A cross-country trip from Sydney to Perth certainly sounds lovely, but the reality of living aboard a rickety old train for three days is rather less appealing.
As I sit in the waiting room at Sydney Central Station, an elderly vagrant comes in, lies down at my feet, and calmly closes his eyes. From the state of the carpet it seems likely that the waiting room has a fine reputation amongst vagrants. This is not how I expected to begin my journey on the legendary Indian Pacific railroad. Oh well, if we don’t have romantic expectations we will never begin our travels. If we can’t deal with the reality, we will never keep going.
Even so I need an hour or two, as the scenic charms of Sydney’s suburbs pass by, to deal with the reality of Red Kangaroo class. Three days of this! I keep thinking, kicking at a footrest that refuses to stay upright, casting hostile looks at the poor kid jammed into the ‘daynighter’ seat beside me. Three days to Perth! How the hell are we supposed to sleep?
The train staff seem to know that everyone will be wondering this, so all options are carefully ruled out in advance. ‘Red Kangaroo guests have the use of the bar lounge carriage’, our stewardess tells us, ‘but please do not sleep on the sofas in the lounge. If you do, the night steward will wake you.’
A few of us try it anyway and sure enough we are wakened in the wee smalls by a sympathetic hand on the shoulder and a voice saying, ‘You can’t sleep here matey.’ The only solution is to do a deal with the person in the next ‘daynighter’ whereby one sleeps on the floor with their legs across the aisle while the other has both seats. A notice in the seat pocket expressly forbids sleeping in the aisle, but once the night steward has cleared the lounge, he turns a blind eye.
There is one approved response to the problem of sleep – small packets of No-Doze pills are sold over the bar. It’s just as well Australia is so fantastic you want to be propped up by the window from the first chink of dawn.
The approaches to the Blue Mountains are hidden by white mist. There are tantalising glimpses into canyons of eucalyptus, a surprising savage beauty so soon after leaving the city. On the high plateau, the sun at last breaks through, just in time to set gloriously over the rolling temperate wheat lands where the country’s fortune was made. Nobody in Red Kangaroo class shows much interest in any of this. People are disgruntled because, if the seats are no better than Boeing economy class, the video facilities are way worse.
Three small monitors for a carriage of sixty two people, one channel, no headsets! The sound comes over the public address system, so if you don’t want to spend three days listening to Mork and Mindy and the Hitchhiker’s Guide… well, you could have gone to Perth by plane. Or you could stake a claim to a seat in the lounge and lend an ear to the lonely people who travel this line with stories to tell.
One passenger won the lottery and it ruined his life. The question why he is travelling in Red Kangaroo Class goes unasked by an audience of listeners who already seem half stupefied, and for a very strange reason given that they elected to travel across Australia by train – they are bored out of their minds by the scenery.
Around midnight the train begins to shake, not a gentle rocking to lull the Kangaroos to sleep, but an infinite sequence of tooth-loosening jolts within an overall convulsive shudder. I had intended to read, since sleeping was forbidden, but the words are flying around so much I put the book down. Incredibly a woman stumbles into the lounge bar, flips open a compact mirror, and tries to apply lipstick.
I find the night steward and ask him if it is normal for the train to shake this way. ‘We’re going over wooden sleepers,’ he says with a straight face. ‘They’ve got a lot of give in them.’
‘How long will this go on?’ I ask.
‘Till Broken Hill.’
We are eight hours from Broken Hill.
‘Is it worse down this end of the train?’ I ask.
‘No matey. It’s just as bad for the folks up in Gold.’
Ah, that’s all right then. Paying all that money for Gold Kangaroo Class, even more to be a Platinum Roo, and still no sleep. What did they expect in egalitarian OZ? Back in the lounge a Canadian tourist is talking to a man who is going home to Adelaide, a regular commuter on the Indian Pacific. ‘Twenty four hours from Sydney to Adelaide,’ he says in a hollow, insomniac voice. ‘We get in at three o’clock tomorrow.’ When the tourist kindly asks him why he doesn’t fly, he says. ‘I don’t like planes much.’
Thirty six hours later a history of the country is coming over the PA but it’s difficult to hear it above the sound of people teaching each other card games. A man who got on at Adelaide is saying that his doctor told him to ‘go home and put things in order.’ He is using his last months to locate all the people in his snapshot album and to give them the photos he has taken over his life.
Some have died, some are the same, he tells us philosophically. Everyone he tracks down is grateful, except for an American military official to whom he offered the photographs he took of a top secret installation when he was a soldier in Vietnam.
Outside, the Nullarbor plain rolls by. The aboriginal sounding name is in fact a colonial collision of two Latin words. It means ‘No Trees’. Usually it’s hot here – very very hot, – but yesterday the heavens opened, leaving pools of water by the track, and the sky is still leaden. Today The Plain looks like the Netherlands after a nuclear war.
A low grey-green plant called spinifex covers the ground to the horizon. A few taller bushes seem to be moving in a slow dance, some trick of distance and perspective. People in the lounge are complaining about the monotony of it all, some are having panic attacks, weeping and promising to be good. I find the view relaxing. Later, the sun comes out and the train is crossing pure desert, just red earth and blue sky.
We stop at Cook, about which there is some debate whether the population is two people or four. As a New Zealander, I like Cook. It must be the only Cook in the southern hemisphere not named after the navigator James Cook (VERY hard to get a sailing ship in here) but some long-forgotten Australian PM instead. My fellow travellers like Cook too, because the postcards they buy at its only functioning shop prove they have visited somewhere iconically remote.
All this liking of Cook just shows how cabin crazy we’ve all gone, since there’s nothing likeable about the place, which is a ghost town and not in the nice Hollywood way, more in the way of ethnic cleansing. Where did everyone go? Why did they come here in the first place? Who were they? Who cares?
For weirdness, Cook can’t hold a candle to Broken Hill anyway. Did I mention Broken Hill – the mining town whose streets are named after compounds from the periodic table? When you’ve shopped in Oxide Street, strolled down Silica, taken tea in Iodide Lane, how can Cook’s deserted bungalows float your boat? We peep in the windows and shudder. Then we leave. We only really stopped here so the train could take on water.
Half a day later, just after sunset, we hit True West. Kalgoorlie is a gold rush town where the streets are wide enough to turn a coach and six and every corner boasts a ring-ding hotel.
In a bar of polished hardwood the barmaids have thrown off their crinolines and are pulling pints of Fosters wearing nothing but lingerie. On screens around the walls athletic women in short skirts play tennis, running across green lawns. The student who has tossed and turned beside me for sixty hours in Red Kangaroo Class blinks and rubs his eyes.
‘I’m home,’ he says.
‘No,’ I tell him. ‘You’re still ten hours from Perth.’