Indian Pacific: Kalgoorlie & The Nullarbor Plain

The second of a three part account of a journey undertaken with my father 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 Nullarbor Plain.

We had left the hinterlands of Perth and the Swan Valley a long way to the west behind us. It was now only small towns we were passing through as we made our way further inland, further into the interior. There were many farms which were clearly quite huge, we were right in the middle of the wheat belt after all, and slowly but surely the land was beginning to appear more untamed and less inhabited. At one point we passed a series of strange colored pools and lakes, probably caused by mineral deposits, and there was a beauty about their appearance which in the late afternoon sunlight was both haunting and mesmeric. The quality of my thoughts changed as well, and as if reflecting the lands we were riding through they were becoming less crowded. At this stage there was a sense which I can only describe as slate wiped clean; no religion here to speak of, people in this part of the world were too busy, too far away from anywhere to worry about things like that.

As the light slowly began to fade Dad and I knew we would soon be called back to the dining car for dinner so we made our way down the narrow corridors to the lounge. Most of the potato heads were already there, with the quiet murmur of conversation going on from all the fogies sitting on the sofas. Whilst I had a beer Dad stuck to Coke, he was still fighting off the cold he’d picked up in Freemantle and thought that keeping off the booze was still the best option. He had felt better today but it was probably a sensible decision for him to have another couple of days without alcohol. For both of us our evenings in Freemantle had been an extremely enjoyable mix of cold beers drank in the bars followed by fish and chips, steak and chips, and bottles of fine wines in the restaurants. Those things didn’t come without a price; the longer you partook of them and the further down the pipe you were in terms of years, then the greater the chances it might all catch up with you. Now it was clean up time, well at least for Dad!

By the time we got to the dining car it was nearly dark outside and it was nice to know that when we returned to our rooms after dinner our beds would have already been made by our coach attendant who, after her introductory chat to us in Perth, had made herself pretty scarce. Our dining companions on this occasion were a couple of old timers from Margaret River, they were not a couple in the sense they had been married to each other for the last 50 years like Mum and Dad, but rather they’d hitched up with each other in late retirement after their original partners had made their ways into the Great Beyond. Dad was able to talk to them about his previous visits to Oz which of course went way back to 1950s when he was a young man and a sailor on the high seas. The old man, who was in his late 80s but still looking pretty fit, had owned some kind of property business before selling up many years ago to live a life of leisure, nestled away in South West Australia, far from the maddening crowd. They were good company and were on their way to Sydney to stay with the woman’s relations, something she was very excited about, but which he seemed indifferent towards at best. As we made our way through a perfectly acceptable three course dinner we all asked each other if we would be signing up for the late evening tour of Kalgoorlie on offer when the train pulled into the station. This was something which the brochure for the Indian-Pacific had made quite a big deal about. Kalgoorlie was an old, quite famous gold mining town on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain and which was still very much active, in fact it currently had the world’s largest open cast gold mine. The brochure had described the late night guided tour around the town and to the gold mine in such glowing terms that seemingly only a fool would pass up on the opportunity to sign up for it. All of us had therefore decided to go on the tour as it was either that or trying to get to sleep in our berths whilst the train was pulled up alongside the platform in Kalgoorlie station.     

