MARCH, 2003

Heading ‘Back East’: Crossing the Nullarbor

TODAY IS THE DAY I turn my back on Perth, although for the first time, it wouldn’t be the last. It’s an early start, before boarding the train that is to take me to Adelaide, South Australia, through the Nullarbor desert in Western Australia. The train is called the Indian Pacific (after the two oceans it connects) and I’d read about it before coming to Australia. I really looked forward to crossing the best part of a continent by land.

All in all, it totals 4352 km long and if you take it all the way to Sydney in one go, it would take you 65 hours. But the main attraction of using the train to get to Adelaide is that you cross the Nullarbor Plain by land. ”Nullarbor” derives from the Latin, literally meaning “no tree” – as the flat is made of limestone, nothing but shrubs grows here. This desolate landscape was first successfully crossed by Europeans in 1841. The desert is the size of the British Isles, and has the longest straight stretch of railway track and road in the world (they run parallel).

The only real stop before Adelaide was an old mining town in the centre of Western Australia called Kalgoorlie. It’s a gruelling nine hours before the train reaches it, aboard a relatively cramped and certainly uncomfortable train carriage. The sight of a dull interior quickly quashes my thoughts of it resembling anything like the Oriental Express. I arrive around 8.00pm, and try to find a youth hostel. Both hostels in Kalgoorlie are unfortunately right in the middle of its red light district. It’s quite tame though, just a few tin shacks amongst the dust, and not really as rough as some of the locals make it out to be. It’s quite a yokel town, and after hearing from some Australians that it’s supposed to resemble Las Vegas, I can’t help but smile at how much of a backwater it appears to be.

Kalgoorlie, being a mining town, has some quirky features. It looks like the set of a spaghetti western, dusty and frontier-like. Its roads, for a start, are huge, the equivalent of a four-lane road back in Europe. They’re all like this as a result of the days when the gold from the mines was packed onto carriages drawn by horses, and the horses had to turn round in the street, carriages and all. Another peculiarity is the “skimpy” bars that occupy it. A “skimpy” is a barmaid, but one who only wears their underwear. Needless to say, Kalgoorlie is a hard working and hard playing town.

I spend a lazy day in Kalgoorlie – other than the mining industry, it’s not got a lot on offer, so it’s quite sleepy anyway. Wandering down the main streets, there’s not much on offer unfortunately and after all the hype, Kalgoorlie’s a bit of a let down. I didn’t see a soul on the town’s streets.

Kalgoorlie possesses the largest hole in the Southern Hemisphere, as a result of the mining here. You can take tours round this large pit, but after formulating the opinion that the town of Kalgoorlie itself is one big pit, the offer of another one isn’t that enticing.

After another few days wandering around, meeting locals, and dropping in on a skimpy bar I leave Kalgoorlie in the evening, as the train departs again for Adelaide. After a couple of beers, I board the train around 10.00pm.

I don’t so much get a night’s sleep, as sort of nod off now and then. The seats in steerage class on the Indian Pacific are quite uncomfortable for a three-day journey, so do bear that in mind. In between naps I contemplate the fact that I’m going to be on this train without really stopping for another two days.

If there’s a definite reason to take the train across this vast continent, it’s the views. Simply put, they are quite something. Rich and red, yet barren and forlorn at the same time, the endless horizon is strangely mesmerising. Slightly contrary to the Nullarbor’s name, every now and again a lone tree will drift past the window, albeit briefly; gone as soon as it appeared.

Another main attraction along the railway line is the stop at a town named Cook, which is over the border in South Australia. Cook used to be a relatively large outback town, had its own hospital, school, and shop before everyone started leaving. When our train pulls in, the current population is two. A true ghost town, it doesn’t even have a railway platform for us to depart from. The streets are deserted, and it’s a shame to see the buildings fall into this derelict state.

I alight at Adelaide, the ‘City of Churches’, where the fresh morning air and greenery are very welcome after such a time spent in the train carriage. The train would continue across the continent to the Pacific Ocean but I for one would not be going with it, this time.

This railway may be old fashioned and uncomfortable in places, but towns like Cook and its inhabitants rely on the Indian Pacific to exist and to survive, as it brings water and supplies every time it passes through. In that sense this train journey still embodies the original spirit of discovery, to this day regularly crossing one of the most inhospitable places on earth.

For more info on the Indian Pacific train journey, visit https://www.greatsouthernrail.com.au/trains/the-indian-pacific 

This trip pre-dated my ownership of a digital camera. To that end all images used have come via public domain for noncommercial reuse: google.com & commons.wikimedia.org