What I am listening to: Emeli Sandé, Our Version of Events
What I am playing: My cello is 9000 miles away. We’re on a break.
What I am reading: Bill Bryson, Down Under
Sunday 22nd September, 2013, Perth to Kalgoorlie, Western Australia
Stepping off the TransPerth Midland Line and into near-desolate suburbia on this stormy Sunday morning, I spotted an elderly couple with suitcases. “Are you going there too?” I asked, motioning towards the glistening beast waiting patiently on the next platform over. To clarify from the outset, I’m not a ‘train enthusiast’ and I don’t wear my green anorak as a form of identity, but I’m a self-confessed rail journey junkie addicted to the senses of perspective and possibility that only train travel can bring.
It transpired that the cheerful yet slightly anxious Aussies have never before taken the three-day cross-country trip aboard the Indian Pacific, but had journeyed to this station yesterday to find the location of check-in. “I hope there are some young ones for you”, the lady said, “I think it’s usually oldies”.
The tone has been set, and was only confirmed once I’d taken a seat at Whistle Stop Café, the only source of breakfast in the terminal building. Within a matter of seconds I was engaged in a discussion with two previously unacquainted pairs of Aussie OAPs about the merits of my iPad mini. I say discussion; I was more fielding questions like, “Can I pick your brain? What is that?” (from the white-haired beardy pony-tailed man with a cuddly toy husky dog) and, “How much did it cost? Is that English pounds?” (Is that opposed to the Australian pounds which became obsolete in 1966?) The beardless husky-free man then pointed to my iPad and told me proudly that he also has something like that, to which his wife quickly added, “it’s a laptop, he’s got a laptop”.
I may be the only passenger who hasn’t yet achieved retirement, but these are some of the most unabrasively friendly travel companions I could wish for. And I may have only been in this country for ten hours, but I don’t think it’s too soon to hypothesise that Australia is a bemusingly wonderful synthesis of the distant lands of the UK and US; more about the balance and manifestation of this I’ll perhaps soon discover.
Sitting here in departures I’m wondering whether we’ll make it from the 1970s to the present day within the next forty five minutes before boarding. The Indian Pacific is a young train as these things go, having only opened 43 years ago, but I’d be shocked if its terminal building on the Indian Ocean side has been updated since. This in itself is a shock given Great Southern Rail’s achingly edgy promotional videos for the Indian Pacific and Ghan train journeys that I watched on YouTube before I flew out. I’m now immersed in hues of that distinctly retro orange-brown and surrounded by walls, pillars and partitions of concrete, brick and metal that could only be described as utilitarian, yet the large brighter orange tubes protruding haphazardly from the ceiling could be described neither as functional nor aesthetically pleasing. Perhaps they’re a uniquely Australian artistic homage to this country’s indigenous venomous snakes that I’m trying to remember to forget. Anyway, there was just enough time to buy a painfully overpriced National Geographic from the Whistle Stop Shop before a surprisingly premature call to board. This is happening!
I was met by my coach conductor Cosette, or ‘Cossie’, on the platform outside coach K, who greeted me with a reassuring “no worries” even though I wasn’t aware I was expressing any concern. Snaking my way (there’s an uncomfortable theme here) down the amusingly narrow and winding corridor to the last cabin on the right I found K18, my home for the next three days. Bizarrely this cabin is in exactly the same position within the carriage as was my cabin aboard the California Zephyr train from Chicago to San Francisco last year, and this can only be a great omen. Opening the skinny door I let out an involuntarily squeal, as tends to happen to me pre- and mid-travelling; I think I’m going to like it here. There’s something inexplicably exciting about being given a little space all to yourself, with the bare minimum that you need for reasonable comfort and your very own moving window onto the cross section of an entire country.
