Long Distance Training
Harry Wooller (M 1956)
For the last few years we have been in the habit of visiting our daughter in Perth. This year was going to be no different except we had decided to go by train and return by air. The Great Southern Rail company’s Indian Pacific covers the 4352km journey between Sydney and Perth in 65 hours spread over 4 days with 3 nights on board. It is Australia’s longest train journey and the tenth longest in the world. Russian trains occupy the top three positions with the ‘Trans Siberian’ Moscow to Vladivostok covering 9259km and 7 time zones in first position.
Map showing route of ‘Indian Pacific’.
Eric Newby, in his book the ‘The Big Red Train Ride’ says ‘The Trans-Siberian is the big train ride. All the rest arepeanuts.’ I was under no illusion that the Indian Pacific would match it for interest and drama. My position was we were mainly travelling to get somewhere and anything more was a bonus. This was countered by “Do you realise it costs seven times the airfare?” which forced me to change tack. “You can’t look at the trip as simply getting from A to B.
It will be a total experience involving travel, sightseeing and diversions. We will have the grand feeling of having completed an epic adventure”. So on a Wednesday with 300 other passengers we boarded the India Pacific at Central Station, Sydney. Opened in 1906 it was embellished with a 75-metre clock tower in 1921 continuing Sydney’s love of form over function. There even used to be a dedicated platform for the transport of funeral parties to Rookwood cemetery 17km away. Now 25 platforms service the Sydney metropolitan and distant networks with over 11 million passenger movements yearly.
Who said there was no class system in Australia? Here it was complete with the highly inventive names of Red, Gold and Platinum service. Not wanting to sit in recliners in Red we found our Gold compartment complete with retractable bunks, three seats and bathroom. There were only twenty passengers in Platinum who inhabited larger compartmentswith beds. We never met anyone who volunteered that they were from the lucky few.
The 774 metres long Indian Pacific occupied Platforms 1 and 2 and had to be assembled before we left promptly at 2.55pm. The suburbs of Sydney are extensive and appeared to be asleep. It was after all high summer and New Year’s Eve. We were travelling west and crossing the Nepean River; the scenery changed abruptly as we nosed into the Blue Mountains, part of the Great Dividing Range which runs the length of Eastern Australia. Sedimentary rock laid down 300 million years ago was uplifted 50 million years ago to form an extensive 1100m high plateau. Since then rivers and volcanic activity have produced massive canyons and valleys covered in a forest of eucalypts and many exotic plants. It was a major barrier to the early settlers and after a number of abortive expeditions was crossed by Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson in 1813.
It is a particularly scenic ride by train with tunnels and viaducts pushing through the outcrops of rock often clothed in streams and waterfalls. At the end of the climb we reached Katoomba. For years a centre for tourism, following electrification of the line it has become something of a commuter town. I envy them their daily ride to Sydney.
Blue Mountains Landscape
We freewheeled down the western side of the Blue Mountains and were soon on the Central Tablelands. Passing through Bathurst we made our first foray into the Queen Adelaide restaurant for dinner. The country we could see through the restaurant window was open grassland, well treed, mainly sheep, some cattle and the odd sprinkle of yellow canola. In the fading light we admired the somewhat retro décor and the linen table napkins. I remember this meal, as it was the first test of the food. There was a modest choice and mine was sweet potato soup, grilled fresh salmon and salad with orange cake to finish. The company was invigorating and the wine was on the house. We had eaten well as we did for the rest of the journey. While we slept (some of us) the train crossed South-Western NSW. We didn’t see the gradual change to an outback vista of red earth with a low covering of salt and blue bush and scattered mallee and mulga trees that heralded our Thursday arrival in Broken Hill at 6.00am.
The city today remains isolated and one is surprised to find broad streets and opulent Victorian and Grand Federation architecture. It is situated in the Barrier Ranges (height circa 500m) first observed by the explorer Charles Sturt during his 1844 expedition from Adelaide. In his diary he wrote about a “humped back range” and used the term “broken hill”. What he didn’t know was that within the humped back was a continuous arch of ore some 7km long and 220m wide containing the world’s richest source of silver, lead and zinc.Of the syndicate of seven, who in 1885 unearthed this mammoth lode and founded the Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP) five went on to become rich men whilst two lost their nerve and sold their shares for a pittance.
Creek bed Broken Hill
The Line of Lode dominates the city. During its lifetime it has produced 300 million tonnes of ore and is still active although on a much smaller scale. This reduction in employment has meant the city is in the painful process of reinventing itself. Even the street names such as Argent, Cobalt, Beryl, Blendeand Chloride refer to its historic life. Maybe we will see these streets renamed Digital, Solar and Turbine in the future. Following a time change we left Broken Hill just after 8.00am and soon crossed into South Australia (SA). On this first full day aboard we were now getting to know some of our fellow passengers. Good conversation was a feature of our journey. We had lunch with a Japanese man who was travelling alone on what seemed to be a combined factfinding mission and a vacation. Coming from a country with a superior rail system I was surprised that he thought our 85km per hour ramble through the bush was wonderful and that he really appreciated the sociable egalitarian atmosphere that prevailed aboard. I was able to tell him something about the genesis of the standard gauge that made our trip possible.
