Day 3 of the “Ultimate Australian Rail Holiday” 20th May 2016
When we greet the dawn of a new day we have no idea where we are. It seems like the middle of nowhere. Imagine our surprise when, about half an hour later, we notice a lone photographer set up on the edge of what appears to be a lake covered in only a thin film of water. Or salt. I rub my eyes again. Yes. It is definitely a salt plain, reflecting the sky. But . . .how did he get there? And why? And . . . where the heck are we?
Each cabin is supplied with a timetable and glossy map, so we can take a stab at a place name, and guess that we are somewhere near Pimba (see map below), which is close to Woomera, about 446 kilometres (277 mi) north-west of Adelaide. That means we have either travelled at much less than average speed, or spent a lot of time stationary at stations and sidings en route, which would account for the better night’s sleep. The map shows large slabs of land marked Woomera Prohibited Area. Some may recognise its history as a rocket and missile testing range, and also space tracking – a huge area that can be compared to the size of England. A part of it called Maralinga was used by the British for nuclear testing. It too is marked on the map – we are still many hours away from that spot.
I had never heard of this salt plain though. Subsequent research reveals that we were looking at Lake Gairdner, and that every year it hosts the Dry Lake Racers. Live and learn.
I don’t know whether we are officially on the Nullarbor though. I am not sure whether the distinction of being on the “No Tree” plain begins at Port Augusta or Tarcoola. Tarcoola, eta 9.30am, is also the junction for The Ghan, the train which connects Adelaide with Darwin. We are due on that later in this trip.
The map below may help orient readers. The east-west boundary of Woomera Prohibited Area extends roughly from Pimba to Ooldea, a straight line distance of 500km (330 mi). Also relatively close to Pimba (about an hour’s drive north-east) is Roxby Downs, a purpose-built mining town which services the BHP Billiton Olympic Dam mine – copper, uranium, silver and gold. However, we saw no sign of that from the train.
I’d love to tell you that our morning was spent spotting wildlife such as kangaroos, wombats and camels, but no such luck. Nor, however, is the Nullarbor a desert. It is flat, semi-arid, mostly red, stony in parts, dotted in saltbush, and mesmerising in a “did I just doze off again?” kind of way. Part of the delight in being on the Indian Pacific, however, is spending time in the lounge car, and in between breakfast and lunch we alternate between being there and being in our cabin. (Canadian readers – what’s the chances of meeting two women on the same train carriage, previously unknown to each other, but both originating from Saskatchewan ?)
From Ooldea, we can guarantee that the ride will be smooth and direct, as for the next 478 km (297 mi) the track becomes the world’s longest dead-straight stretch, until we reach Loongana.
We are due for a whistle-stop tour at Cook, where we will change drivers, and take on diesel -and water (I think). Although how the water gets to this town, a population of 4 (2009) is a mystery. I guess a freight train brings it in. Our timetable says we will arrive at 2.25pm and leave at 1.55pm, which has me confused until I realise this is the point we will switch from Central Standard Time to Western Standard Time, as we are relatively close to the West Australian border.
Cook is not close to anything else. It’s reason for being was to support the Trans Australia Railway, but it effectively became a ghost town when the railways privatised in the late 90s. It once boasted an airstrip, a pub, a school, two jail cells and a bush hospital. (“Crook” is Australian slang for sick – see photo below). There are still several dwellings in the town. Some are obviously occupied by residents, others would be for train crew and other transients. There are some interesting murals around the town though, so there is at least one “artist in residence“.
We crossed the border (not that you can tell) near Deakin, at around 3.30pm. Trust me, the blurry sign, taken through the cabin window as we sped along the Nullarbor Plain, says: “Welcome to Western Australia“.
Having barely digested lunch, I am already excited about dinner. We are to dine on a traditional roast, under the stars at a railway siding called Rawlinna. Adjacent is the relatively “young” pastoral lease of Rawlinna Station, established in 1962. According to Wikipedia, the station (ranch/farm) has held between 40,000 and 80,000 sheep, dependant on weather conditions. In 2001 78,417 sheep were shorn for 2177 bales of wool, while the 2014 figure is closer to 53,000 sheep for 1285 bales. The station also has a lime mine, with the extraction being used in the gold production process at nearby Kalgoorlie. This is background information only, we are not scheduled to visit either the property or Kalgoorlie on this crossing.
In the event, our stop is a little rushed, but still a lot of fun. Somehow we have got off schedule, and the ever friendly staff are under the pump to get us all off the train, settled on the benches that have been set up at the siding, serve us our meals, clean up and get us back on the train.
I don’t mind. “I’ve paid me penny, and now I wants me show,” I tell everyone. It is a festive air, lit by hurricane lamps and camp fires. I’m pleased to discover that our musician, Sam, did not get off in Adelaide, and is set up to entertain us. He takes requests also, and is too polite to make fun of a mature-aged woman who wants “Born to Be Wild.” After all, “Get your motor runnin’” can refer to our inner motivation, and we are certainly “Head(ing) out on the highway, Lookin’ for adventure” and I am eager for “whatever comes our way“.
Bill got into the “excitement” zone tonight also – opting to take the upper bunk for tonight’s sleep 🙂
transgression / digression: The photo from Cook commemorating the linking of the rails reminded me of a poster we had in the foyer of a previous workplace. Two rail gangs were constructing a line that was to meet in the middle, just like this one, but missed badly. The caption was, “Thank God it’s Friday!“.
We also had another poster which read: “It’s not that we’re inefficient, it’s just that the secrecy of our job prevents us from knowing what we are doing.”
That was back in the 70s when it didn’t all seem so darn serious. There’s a certain lightness of touch gone from the current workplace don’t you think? Anyway, several of us from those days are still in touch and we caught up in Adelaide later in this trip. More in a later post.
For Reference: We booked our tour through the Australian Holiday Centre.