Amidst my giddiness I had a sudden sinking feeling. In my jetlagged haste to get some kind of sleep in Perth’s (clearly not) New Esplanade Hotel late last night I’d forgotten to use the (extortionate) wifi to make a few more of my Spotify music playlists available offline. A jaunt across the Australian Outback may be rich in time and scorched space to aid a spiritual journey to your innermost self, but abundant hotspots of the 21st century variety there almost certainly will not be. I remembered that I’d received a text from Vodafone in the wee hours of this morning heralding the news that I could use a little data on my phone for £3 before I give them permission to claim my most prized possessions one by one for every extra megabyte used. As much as I love Passenger and Emeli Sandé, the thought of three days on a train with only two albums on repeat was enough motivation for me to flip the dreaded ‘data roaming’ switch for a couple of minutes. Vodafone sends you a text whenever you’ve gone over your initial allowance, I told myself, and they generously have a spending cap so that you don’t return home too much poorer than you thought you would, said my naively optimistic internal voice. And, sure enough, Vodafone did almost instantaneously send me a text to say that I’d already used the first 3MB. This is ok, I thought, I’ll switch it off in a second, just as soon as I have a few more tunes.
Too late. The deluge of texts surged through like poison from an indigenous venomous snake. I’d used 8MB and spent £30. Oh no, wait. Without any more time passing I’d now miraculously used 13MB and spent £45. Actually, just kidding, I’d already used my entire monthly internet limit of £42.50 in less than three minutes. Where did that extra £2.50 over the cap come from? And, incidentally, none of the song syncing worked and my three new emails were junk. Talk about rubbing salt into the bite. A megabite.
It’s rarely worth fretting, however. I soon discovered that a choice of four music channels can be piped through to each cabin. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Radio Indian Pacific, having read Bill Bryson’s account of his experience on this very train in the late 90s and the names he gave to the compilations he heard in the lounge car, including ‘Songs You Hoped You’d Never Hear Again’ and ‘Party Time at the Nursing Home’. Either the song selection has changed drastically in the last fifteen years or Bill and I have drastically different musical tastes. I have a feeling it’s the latter, considering that today’s offering isn’t especially hip and current but it’s right up my street. As we pulled out of East Perth Terminal and through the suburbs of suburbs (sub-suburbs?), out came a handful of Motown classics, Take That, Adele, Stevie Wonder and a baroque oboe concerto. Could they maintain this run of pure greatness? As is always the case, it all rested in the next song. Lionel Richie. Deal: clinched. It’s as if Great Southern Rail breached all privacy policies and scanned my Spotify account when I made my online booking.
‘POISON RISK AREA!’ Well that jolted me out of Lionel-induced semi-consciousness. That was a real life sign that just flashed past my window, a reminder of what I was trying to forget. In case I was still incredulous, the truth just stared me in the face: I really am in Australia now, Bruce. I may have seen a very British Jamie’s Italian restaurant in Perth (I know, I couldn’t believe it either) and very American flat pack-style churches sandwiched between blindingly shiny skyscrapers, but this country is definitely its own world.
Suddenly it was 1:01pm and I was one minute late for my allocated lunch slot. I followed a fellow solo British passenger (and unexpectedly the only other Brit I found on the train) along several carriages to the elegant Queen Adelaide Restaurant car, who commented that it was such a long way that he half expected to find himself back at his cabin, like in Hampton Court (the maze, I presume, but still… what?) On the way there I found my original two friends of the day. The nice lady patted me on the arm and greeted me like long lost family; she seemed a lot less on edge now they’d found the bar. I was seated at one of the tables of four with retired couple John and Norma from a suburb north west of Sydney and with Hampton Court Chris from Croydon, who seems to be doing a great job of tagging rather a lot of pleasure onto a little business in Singapore. To my unbridled joy, the staff have heard of gluten and, what’s more, the menu highlights food that is free of it. My first meal aboard the Indian Pacific was a surprisingly creative success: salmon with asparagus and lime, lavender panne cotta and a glass of pinot gris (I felt that making it from West Hampstead Thameslink onto a twice-weekly train in the Southern Hemisphere needed celebrating). The poetic irony of enjoying my gluten-free meal while passing through the Western Australia wheat belt certainly did not pass me by.
