A three part account of a journey with my father undertaken on the Indian Pacific from Perth in Western Australia to Adelaide in South Australia visiting places along the way such as Kalgoorlie, Cook and the awe inspiring Nullarbor Plain.
Wednesday morning was another fine day and after breakfast we got our stuff together and made our way down to the foyer where we checked out of the Esplanade in Freemantle. We said goodbye to the friendly concierge girl who proceeded to call a taxi for us as Dad pressed another couple of Aussie bucks into her open hand which then clasped tightly shut. We had to get to Perth West train station in order to catch the Indian-Pacific which departed at 11.55 in the morning and which we would be travelling on for the next couple of days, all the way to the city of Adelaide in South Australia.
We had bags of time which was just as we had planned it. Dad liked to arrive early when it came to catching planes or trains, very early in fact, otherwise he would find it hard to relax. That was OK with me, I was pretty much the same myself when it came to those situations, although not as extreme. It turned out that our taxi driver was a Bosnian who had arrived in Australia in the mid-90s after being displaced by the vicious wars in the Balkans. He was a very nice man and a fine example of how Australia can still very much be the land of dreams for people if you were prepared to put in the effort to make it happen. He told us he had now bought a house with a swimming pool and employed another driver in his small taxi business, and that he already had many things he would never have dreamt of getting if he had stayed in Europe. It was revealing in that although there was the heartbreak of leaving friends and family behind in Bosnia, it seemed that in the long run being able to get to Australia was the best thing which had ever happened to him. I doubted if he would have disagreed with such an analysis, even if at the beginning of his journey 15 years ago he would probably never have dared to hope things would have turned out so well.
We arrived at the train station with well over an hour to spare and after Dad gave the happy Bosnian a generous tip, something which made him even happier, we deposited ourselves in the large waiting hall and got a couple of coffees. After about half an hour or so I got up to have a stroll around and realized that in the section of the station where we were waiting there was little to indicate how you were supposed to check in for the Indian-Pacific. In fact there was nothing at all, which seemed rather odd. I therefore took a longer walk and soon realized that we were at the wrong end of the station and there was already a queue of people waiting to leave their bags and check in at an Indian-Pacific kiosk some distance away from where we were. I briskly walked back and told Dad the news and that we had to get a move on down to the other end of the station in order to get things sorted. Dad immediately sprang into action and within five minutes we were at the back of the queue for the Indian-Pacific, feeling like we had nearly got badly caught out.
As we stood there and observed the scene it started to dawn on us that our imminent ride on the Indian-Pacific was maybe not going to be quite what we thought it was going to be. The brochure had painted a picture of it all being a seamless gold star service in which you were in the lap of luxury from start to finish. It now looked like it might not be that way. The poor signage for the train and the haphazard way people were waiting to check in with all their stuff strewn around them rather gave the game away. The baggage staff also looked a rough and ready crew who were very fussy as to what you could or could not check in as baggage for it to be stored away. No item was to weigh over 20 kilos and it soon became apparent that as far as that was concerned there was no room for any compromise. People whose bags were one or two kilos over the limit were told in no uncertain terms they were to take the excess weight out of their baggage and carry it on board the train instead. It seemed like a bit of the old health and safety was kicking in as far as the luggage handlers were concerned, as the simple fact of the matter was they were not going to touch anything which was even a gram overweight.
The mastermind behind this operation was a middle aged female bruiser who barked out instructions and stood behind the counter with a pair of glasses on which had extra thick lenses that made her look decidedly unintelligent. When it was our turn to drop off our bags she wasted no time in telling us we had not got our boarding cards and that without them we would not be able to check in our bags. Standing beside me, Dad quickly turned red with anger when we were greeted with this information, especially when it was relayed to us in such an impolite manner, but fortunately the ticket office was nearby so we got ourselves out of the queue for out ticketing to get sorted as soon as possible. The point about all this was that there was a complete lack of any signs or guidance to assist you, you were very much left to figure things out for yourself. If the Indian-Pacific had employed just one person whose responsibility was to answer questions and to direct people so that they did things in the correct order it would have made all the difference. But no, this was the railways Aussie style, Indian Pacific or no, where things were obviously done different. The girl at the ticket office was initially confused by the voucher I handed across, as if she had never seen anything like it in her life before. Fortunately I had studied it closely before giving it to her so I was immediately able to point to where our all important booking reference was located. Once she had seen this and then punched it into the computer all was fine, the computer didn’t say no so she didn’t say no either, which meant that without any more fuss she handed us our pair of boarding cards for the train. Now we could finally check in!
