Day 3 of the The Indian Pacific Sydney – Perth

Day 3 of the “Ultimate Australian Rail Holiday” 20th May 2016 

Dawn on Day 3 Indian Pacific 2016-05-20

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.

Indian Pacific Map

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“.

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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“.

"Welcome to Western Australia"

“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“.

Dinner under the stars at Rawlinna

Dinner under the stars at Rawlinna

Cleaning up after Dinner under the Stars at Rawlinna

Cleaning up after Dinner under the Stars at Rawlinna

Bill got into the “excitement” zone tonight also – opting to take the upper bunk for tonight’s sleep 🙂

A small 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.

22 thoughts on “Day 3 of the The Indian Pacific Sydney – Perth

  1. What a wonderful trip. I appreciate you putting the map in as it helps me get some perspective. Honestly, I don’t see myself getting to Australia but if I did I would certainly want to take this rail trip to really see the country.

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    • It is very interesting. I had an English friend who hoped to do it, but that never came to be. Australia is so far away, and so big, and travel is expensive. I am wondering if I will ever get to the States. I have only been to Hawaii so far. Loved that!

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      • I agree, Hawaii is pretty awesome. My husband just doesn’t have any interest in traveling outside the US. He spent many years in the military and saw all of the world he cares to see. I keep waiting for one of my kids to travel and invite me along. I guess if I had a big desire to see the world I would make it happen but so far I am content to see much more of the states that I have not yet seen.

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        • We are deliberately trying to see much more of Australia, so I imagine that will be our focus for some time to come. Sometimes we get so excited about the exotic nature of foreign fields that we overlook our own backyard! Even if you took a full twelve months to explore the USA, you would still only be spending a week in each state more or less. And I bet they are all different.

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          • That is an interesting way to put it. We love our road trips and really have been broadening our horizons to see more. Sometimes it’s hard too much focus on some favorite places and revisit them. Retirement as allowing us more opportunities!

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          • For a while I was tempted to hire a campervan and spend a year in the States. I discarded the idea when I realised it would mean such a short time in each place. Quite apart from considering whether I could live in a van for a year. But it is food for thought.

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  2. I first crossed the Nullabor in ’66 when it was still an unsealed road full of holes filled with genuine ‘bull dust’, one of the best trips I ever had took some days back then with no comforts. Well what would you expect in a n International 20 wheeler?

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    • When I was doing that post, I was tempted to write an anecdote about how I met the road gang that was sealing the SA section in the early seventies. They’d come into town every six weeks or so, cashed up and looking to socialise (that’s a polite term). We spent all Easter at the Adelaide airport because it had a bar that stayed open late. Afterwards, I was evicted from my flat. My lovely little-old-lady neighbours found it all a bit too much. Fair enough, when you consider they were probably born in the late 1800s. Anyway, the road gang had a bit to say about the condition of the Nullarbor, and they brought plenty of bull-dust & bull-s..t back with them. Oh hang on! Maybe they thought they were making conversation. Your trip would have been a great experience. Were you driving or passenger? – Or maybe even hitch-hiking?

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      • Actually I had planned to fly but my brother was a shipping bloke and tied up with the opening iron ore industry and he talked me into going as a side kick to a semi driver, so I went from Melbourne via Adelaide and Port Hedland, we left Melbourne day before Cup day in 66 and finally arrived in Perth a week or so before christmas. Needless to say it wasan unusual trip. The Nullabor took it;s toll, and the ‘bulldust’ is genuine dust, there were great holes in the dirt road full of the stuff and you’d hit one the bull dust would fly everywhere and you’d stop to fix the damage to the truck, Yo’d look for the big hole but couldn’t see it , it had filled up with bull dust again waiting for the next unsuspecting travellors.

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    • I did people watch, and sometimes I take surreptitious photos, but I don’t post them on social media (usually). One of the chaps had a certain way with me, trying to get me to respond to his ragging, but I told him “I’ve met PLENTY of your type in the shipping industry . . . I know what you’re doing.” – He backed off then, and became my ally instead. So now, there’s a character build in the making, don’t you think? (speaking of which, I must get back to my Liz Thurlow stories one day).

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  3. Another excellent post. Your meeting the Canadian women reminds me of my Australian cousin, Gillian, who emigrated to Adelaide from England as a teenager. Many years later she came to visit my parents in South London. Naturally I joined them. And naturally I would not have recognised her. The next day I fought my way into a crowded tube train at Oxford Circus. Many people were standing. I squeezed past them to the one empty seat. Guess who was sitting next to me!!

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  4. Certainly looks atmospheric and sounds like you enjoyed yourself! Now I’ve got that song in my head and after wracking my brains to remember the group I gave in and Googled it and, of course, Steppenwolf!! Deh 😡

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