Going into a communal dining situation on my own is always a little uncomfortable. My experience aboard the California Zephyr was a positive one (except for the food itself) but, even so, you can never be sure of what and who to expect, especially in a new country. Happily, Norma introduced herself and her husband right away to avoid excessive awkwardness, and I soon learnt that this was their eleventh journey on board the Indian Pacific. Yes, eleventh round trip. That’s just over two months on one train. They go every time there’s a two-for-one sale. They should definitely feature in the remake of the edgy promotional video. Anyway, I managed to refrain from my stock “Eleven’s my lucky number!” interjection and instead let the grandfatherly John indulge in his facts and stories about the train and its history, some of which Bill Bryson and other research had already told me (did you know there are one and a quarter million wild camels in Australia, of which John and Norma saw two on their way out to Perth?), but it was entertaining and comforting all the same.
The most interesting story started off quite boringly, as would most tales of pipelines. A long time ago (he wasn’t clear on quite how long this was), a (nameless) man wanted to find a way to bring water to the remote gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie, which is where the train is headed tonight. He had the idea of building an overwhelmingly long water pipeline all the way from just outside Perth which, John thought, is a distance of 600 miles. Nobody else believed that this would work and the ambitious nameless man was ridiculed for making the attempt. On the day that the water was switched on and the pipeline was put to the test, nothing emerged in Kalgoorlie. The innovator was so humiliated that he killed himself. 16 hours later the water appeared, having simply taken longer to arrive than expected. While I sat there dwelling on the tragedy of the situation, John and Norma began their lengthy debate about how the poor guy killed himself. There seems to be a regional divide over this, but it was concluded that he either shot himself, hanged himself or, so implausibly, rode off into the sea (the Outback Sea?) on a horse and drowned. At least it wasn’t suicide by snake.
I JUST SAW MY FIRST TWO KANGAROOS! Sharp intake of breath! This is why it’s best for everyone that I’m sectioned off with my camera in my own cabin. But boy do they really bounce! Or were they the emus mentioned over lunch? What do emus look like? Do they bounce? I still have much to learn.
Somehow it’s already evening and completely black outside, so I can focus on screen rather than window and summarise my post-lunch daylight highlights and thoughts. Firstly, what are these trees with the black bobbly bits? Could it be eucalyptus or the famous coolibah tree from Waltzing Matilda? It’s worrying how much we must assume about Australian culture from that one song. I wonder if his billy ever did boil. Anyway, I’ll report back on the trees and emus when I can. I also need to find out what these amazing birds are, which at first I thought could be rare when I saw just a pair of them, but then I saw four, and then I saw about twenty. So perhaps they’re the Australian equivalent to pigeons. I’m one of those rare people who is a fan of pigeons anyway, but these were certainly more striking: quite large, to the British sensibility at least, and with stylish colour blocks of black, white and maroon. And then there were three smaller birds that looked like swallows but were electric blue. Where’s John when you need him? He has an earlier dinner reservation, if you must know.
At some point my listening to Passenger on my phone was interrupted by a call from a mysterious number. My senses momentarily stunned by the realisation that I had signal, I stupidly picked up (there goes another £47.50). It was a recorded message from England about some government initiative which is granting me a free boiler. Clearly this holiday is not remote enough yet. Get me to outback proper, pronto.
We may not yet have been in textbook desert, but these surroundings certainly qualified as middle-of-nowhere. And then, as if a montage from my memory superimposing itself onto the minimalist here and now, a London Overground-style orange sign rolled by my window. We were passing through the station of Hines Hill. Was this an outpost for lost explorers?
The train trundled on through more strangely compelling nothing. CLUNK. The train stopped. My brain wired as it is, I half expected to hear an insincere and incoherent announcement from Thameslink apologising for the inconvenience caused by a twig on the track, the difference being that on Thameslink you’re invariably an iPhone’s throw away from the nearest Starbucks and a bus home. I suspected that Hines Hill and its environs bore little resemblance to Herne Hill and the south east of London, and that its poisonous inhabitants weren’t just spreading vicious rumours. With a small sigh of relief I learnt that every now and again we had to stop to let freight trains pass and that therefore I wasn’t destined to end my days as dinner for a herd/mob/troop (all correct collective nouns, did you know?) of poisonous kangaroos.