Once we had made our way back to our cabins our beds for the night had been made up which meant our only option was to lie back and wait for the tour to be announced. The available space in my cabin was now down to the bare minimum with there being just about enough room for me to stand up and use the wash basin but not to do much else. Dressing would have to be done whilst sitting on the bed and there was no question of visitors in the form of Dad being able to get in without having to stand in the corridor and talk to me through the open door. I rested on my bed and read through the notes I had written so far during the course of the late afternoon, trying my best not to think they were a load of old crap, and I played some more Miles Davis on my ipod whilst editing some of the shots I had taken with my digital camera. It was not long before the train rolled into Kalgoorlie and once it came to a stop we got off even though we still had at least a half hour to wait before the tour coaches turned up. They were due to arrive only when the second sitting for dinner had finished, when the blues were done in other words. It was now around 9 pm and in the mid evening of the wide and empty streets of Kalgoorlie the air felt fresh and invigorating, as if it had blown over wide open spaces from every direction to get there, which I guess it actually had. I took the opportunity to make a call to Dawa Dolkar on my mobile and I got through to her back in London straight away. The reception was as clear as a bell and we talked for a good 20 minutes which was great considering my current location on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain, wonderful even. As far as the deal on my mobile was concerned I thought I was doing pretty well, and it was a cause of great satisfaction to me, so far I had made numerous calls in Australia either to do with our travel arrangements or to speak to our relative Christine in Adelaide, as well as frequent calls to Dawa Dolkar back in Europe and I still had loads of credit to play with.

It was getting on towards 9.40 pm when the two buses finally pulled out of the station to begin our tour of Kalgoorlie. Dad and I of course sat and we soon found ourselves entertained by our coach driver and his humorous commentary as we made our way through the streets of the town and out to the mine. It was clear there were many historical bars and buildings on the main drag, but even with the various lights, illuminations and splatterings of neon, it all seemed rather quiet with not much going on. It was a Wednesday night after all, so not many of the miners would have been expected to be out there painting the town red, if that is they were ever out there painting the town red. Our driver however kept up a continuous commentary and this was probably designed to make up for some of the obvious limitations our viewing experience entailed due to the fact it was dark, in fact in places it was very dark and pretty much dead as a doornail. The Kalgoorlie open cast gold mine was a few miles outside of town and there were a number of seriously large road wagons coming from its direction which indicated that it was indeed still busy. When we disembarked and made our way to the viewing station high above the mine, gazing down into it was a truly impressive sight, even at night. Over the years many layers of earth had been quarried out and far below us on the flat strip of earth which was the mine face, there stood various portable huts and buildings along with two massive diggers which were being used to extract the earth. Our driver told us these two machines were Komatsu diggers and each one cost some millions of AU dollars, something which didn’t surprise me in the least judging by the size of them. He told us they had caterpillar tracks the height of our coach, fuel tanks which could hold up to 15,000 litres of gas and they could only move between 2 km and 5 km an hour. Even from the distance we were viewing from it was clear as day they were extremely big pieces of kit that could probably dig on down to the depths of hell.

There was a steady stream of trucks either slowly crawling up the tracks from out of the mine laden full of earth, or making their way back down to be filled up again. All of the trucks had their headlights on full beam. We told by our driver that this was a twenty four hour operation seven days a week all year round without stop. Mine workers flew into Kalgoorlie for three week stretches all strictly on contract, far removed from the image of speculative gold diggers of old leading wild lives in remote places. For each ton of earth which was dug out of the ground, a mere 2 grams of gold was extracted with the rest pummeled into powder at two huge mills next to the mine. The reason why this huge operation was in existence was the simple fact that the price of gold on the world markets was so high that mining it was still economically viable.

There was no doubt that our view of the gold mine was the highlight of the Kalgoorlie tour, in fact it was the only thing worth seeing and the sensible thing to do after we had finished was to take us straight back to the train. Unfortunately however the tour did not end there, as our driver proceeded to take us on a long trip through the rest of Kalgoorlie, something which would have been boring enough under the light of the midday sun, but in the dark was totally pointless. His anecdotes and stories became less and less amusing as the tour wore on and it became clear to both Dad and I that he was just spinning the whole thing out for as long as possible, as if to justify to himself it was a worthwhile trip he was taking us on. Next to me I could feel Dad getting seriously itchy feet and wishing like hell the driver would just shut up and take us back to the train so he could hole up in his cabin. Eventually this is what happened but only after we had been given a tour of some obscure parts of the town before ending up in the Kalgoorlie red light district which comprised of a bunch of large bungalow bordellos. We waved to some ladies of the night standing in the doorways of these rather desperate looking places where business was clearly zilch. The fact of the matter was that the mining which now took place in Kalgoorlie was strictly professional and those gold rush days with their bar brawls, endless whoring and shots in the night were long since over.