The rail tracks of Australia are still many and varied. It is estimated that Australia has 17678km of standard gauge(4ft 81/2in or 1435mm) mainly in NSW with 15,160km of narrow gauge (3ft 6in or 1067mm) in Queensland, Western Australia, asmania and South Australia and 4017km of broad gauge (5ft 3in or 1600mm) confined mainly to Victoria. the Federation of Australia in 1901 each of the states were separate colonies and developed in their own idiosyncratic way. This is the cause of the ‘gauge muddle’ that has survived many investigations by governments and it wasn’t until 1969 that it was possible to travel between Sydney and Perth on standard gauge.
The landscape was slowly changing to more fertile country with agriculture and country towns. This soon gave way to the suburbs of Adelaide, capital of South Australia (SA), which we reached by mid-afternoon. The colony was proclaimed in 1836 and convicts did not accompany the free settlers. Adelaide is a mid-size city of 1.29 million laid out by Colonel William Light, the first surveyor general of SA. He was fond of the Sicilian city of Catania, which possibly influenced his 1837 design.
Of more importance was his inclusion of 9 square kilometres of parkland around the nucleus of the city. It is this buffer
between the central business district and the suburbs that is the basis of an extremely liveable city. We admired the river Torrens, the graceful squares and broad tree lined streets with Victorian, federation and modern buildings and of course, compared with Sydney, the lack of traffic congestion.
That evening we headed north passing the giant wind farm in the Barunga ranges just west of Snowtown. These
treeless hills conveniently lie at right angles to the prevailing westerlies that help provide some 369MW of clean electricity. It doesn’t seem much when many of our coal or gas fired power stations produce over 2500MW but it is a start. It was dark as we passed through Port Pirie and then more westerly towards Woomera home of the RAAF rocket test range. Woomera is well named, as it is an Aboriginal word for a ‘spear throwing stick’, a traditional tool that increases the accuracy and distance of these weapons.
By Friday morning we woke to the harshness of the Nullarbor (Latin ‘no trees’) Plain a flat arid area between the Great Australian Bight to the south and the Great Victorian Desert to the north. It is underpinned by a 200,000 square kilometres of uplifted limestone that was formerly a shallow seabed. We passed through Ooldea during breakfast and were looking forward to the stop at Cook where we could actually walk on the Nullarbor. Two hours later we were there and I can’t do better than quote the information brochure. “You’re in Cook, a small outback town located on the longest straight stretch of track in the world that spans a distance of478 kilometres from Ooldea to Loongana. The desert stretches as far as the eye can see in any direction, giving the town an almost eerie sense of isolation.”
At Cook on the Nullarbor Plain.
The town wasn’t named after Cook the navigator but the ninth Prime Minister of Australia, Sir Joseph Cook. Built to assist in the completion of the Trans Australian Railway (1917), it housed at its peak some 200 souls with a school, hospital, gaol and general store with post office and repeater station for telegraphic communications. Now there are five residents who manage the fuel and water required by passing trains. With our trusty brochure we spent an hour examining the remnants of the town before climbing aboard for the long haul to Kalgoorlie. Two hours later we crossed into Western Australiain
It was a day of ‘more of the same’ spent mainly in the Outback Lounge and enlivened by travellers tales and guessing what other passengers did for a living. The quiet American ‘in oil’ surprised many that he didn’t run a service station but owned a small oil field. The young Swiss couple were not watchmakers or bankers but were public servants. Many travellers were amazed to see camels in the arid landscape. The first use of camels occurred when twenty-six were imported for the Burke and Wills 1860 expedition between Melbourne and the Gulf of Carpentaria.
They continued to prove their worth in the exploration and settlement of the interior until they were superseded by the railways and motor transport. Many were then released into the outback where they prospered and their numbers are now estimated as over 1 million. Wild camels have good genetics and are exported in large numbers to the Middle East where they strengthen those in the camel racing industry
Perth skyline from King’s Park.
We arrived in Kalgoorlie just after 7pm on Friday evening. Gold had been found here in 1893 and has been mined ever since. I had heard and read much about the city and was keen to see it in the flesh. Prospects weren’t looking too good. The weather had changed. Squally rain and thunderstorms enhanced the gloom of extensive railway sidings and associated paraphernalia generated by a large gold-mining city.
It was dark as we were ushered to a group of modern coaches to learn that we were unable to visit the Fimiston Open Pit due to the dangerous electrical activity. Colloquially known as the ‘Super Pit’ this giant of modern mining is an oblong hole some 3.5km long, 1.5km wide and 570 metres deep conceived by amalgamating a number of traditional mining leases. They say it is clearly visible from space. This is the largest open cut gold mine in Australia and is worked by 550 employees 24 hours a day 365 days a year producing some 850,000 ounces of gold per year. At night it would have presented a frightening experience of man’s exploitation of the environment or a celebration of technological advancement depending on one’s point of view. In the event the West Australian Museum, Kalgoorlie was opened for our viewing and all aspects of mining were on show including much of the machinery. It wasn’t the best of visits and I did hear that the Great Southern Rail is rethinking the Kalgoorlie experience.
During the night we continued due west and by morning passed through the West Australian wheat belt to arrive in
Perth on time at 9.10am, Saturday morning. The journey confirmed that Australia is still a large empty country and we recommend this is a good way to see it. It did lack that frisson of danger usually associated with epic journeys which on reflection maybe no bad thing. The Great Southern Rail runs a similar train from Adelaide to Darwin called ‘The Ghan’. They will see us on board sometime soon.