We passed farms with sheep so large that I wondered if a sheep-pig could be a real species native to Australia. We passed some major river, the site of a major annual white water rafting event. We passed through landscapes that could have easily been lifted from my home county of Hertfordshire, though I had a feeling this wasn’t going to last for long. Sure enough, we were soon making our slick way through a little old-fashioned town which reminded me of the ex-gold-mining communities I saw from the California Zephyr when it travelled through Nevada into California itself. This town in the depths of Western Australia had a shop called ‘Emu Liquor’, but this doesn’t count as a wildlife spotting and I would imagine is misleading for my building of an accurate mental picture of this creature.
Making my way along the carriages for dinner I couldn’t help but notice how dark it was outside and how much I couldn’t stop feeling like a character from Murder on the Orient Express. This was another thought to be added to the list of thoughts not to think about. Necessarily I had to pass through the bar, where I immediately found myself in brief conversation with yet another elderly Australian couple. “I think you must halve the average age on the train!” I was told. I wondered how many more times in the next three days I would smile and mutter something about being young at heart.
Dinner was more of a rowdy affair as I found myself sitting with three other lone travellers who were all on the red wine, all about my parents’ age and all flirting. Had I found myself in the middle of the world’s first speed-dating train holiday? Nursing my jet lag, I sat there slurping my Sprite and coffee (separately) in a desperate attempt to inject the highest amount of sugar and caffeine into my bloodstream at the fastest rate possible before our first excursion that evening. The happy dining continued with a starter comprised of my two staple foods, mushroom and halloumi. I then got to try barramundi for the first time, a fish which Croydon Chris had raved about and said you could only buy in London for about £35 and only from a Conran restaurant. It was served with lemon caviar. Yes, I realise this is not real life, which is why it was perfectly acceptable for me to round off the experience with something Belgian, flourless and chocolatey. I’m not one of those people who travels first and foremost to meet people, but I feel like Harriet from Seattle, (female) Sandy originally from Brighton but now Auckland and Bob the biker from Melbourne (who is distantly related to the English horse-painting Stubbs) and I have formed some sort of single cabin crew, and I like it. Conversation flowed so freely that I even mentioned the cricket.
On an ornithological side note, Harriet raised the topic of some birds she’d seen which she liked the look of and wanted to identify but had also assumed were the Outback equivalents to pigeons; great minds. She said she thought they might be called gualas, or guanas, or something (iguanas?). Bob laughed at her pronunciation, and wasn’t even sure if she was referring to the right species. Upon reunion with wifi I googled variations on these words and, to my surprise, google suggested that I search for the phrase ‘pigeon guano’. This, it turns out, is the fancy term for pigeon droppings. The mystery continues.
I deliriously returned to my cabin for a power nap before our scheduled three-hour stop in Kalgoorlie at 10:30pm, the gold capital of Australia and the largest town in the outback with a population of around 30,000. As a passenger who had paid for a cabin, this was the first of four off-train excursions included in the cost of a one-way ticket.
Surreal does not begin to cover this experience.
Firstly, going out with three coach loads of slow-moving elders at this time of night is not a common occurrence for me in itself. Add to this my coach-driving tour guide Gill who, though admirably enthusiastic and informative, had to preface most points with “I know it’s dark, but…” We drove down the ghostly main street, which could easily be the setting for a country and western or the focal point of the future Disneyland Down Under.
Having used our imaginations to appreciate a ‘magnificent church’ and all of the other sights that downtown Kalgoorlie has to offer, Gill excitedly announced that now was the time for us to head out to THE SUPERPIT. I don’t know about you, but this either sounds like the modern and spacious home for an orchestra at a newly built opera house or a sadist’s name for hell. But we soon learnt that this was the affectionate title given to Kalgoorlie’s revered major mine, which operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year. On the drive over, Gill fed us endless staggering statistics about the town’s flourishing mining industry and then explained that several other materials other than gold are mined here too. A few seconds passed and then, “Do you mine anything other than gold here?” came a weary voice from the front of the coach. Apparently for some of my most senior travel companions this was a tour not just not to be seen, but also not to be heard.