We were both mighty glad to get back on the Indian-Pacific after what seemed like a mammoth, largely pointless tour around town and we soon both retired to our cabins for the night. I read for quite a while by the light of my bed lamp before turning it off and losing myself in those crazy jazz patterns woven by Miles Davis on his magnificent Bitches Brew album; crazy voodoo, chasing dream paths somehow entirely appropriate for the landscape we were in. I must have dozed off after a little while but woke with a start and realized the train had still not moved. I checked the time and worked out we had been in the station at Kalgoorlie for the last four hours. Going nowhere! Eventually we moved off and soon were slowly rocking along, but not in a way which helped me sleep, although the tracks were straight as an arrow they felt rough and lacked any kind of soothing rhythm to lull me off into the land of nod. The next morning I awoke at around 6.30 and when I pulled up the blind I was greeted by my first sight of the famed Nullarbor Plain through the early morning mist. Our coach attendant knocked on my door and handed me a cup of coffee at 6.45 so I propped myself up in bed slowly drinking it whilst staring out of the window. By the time I had negotiated washing my face and brushing my teeth in the very small basin, Dad was knocking on my door, telling me it was time for us to make our way down to the dining car for breakfast. He looked pretty rough and it was obvious he had not slept well, all the same I asked him how it had been for him and he did indeed tell me he had slept very badly, to which I replied by telling him I hadn’t slept that good either. We both readily agreed there had been too many bumps in the night and our beds were so narrow that turning over in them had been a bit of a major operation.

By 8.30 breakfast was over and it was back along the narrow corridors to our cabins for us to continue the long ride across the Nullarbor Plain. At around 11 in the morning there was a planned stop for a brief tour of Cook, an abandoned town on the Nullarbor and pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Back in my cabin I got my notepad out and carried on with my writing from where I had left off the previous afternoon. Soon I was feeling good, the words were flowing, strange words by the look of them, but I did not want to pay them much attention, because I was beginning to get mesmerized by the stark beauty of the Nullarbor Plain and wanted its spirit to flow through me. As I had hoped, it looked like I was finding those words I had come for, excavating them from the sky, the wide blue sky of the Nullarbor, pulling them down from out of nowhere and briefly holding their strange shapes in my hands by way of scribbling them. They were not the words I had been expecting to find and they were not being written in the way I had expected to write them, but that was all the better because in their purest sense those things were always impossible to foresee with any degree of accuracy.  By around 9.30 the morning mist had lifted and the skies were clear, revealing the landscape in all its clarity, and soon the paradox that less is more had never felt more true.

Dad was busy with his digital camera taking loads of shots, just like me, in between all the other things I was doing; map, notes, music on my ipod etc. We made our way into each other’s cabins from time to time, just to see what the view was like on the other side and take some different snaps, but in all honesty there was a uniformity to the landscape which was almost staggering. At the end of our Gold Class carriage there was a small kitchen in which we could make as much tea and coffee as we wanted. Around 10 or so in the morning I made a cup of tea for me and Dad which we each drank whilst staring out the window at the Nullarbor Plain; an immensity which presented itself for mile after mile in scenes of the distinctly familiar yet ever so slightly different to anything we had ever seen before in our lives. There was a lot of repetition in the words I was writing, little variations here and there, but more or less they were all on the same theme, which was fine as that was what the Nullarbor seemed to be, a constant series of repetitions with subtle changes happening only every now and then. The sudden appearance of a tree on the horizon became a big event and if a town had suddenly appeared filled with buildings and cars it would have been simply mind blowing! At one point we passed a man leaning against a pick-up truck and staring up at the train as it rolled on past him. He was the only person I had seen for hours and it made me ask to myself those obvious questions – What was he doing out there? Where had he come from? Where was he going? 

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