Back at the baggage queue the woman wearing the glasses with thick lenses had one parting shot for us before we boarded and it was a good one. Once our bags had been weighed and deposited the baggage handler behind the scales told Dad, in answer to one of his questions about security, that he had nothing to worry about now that his bags were checked in and he wouldn’t see them now until he got off the train in Sydney. Well, we were not going to Sydney of course, only as far as Adelaide! It soon transpired that the bossy four eyed twat of a woman had tied Dad’s bags with labels for Sydney instead ones for Adelaide and it was just luck on our part that her potentially catastrophic error had been spotted. Otherwise Dad would have got off the train in Adelaide and his baggage would not have been there waiting for him which would have undoubtedly seen him hit the roof. We quickly got the woman to rectify her mistake, which she did despite being somewhat aggravated by her blunder as if it was somehow our fault. Although a major incident was narrowly averted I could already see that Dad’s confidence in the Indian-Pacific had taken a bit of a battering and let’s face it who could blame him?
Before boarding the Indian-Pacific we were greeted by the entire crew of the train who lined up on the platform and performed some ritual of welcome which was mildly embarrassing but thankfully brief, and which finished with them all waving their hats in the air. It was a very long train, and as I was to discover later, it even had carriages hitched on the back of it for transporting cars. Our berths were in the Gold Class carriage which was the best the Indian Pacific had to offer and they were actually rather expensive. For the money we had paid for them it would have been possible to fly to India and back from London in superior economy on British Airways, in other words each ticket cost the best part of 800 quid. Apart from Gold Class there was also Red Class which was the standard class and as I was to later discover, something to be avoided at all costs, as what you had was not a bed but just a seat. To sit on a seat on a train travelling across the width of Australia from Perth to Sydney, west to east, was not something to be taken lightly as far as I was concerned.
Once we had finally boarded we soon discovered our carriage had a twisting narrow corridor through which we had to make our way down in order to find our cabins. It was a dark, narrow corridor which was not wide enough for people coming in opposite directions to pass each other without one of them having to retreat and give way. Once we were inside our cabins and had off loaded our hand baggage, all we could do was sit and wait for our attendant to come along to introduce herself and give us the low down as to what was to happen on the train for the next couple of days. In the cabin opposite me was an old timer who was going all the way to Sydney and whom I soon discovered had severe verbal diarrhea as he just couldn’t stop talking. When the attendant popped her head into his cabin, supposedly just to give him a brief introduction as to what the form was on the train, he had her completely trapped. He rattled on to her about God knows what for at least fifteen minutes and it was clear she did not possess the ability to extricate herself from the situation. This meant that she was unable to attend to the other passengers until she had got a clear signal from him that he had said enough to her. When that signal eventually came she promptly walked straight past my berth and onto Dad’s, which funnily enough was something I expected to happen, as if my cabin had suddenly become invisible to her. The encounter with this old guy had been enough to fry her brains to the extent that she completely forgot that she had me to attend to as well, or least pop her head round the door. After she had gone through the introduction to the Indian Pacific for Dad, I had to call her back and get her to explain it all to me. She did not appear to be embarrassed that she had forgotten me, if anything she was just mildly annoyed that I had interrupted her, and when after just a couple of minutes she was done she waddled off and left me to it. So that was the kind of Gold Class service we were going to get on the Indian Pacific!
When the train slowly pulled out of Perth it was exactly midday and we were informed that lunch was going to be in about an hour. Our attendant had given Dad and I the choice of either having a red meal ticket or a blue one, with red meaning we would always be on the first sitting for food and blue meaning that we would be on the second. We had chosen red tickets, something which I was happy about, as I always hated the idea of having to wait for food whilst others were already eating. It did not suit my mental disposition as, somewhat shamefully, I knew that I was capable of worrying over such things as to whether or not there would be any food left for us if we went in second. Groundless fears for sure, pathetic really, but they could easily preoccupy me to the point of not being able to think about anything else. That those fears of mine betrayed some kind of spiritual impoverishment was obvious, but I guess when it came to feeding my belly I did not consider myself to be very sophisticated. Dad wasn’t like me in that regard, he was always prepared to take his time over such matters and whether we’d had blue or red wouldn’t have made much difference to him, which probably meant I got my food worries from my mother.
Once we had begun to slowly roll through the outer suburbs of Perth and into the Swan Valley I got up and checked on how Dad was settling into his cabin. It was on the opposite side of the narrow twisting corridor to mine, which meant he would be having a completely different view for the whole of the journey, although after a certain point we were to discover that the view was pretty much the same in every direction. We both noted there was a distinct cell like feel to the cabins and that everything in them was so cram packed that any space was at an absolute premium. This meant that whilst it was quite comfortable for one person to sit alone in their cabin it was not that practical for them to have any company, as once two people were inside there things got ridiculously cramped.
When I was sitting in Dad’s cabin I had to perch myself on his footrest whilst he occupied the main chair, as there simply nowhere else for me to go. The consequence of this was that you could only visit other cabins for a short period of time, otherwise it soon got very uncomfortable. The fold down stainless steel basin which were to be used to wash our faces in and to brush our teeth was also dangerous once it was filled with water. Not only did it splash all over the place if it was filled too high, it also had be slowly and mindfully emptied, otherwise the rocking motion of the train on the tracks ensured that you could easily give yourself a bit of a soaking. Anyway, after about five or so minutes of chatting with Dad and speculating with him as to what we might get for lunch, I was back in my cabin and on my own again.