We parked up and walked over to the viewing platform. It really was quite impressive, and an awe-inspiring (pun semi-intended) reminder of how small, powerless yet driven by the dream of material fortune humans really can be. Dots of light glided like drugged fireflies about the walls of the seemingly bottomless crater, as if controlled by the Big Brother of the mining underworld, while the town of Kalgoorlie provided a dimly glowing backdrop. It was an eerie shrine to capitalism, yet paradoxically communist in its anonymity and vast, monotonous, unrelenting activity. It lay as a symbol to all that money doesn’t sleep. I really needed to. Perhaps I was already asleep; stuff like this doesn’t happen in reality. At least, I’m certain this isn’t what most people do during their first full night on their first trip to the Southern Hemisphere.
Still, we hopped (well, most of us waddled) back onto the buses and onwards to the crowning jewel of this first excursion off the Indian Pacific, the Australian Prospectors and Mining Hall of Fame. That’s right, we were lucky enough to be offered white hard hats and the chance to climb five and half metres up to the seat of one of the mammoth yellow CAT dump trucks I had just watched hard at work down in The Superpit. I had to take a sneaky selfie.
Back down on ground level people were having photos taken next to the truck’s sinister-looking tyres, which are at least twice my height and cost over a whopping $AUS40,000 to replace. Seeing as taking a selfie in front of one of these was difficult and more than a little closer to the peak of geekdom, I put the hard hat down and began to walk away. “Have you got a camera?” came a perky Aussie voice, “I’m Bruce”. I froze. I’m sure my jet lag was the only thing saving me from an instantaneous outburst of laughter at this brilliant, self-effacing quip straight out of the classic cultural stereotyping joke book before I caught a small part of me panicking that this possibly wasn’t a joke at all and that this man possibly hadn’t popped up just to provide un-PC entertainment to a foreigner who had just landed in his country for the first time. I looked at him. He was the face of earnestness. Suddenly realising that I’d taken a worryingly long time to process his simple question, I bit down forcefully on my lip and handed over my camera, hurting from internal giggling. Here layeth the scene: I was in the middle of the outback in the darkness of night posing for a photo leaning against an oversized dump truck tyre taken by a genuine Australian Bruce. “This is Paula,” he said, gesturing to the lady next to him, “I’ll take a portrait too”. Well thank god she wasn’t Sheila.
Entering the museum building itself, things didn’t get much more predictable. It was midnight at this point, and the poor staff had laid out tea, coffee and pastries for us, presumably to keep the seniors awake and the jetlagged foreigners confused. Adequately fuelled, we were given free rein over what is hopefully the world’s largest collection of mining-related exhibits. There was even an interactive section prompting us to answer such fatigue-crunching questions as ‘How are Australian Stock Exchange company codes selected?’ I’m afraid I don’t remember the answer, and we’re all the worse for it. Rounding the final corner I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see art. It was even art that I really liked, of the traditional Aboriginal dot painting variety. I hid in the safety of this room until it was time to leave.
On our even darker and quicker coach journey back to Kalgoorlie train station, I was surprised to gain a deeper understanding of Australian culture. I’d been told by my taxi driver in Perth that the country is incredibly big on its gambling, but I was now finding out that its people were shockingly open and light-hearted about their prostitution industry too. Gill dutifully pointed out the two remaining brothels of the town, and amusedly regaled the fun family tale about the time she went on a tour of one of the said establishments (yes, a brothel tour) and a teenage boy emerged from one of its rooms, saw the whole tour group looking at him and ran away with his tail between his legs, so to speak. I may be wrong, but I was sure that wasn’t the kind of anecdotal fodder you’d expect from a city bus tour in the UK, let alone a rural one. Gill then proudly pointed out that one of these brothels is opposite a MacDonald’s, “which gives a whole new meaning to ‘Big Mac'”. Was I really the only person feeling uncomfortable at this point? No, I caught of waft of embarrassment from Croydon.
Pulling into the train station, Gill announced that she would “make this girl safe” for us before allowing us to disembark and collect our special present. The proud new owner of a blue Goldrush Tours Kalgoorlie pen, I scurried back into my cabin cocoon. Desperately trying not to ponder the size, power and hunger of spiders that could be hiding in my foldaway basin, I drifted off into a jetlagged stupor at 2:45am, ignorantly unaware that we’d only yet reached the Outskirts of Nowhere.