Day 1 of our Broken Hill adventure began with our pre-dawn arrival at Sydney Central railway station to catch the Outback Explorer operated by the NSW state railway. This organisation used to have the sensible name of “Countrylink” which kind of suggested that you could use them to catch a train to the country. Then they re-badged as “TrainLink“, and I don’t know what that is meant to suggest . . . that you can use one train to catch another perhaps? Ah bien, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” as they say in the tropics. Never mind who is running the show, it is the same actual train, i.e. the Xplorer type, capacity 1600 litres of fuel, enough for a 1600km trip, and with each carriage capable of operating independently.
THE TRIP – as recorded in real time . . .
At 6.18am, after several announcements of imminent departure, and commands to leave the train now (!) if you are not travelling, the Outback Explorer to Broken Hill pulled away from the platform gently, creaking and swaying from side to side, then bobbing up and down.
Outside, the sun is not yet up, and the street lights are still on as we skim past the suburbs of Sydney. Within ten minutes we reach Strathfield – our very first stop on this long journey, and a major connecting hub for trains coming from other directions. Early morning commuters stare back at our eager faces. Today is another Monday work day for them. We are the lucky ones going off an adventure.
Second stop, Parramatta. It is only 6.45am. We are in the suburbs of my youth. They seemed so far flung then. Some of the station buildings are very familiar, but the surroundings have changed. More glass, more metal, higher buildings.
Now we are speeding through the outer Western suburbs, the stations flashing by so quickly we cannot catch their name. The sky is light at last, and we see patches of mist on playing fields, even though as early as 5.30am we could feel the warmth in the air. It has been a humid summer. The mist on the open ground is our first hint we are nearing the foot of the mountains.
A quick check with our attendant confirms we can swap seats so that we have an uninterrupted view from the double length window, with no mullion in our way. There is an announcement that the buffet car has opened, and a few moments later, at 7am, we pull into Penrith. This marks the spot where, after crossing the Nepean River, we will commence our ascent into the Great Dividing Range. Almost immediately the clutter of suburbia drops away and we are surrounded by eucalyptus bush and sandstone rocky outcrops, with houses dotted here and there.
By 8am we have reached Katoomba, and the couple who join our carriage had come up with a smart idea. Rather than come up from the south coast (like us) and overnight in Sydney, they had pushed on the day before to join the train further up the line. So they had a night in the mountains, and a bit more sleep the next day. It reminds me that I have still not had time to blog about our wedding anniversary break at Lilianfels in Katoomba. As we whiz past the Hydro Majestic Hotel I quickly pan with the iPad video camera, and promise myself I will write about the history tour we did just two weeks before. It was marvellous to see the old dame restored to glory.
There are tantalising glimpses of the various valleys of the Blue Mountains, which I struggle to capture in video as we speed along. In the video below you can hear the carriage groaning as it strains to make the climb to the peak, and then suddenly we are on the other side and descending into the valley which is home to Lithgow, our first set-down stop (8.40am). It reminds me of a story I once wrote about Lithgow – must dig it out and see if I can enter it in a competition, I think to myself. . . . There is a lot of time for thinking to oneself on this trip 🙂
Early explorers struggled to find a way over the mountains, imagining rich farming lands beyond. What a shock to discover flat dry plains when they crossed in 1813. Nevertheless Bathurst, our next stop (9.45am), was settled relatively early, and when gold was discovered here in 1854, it became a very busy place. Just last year I stood with my cousins in front of the old house where their father was born in 1906.
We stepped off for a moment to stretch our legs, and gave our travelling companion a scare when instead of returning directly to our seat, we stopped to chat at the buffet bar. Laugh! . . she nearly started. . . Not.
By four hours after departure we are well into the western NSW farming country and have reached Blayney. Another half hour and we pull into the major station of Orange (11am), where there is a short stop for driver change. The new driver puts the train into reverse! We are travelling backwards along the track we just came in on, until he reaches the branch line junction about a kilometre along. While we wait at the signals, the attendant comes along taking orders for anyone wanting a hot lunch. He will be leaving us at the next stop. He explains his roster only has him on this run twice a year. His job takes him all over NSW on the XPT trains.
1.45pm The train rocks and rolls and squeals into Parkes. Fellow passengers who have been dozing stir themselves for a short wander up and down the platform. Outside, the landscape is the typical dry brown land of Dorothea Mackellar’s poetry. Rain has been scarce. It looks as if the farmers have been de-stocking, judging by the relatively few sheep flocks we have seen so far on this trip, and all of those are huddled under the sparse trees, sheltering from the heat of late summer which refuses to give way to autumn. There is stubble in the paddocks. I imagine the wheat has recently been harvested, except that doesn’t make complete sense, as I thought wheat was a winter crop. Perhaps it is the residue of another harvest. Or perhaps it is dead and shrivelled pasture?
I watch eagerly as we zip through Bogan Gate, and tell anyone who will listen about our trip there last April. People are always amazed there is a place of that name, as “bogan” is Aussie slang for an unrefined or unsophisticated person (and that’s the polite definition). In this case though, there was a Bogan River, and there was a gate. Well, there still is a gate actually. it’s a tourist attraction of sorts. Not too sure about the river though.