By the time lunch was ready we were both pretty hungry as it had been a long time since our breakfast at The Esplanade in Freemantle. As soon the reds were called we were out of our cabins and walking down the twisting narrow corridors to the dining car which was about three carriages along heading towards the front and in the direction of the engine. We passed quite a number of cabins with people still in them, the blues presumably, people who were either staring out the windows, reading or knitting, quite a few of them looking half dead! As soon as we walked into the bar lounge, which was the last coach before the dining carriage, a wave of disappointment washed over me as I saw that it was already full and what was more it was packed with oldies, fogies, whatever it is you want to call them. Surveying the scene with more than a little dismay, it was not too much of an exaggeration to say that one of the closest people to me in terms of age was Dad once the train cabin crew were taken out of the equation. It was certainly enough to knock the wind out of my sails that was for sure, as it immediately made me feel that I was in little more than an old peoples’ home on wheels, the Geriatric Express no less, albeit a pretty expensive one. They also looked like such a dull bunch of fossilized old potato heads that I did not feel like talking with any of them. So much for my fine idea of us taking the Indian-Pacific! In a single moment it became very clear to me why cheap air flights were so popular, at least you wouldn’t be stuck for days on end with fogies, people you simply didn’t want to see. Still, there was no point in getting depressed about it as there was certainly no alternative, because we were on board until Adelaide with no chance of getting off. We would both have to grin and bear it, but there was no doubt that Dad felt the same as me because I could see him gritting his teeth and looking pretty desolate. He knew damn well they were potato heads, Aussie fogies, and that he would have to work damn hard to get any kind of spark out of them.
Lunch turned out to be pretty good, nothing like what we had been used to in the eating houses of Freemantle of course, but not too bad at all and I have to say that through the whole of the ride to Adelaide the dining car maintained the same satisfactory standard. In the dining car the way it worked was that two couples sat at each table which meant we potentially had different company for every meal. For this first lunch we sat with a friendly enough couple from Sydney who had driven out west and now hitched their car to one of the wagons at the end of the Indian-Pacific in order to take the train ride back. Maybe they weren’t such potato heads after all, as after my experience of just driving from Perth to Albany earlier in the week, I knew that to drive the whole way from east to west, whatever route you took, was no casual undertaking.
Lunch and dinner was three courses every time and the decent portions of what was above average cuisine was more than enough to keep people happy throughout the journey. As the trip wore on and we talked with the other diners, it became clear that for a significant proportion of our fellow travelers one of the main reasons why they were making the journey was for the food and drink. It was not simply a question of using the train just to get from one place to another, for them it was more a case that being on a train like the Indian Pacific was a holiday in itself. They were happy just to sit there and watch the world go by and I suppose the more that became clearer to me the more my feelings towards them softened. It was also worth noting that Dad and I seemed to be the only travelers who were not Australian, something which was a bit of a surprise, as I had expected the train to be full of people from all around the world, but not a bit of it. The vast majority were Aussies living out their retirement time by taking trips on trains going through the middle of nowhere, and nowhere was something Australia just so happened to have rather a lot of.
Back in the cabin again after lunch I got my notepad out and began writing down a few notes whilst I stared out the window at the slowly changing landscape. I was hoping that the note taking would prove to be an integral part of my survival kit for the next couple of days, supported by sessions of studying my map, reading my book, listening to my ipod and playing around with my digital camera. Before the trip I had honed in on the train ride from Perth to Adelaide – especially the part across the Nullabor Plain – as being a major opportunity for me to get some writing done. When I say writing, I mean something in the sense of putting down a stream of consciousness piece on paper, something which would accurately reflect my inner experience of being on the Indian Pacific whilst travelling across such a strange and vast landscape as the Australian interior. I was quite nervous about it if truth be told, as I really did not want to blow it, I knew it would be my one and only chance to find words which would only be available during the course of the next 48 hours. After that the ride would be over, then anything I tried to do about it would be too late; it was now or never, which meant I had to get to work.
It felt forced and strained as I slowly began to write things down, occasional snatches appeared here and there but I knew I felt too self-conscious, too in control, too concerned about making it look how I thought it should be, rather than just giving the process the space to take its own shape and rhythm, something which could never be contrived. This meant I was able to write for a little while but then I would have to stop once I realized I was forcing things, trying too hard just fill the space on the page with scribble. But at least I had started and for the moment time was still on my side. The next couple of hours as the afternoon wore on, saw me jump from writing to listening to my ipod – on which I had late 60s early 70s Miles Davis, particularly Bitches Brew, Big Fun and On the Corner – to tracing out our journey on my map, to getting up and checking in on Dad, to sitting back and reading a page or two from one of my books, to taking shots of the changing scenes with my digital camera. Time soon passed as I got used to this slow motion form of multi tasking and I have to say I really began to enjoy it, with the result that the more I got used to it, the more natural the flow of the words became.