co.nz/australia-by-rail/australias-great-train-journeys/indian-pacific/itinerary.htm
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Justine Tyerman’s imagination runs riot in the middle of Outback Australia . . .

There’s a down side to having a vivid imagination. It can cause sleepless nights and all sorts of nocturnal disturbances. One such drama occurred at 3am, midway across the Nullarbor Plain on my recent four-day, 4352km Indian Pacific train journey from Perth to Sydney.

Earlier in the day, while savouring a delectable camel tagine with coconut rice and coriander in the Queen Adelaide restaurant car, one of my Aussie train mates pointed out the window at the desert and mentioned the words ‘taipan’ and ‘lots’ in the same sentence.

I laughed nervously, nearly choked on my camel and confessed to having snake phobia which played right into the Aussie’s hands. Out came all manner of horror stories.

Soon after, we stopped at Cook, population four, to take on water and fuel. The place brings new meaning to the term remote. Cook is 1138km from Adelaide, 1523km from Perth, 2000km from Sydney, and the closest major road, the Eyre Highway is 100km away. The nearest town is Ceduna, a five-hour drive and the local doctor is at Port Augusta, a 12-hour drive.

Small service settlements like Cook were established 30km apart on most remote sections of track on the Nullarbor to support the trans-Australia rail link that was completed in 1917. But the town effectively closed down in 1997 when the railway was privatised.

Once a thriving town of 200 residents, Cook is now a ghost town, its school, hospital, tennis courts, swimming pool, golf course, shops and houses lying eerily empty.

In its death throes, Aussie humour still prevailed with signs like: ‘If you’re crook, come to Cook’ and ‘Our hospital needs your help. Get sick.’ (photo at right)

There’s a long-drop with ‘EFTPOS Here’ written on the corrugated iron wall and ‘Deposits Only’ beside the wooden toilet seat.

The town’s jail was a sobering sight. Built to hold the unlawful or unruly until the next train transported them elsewhere, the ‘his’ and ‘her’ cells had a small barred window at the top and a peephole in the heavy padlocked door. With summer temperatures reaching 49 degrees C, imagine the heat inside those corrugated iron boxes. I doubt there was much recidivism!

The residents here were obviously an optimistic bunch. In 1982, volunteers planted 600 saplings in ‘The Greening of Cook’ campaign. A few survived, a testament to their endeavours, and are now the tallest on the Nullarbor.

As I wandered around the deserted outpost, feeling somewhat like an alien interloper, I tried to visualise children running around in the school grounds and people playing tennis, golf and swimming in the pool but all I could see were faint shadows, ghosts perhaps?

With my Aussie mate’s words echoing in my brain, I plucked up just enough courage to take a few wary paces into the desert for a photo.

The word Nullarbor is derived from the Latin ‘nullus’ meaning nothing or none, and ‘arbor’ meaning tree. Apart from the hardy specimens that have survived against the odds at Cook, there are no trees and the horizon is dead flat . . . or ever so slightly curved.

Known to the Aboriginal people as ‘Oondiri’ meaning ‘the waterless’, the Nullarbor is staggering in size covering an area of nearly 20 million hectares, twice the size of England.

For a Kiwi accustomed to landscapes bristling with mountains, the sight of a flat horizon as far as the eye could see was surreal.

I was mesmerised by the vast terracotta landscape scattered with white rocks and stubbly vegetation the colour of dried sage leaves.

‘A blissful state of nothing-to-do-ness’

Back onboard, the Indian Pacific continued its journey on the longest stretch of straight train track in the world — there are no corners for 478km, from Ooldea to Loongana. Late afternoon, when the train finally came to a slight bend, I registered surprise and peered out the window. I could just make out the tail-end of our 28-carriage, 700-metre train.

On a train, you can choose to socialise or not as you please. Some passengers enjoyed the peace and privacy of their own cabins while others inhabited the Outback Lounge and bar from dawn until well after dark.

I discovered a new-found pleasure in my own company and loved my cosy cabin and super-comfy bed. Solitude and the rocking motion of the train allowed me to drift in a dreamlike state. Nowhere have I experienced such blissful nothing-to-do-ness. It seemed to lower my heart rate, quieten the incessant voices in my head and allow me to become introspective, reflective, meditative . . . a welcome escape from an overcrowded life.

There was no wifi and only sporadic internet signal which turned out to be a blessing. There were times when I switched my phone and iPad off completely which would have been unheard of at home.

I also relished the absence of choices. The days were mapped out for me. I didn’t have to navigate or make decisions about what direction to take. The most stressful activity each day was choosing what to eat from the extensive breakfast, lunch and dinner menus.

Around 6pm, I joined the daily entertainment in the lounge where musician Matthew was singing train-themed songs like Slim Dusty’s catchy tune about the Indian Pacific which is still on constant replay in my head:

From the waters of the western sea to the eastern ocean sand, the Indian Pacific spans the land . . .

Barman Brennan was mixing cocktails and pouring beer and bubbly (included in the train fare), and all around smiling faces greeted me with great warmth and friendliness.

Dinner was another three-course gourmet affair with mouth-watering choices and superb Margaret River wines. Life onboard the Indian Pacific was indeed sweet.

But that night, around the witching hour, the taipans appeared . . . in my dreams. I imagined they were under my bed. I stripped off the sheets and duvet, turned the entire cabin upside down including the contents of my suitcase, investigated every nook and cranny in my ensuite bathroom and even stuffed a towel into the air-con vent before I was satisfied that there were no snakes of any description in my room.

My neighbours must have wondered what the hell was going on next door . . . but I slept soundly after that.
Towards the end of the journey, on a trek in the Blue Mountains, my guide Dylan mentioned the word funnel web and pointed at the bush. Before he could say another word, I deployed my earplugs and began singing the Slim Dusty song I learned on the train. He thought I was very strange . . .

Justine Tyerman was a guest of Rail Plus and Great Southern Rail.
The Indian Pacific is a four-day, three night 4352km, 65-hour journey from Sydney to Perth and vice versa operated twice a week by Great Southern Rail: https://www.railplus.co.nz/australia-by-rail/australias-great-train-journeys/indian-pacific/itinerary.htm
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