At 2.05pm we stop at Condobolin, and Bill and I agree we have never been this far west before, even though, geographically, it is still classed as part of the “Central West“. Everything directly west from here on is new country for us, although we have seen places south of this point. By now, the train is stopping at every station along the route. It is just that those stops are a looooong way apart.
By 2.45pm when we pull into Euabalong West, even I am having a momentary doze, so I missed the correct pronunciation – but I can tell you it is not “you belong”! Already we are seeing a flat, desert-like landscape filled with salt bush.
At 4.30pm we pull into Ivanhoe, gateway to the Far West region of NSW. I take care to take a photo of a disused crane because in researching this trip I came across the blog of a rail enthusiast who was very taken with it. According to the Office of Environment Heritage, Ivanhoe station is:
|. . . of local significance as a relatively intact 1920s station which includes a collection of railway structures dating from the opening of the station and yard at Ivanhoe in 1925. The small remote country railway precinct including the small 1925 station building, signal box, water tank and other related structures demonstrate widespread early 20th century railway customs, activities and design in NSW. The station building is representative of the standard 1920s precast concrete station buildings introduced for country lines during the Interwar period, and is now only one of a few that remains in NSW.|
So there! Ivanhoe railway station may look small and insignificant, but looks can be deceiving. There is even a representative from the Jehova Witnesses on hand to chat to travellers and hand out literature. By now, we have all become quite used to the idea that we can jump off the train at every stop, providing we don’t leave the platform and we listen out for the whistle. This platform is only about 20 feet long, and there is not much to wander off to anyway. All the same, you don’t want to miss getting back on a train that only runs once a week!
Safely back on the train, and a short distance down the track, I take note of many trees down, completely uprooted, with newer plantings beside them. My best guess is they have come down somehow, storm maybe, and dropped seed which has taken root and is growing. Once I noticed this, I saw it repeated often along the side of the track, with the dead tree in varying stages of decay. I am so engrossed in working out the whys and wherefores that I don’t take much notice of stop at Darnick at 5.15pm, and in any case I am also engrossed in choosing what to have for dinner. Hmmm . . . there is chicken and veggies, beef stew pickle (what?) or vegetarian lasagne. I choose the latter. It is really quite tasty, although five minutes less in the warmer wouldn’t have done it any harm . . .
Outside, the land is sparsely vegetated . . .
At 6.20pm, with dinner service over, we reach the outskirts of Menindee, and after kilometres of red dust, low scrub, stony desert stretches and wild goats, are taken aback to see a vineyard! Too slow to get a photo of that! The three car carriage just fits the platform, as we jump off for another quick stretch of the legs.
Now we are on the final stretch. We pass one of the Menindee Lakes. It is a green brown stretch of flat ground with dead trees sticking out. Every so often we spot a bird’s nest in the spindly upper branches. I wonder which type of bird is so confident to nest in such an exposed position. Possibly a hawk. I must ask our tour guide. Gazing at the dry lake, a fellow passenger quips: “No fishing, no swimming, No Water!”
The train is moving at around 130 kms (80miles) when we start to see sheep flocks. All of this area is unfenced and they scatter away from the speeding train. On the right, a single pipeline follows the line of the train track. It must be Broken Hill’s water supply, drawn from the Menindee Lakes system.
At 7.30pm the loudspeaker crackles into life. Thirteen hours after leaving Sydney we are arriving into Broken Hill – the end of the line. After travelling 1150km (715m) we are still in NSW – but only just.
Time to set our watches back half an hour.
Wayne, our friendly driver from Silver City Tours, helps us collect our luggage and board his bus for the short drive to our motel – our home for the next eight nights. Everyone has been talking about the unseasonably hot summer in Broken Hill, and when we step into our rooms the heat is stifling. Our first priority is to work out how to get the air-conditioning working 🙂 ! Luckily our rooms cool down quickly enough for us to get a reasonable night’s sleep – ready for our city tour the next morning.
ABOUT THE TEMPERATURES
Early March is just the beginning of the tourist season in Broken Hill. The St Patrick’s Day Races is a huge event we wished to avoid. We also wanted to avoid Easter, Anzac Day and the school holidays, but waiting till May was not possible in our case.
We were aware this would result in a hotter holiday, but with recorded averages of 25/15 Celsius day/night (80/60 Fahrenheit) , we thought we would cope, especially at is a dry heat. In reality, the overnight min was low 20’c and the max was mid-high 30’c (70/100 Fahrenheit), although this changed by the end of the week. And all the locals were complaining about the unusual humidity of 20%-50%. Coming from a coastal area, which is typically very high humidity, that didn’t bother me so much, but others felt it.
ABOUT THE XPLORER
In the early 90s, the government of the day tried to withdraw country passenger rail services altogether, and retired the iconic diesel Silver City Comet. That did not go over well with the electorate, as you can imagine. Consequently, the newly built Explorer was put into service around 1993.
On our trip it was run as three carriages: First Class seating and buffet, then two carriages of economy seating, one of which also had the baggage compartment. The first and third carriage are both “drivers” i.e. they can run the train. There is little difference in the internal fit-out, except that the first class seats are wider and recline further. All carriages have wide, panoramic windows and are air-conditioned – take a cardigan! There is no wi-fi on board, but if you have a SIM card in your mobile device, you will get reception intermittently, and there are a couple of power points for recharging equipment.