Indian Pacific: Cook & The Nullarbor Plain to Adelaide

The third 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.

Eventually of course a town did appear after the endless miles of plains but it was not really a town in the normal sense of the word, just the remains of one. Not really the remains of one of truth be told, but the remains of a small settlement of people who had once lived there in the middle of the vast emptiness of the Nullarbor Plain. Yes, we had arrived in Cook! It was around 11 when Dad and I got off the train and we had about 20 – 30 minutes to explore the place for ourselves, although to be honest you could have seen all there was to see in about 5 minutes flat. But that was not the point; it just felt so good to be able to stretch our legs and to walk on the earth of the Nullarbor. There was something about the freshness of the air blowing in through Cook and the silence of the plains which was fascinating by way of the sense of immensity the whole scene engendered. Mid morning and now the sun was high and bright, the sky was a brilliant blue and as we walked away from the Indian-Pacific I turned around in order to see for the first time just how long it was and realized that if Cook had had an actual station the Indian Pacific would stretched way out the other end of it.

It was difficult to imagine what it must have been like to live in Cook, but it was possible that if you got used to the isolation it could be rather wonderful in a washed up and extremely isolated kind of way. Dad was worried we might stray too far from the train and end up marooned there for days if it pulled off without us, but I really did not think there was much chance of that. For a start there were all the potato heads staggering around with us and there was no way the train would leave without them as rows of dead potato heads would not be what the Indian Pacific was looking for to put in their next brochure. After what was closer to 40 minutes rather than 20 or 30 the hooting of the engine told us all that it was time to get back on board. It turned that Cook still had a population of 4 people but they all worked on the railway and did not live there on a permanent basis, no one did.

Once back on the Indian-Pacific we did not have to sit long in our cabins before we were called for lunch. I think that now, halfway through the day and maybe a third of the way along the course of the Nullarbor Plain, Dad would have been quite happy if that had been it, our journey and the joys of the Indian-Pacific over. It was most certainly true that our cabins could easily have the feeling of a prison cell about them and that sitting in them for hour after hour could make you feel quite isolated. Once the cabin door was shut you were very much on your own with only the endless Nullarbor for company, and whatever else it was you had to occupy yourself with. Guess I was OK with it but at times it did seem surprisingly hard and I think that Dad had had enough of it. There was also the fact that being stuck in your cabin for hours on end could make things feel cramped and uncomfortable.  

After lunch, where once again we shared a table with the old timers from Margaret River, it was back to our cabins for a long afternoon spent in the solitude of our cabins, which meant I carried on with my writing. It was still going well, although if I had to be honest I didn’t know how the hell it was going to end up or how much work it would take once I was back in London to knock it into some kind of sensible shape, or even if it ever would reach any kind of sensible shape, but my intuition just told me to keep on going. So I kept at it, writing page after page of the stuff as the day slowly changed and the late afternoon shadows gradually crept onto the scene, making the red earth redder, the golden light richer and the sky bluer.

Between visits to and from Dad in his cabin, sessions of Bitches Brew, On the Corner and Big Fun on my ipod and making more than one or two cups of tea, I managed to cover quite a lot of ground. I knew it was important just to keep going as the words I was writing very much belonged to the time and space of Nullarbor and nowhere else. Once I was off the plain they would never come to me again which meant only a few more puffs of smoke and they would be gone forever. Slowly but surely the light faded as evening came along and almost unbelievably I was still writing as we headed into the dark. Guess it was more than I could have hoped for, but then again my expectations had never been that great in the first place. Just to get anything down which stretched to more than a couple of pages would have been enough for me!

For our final meal on the Indian-Pacific we were in the company of a man from the Gold Coast to the north of Sydney who was travelling alone and it was not long before he opened up to us. He had quite a sad story to tell, or at least that was how it seemed to me. For the whole of his working life he had been a delivery driver working in Sydney but one day after making a drop, a girl who was high on marijuana had mounted the pavement on which he was walking and crashed into him stoned out of her mind behind the wheel of her car. It resulted in him spending months in hospital and losing his leg at the end of it. After that he was unable to work or drive again, thrown on the dust heap and still only in his early 50s. He told us that a few years later his wife had died of cancer and so he moved out of Sydney into the modest house up on the Gold Coast where he now lived. He had no children so his small home was more than enough for him, being right by the sea and in a great location. He stayed there and lived simply, saving his money before taking off on holidays such as the one he was on now, enjoying rides across Australia. He told us it was a good life for him as when he had enough money he just stepped out of his little house, locked the door and took off into the great wide open. In fact he had been on loads of such train journeys such as the one we were on now, telling us he had crossed the vast interior of Australia many times in any direction you cared to mention.

One thing about him however was that as a result of his accident he had very strong views on drugs, very strong views indeed as a matter of fact. They were uncompromising views which were a bit scary listen to as I had no doubt that if he’d had the power to enact them he would have carried them out to the letter, personally if need be. Quite simply he believed that all drug dealers and drug traffickers should be executed with no questions asked, from those dealing and importing heroin down to local dope dealers selling a bit of weed just to get by. All the people who took drugs should be executed as well if they were not prepared to mend their ways, with no exceptions. Heavy duty stuff! The views he expressed on such matters were clearly extreme ones and I guess it was easy to goad him along when he got up a head of steam and spoke in such a forthright manner. When I mentioned other issues, like what he thought of Aborigines, he predictably gave the answers I would have expected to hear from him. Namely that Aborigines were all totally useless and the Australian government was mad to waste taxpayers money on them by building houses and other such things when all they did after a couple of months was strip them out until the accommodation was uninhabitable. Guess it was a cheap shot on my part getting him on to such subjects, but he was by no means the only person in Australia who held such opinions. His views on immigration was similarly tough and uncompromising as he was all for sinking the boats which people used in order to try to get to Australia, all for sinking the boats and letting the people in them drown. And I had no doubt that it would not cause him to lose a single minute of sleep if it ever got to the point when that actually began to happen.

When it came to our main course at dinner the man requested our waitress to make sure his lamb was particularly well done as he did not eat meat which showed any signs of red in it. He told the waitress this quite explicitly and then, when she had gone after noting down his request, he turned to us and said that he very much doubted they would follow his instructions. He told us that he liked his food simple, nothing fancy, and that when he was back home on the Gold Coast he would go down to his local supermarket, buy a big bag of frozen sausages and then live off those for weeks at a time, cooking them up each day with potatoes and a bit of veg. That was all that he needed. He couldn’t stand any of this fancy food, and although he had been on trains like the Indian-Pacific many times before, the thing which really bugged him about them was they couldn’t keep things simple when it came to the food and always served meals which were way too fancy with unnecessary sauces and garnishes.

Sure enough when his food came and he cut into his piece of lamb it was still red in the middle. He really was not surprised at all, he simply left the meat on his plate and just ate a little of the mashed potato, also leaving the spinach in an untouched heap. What was interesting was that although the waitress had clearly not followed out his request, or someone else further down the line hadn’t, he did not complain to her in a loud obnoxious manner like many people would have done, far less did he demand that his meat should be taken back and cooked again. All he did was point things out to her when she came to collect our plates, in response to which she barely showed any interest at all. There was something rather heartbreaking about it to me, compared to many people he took little from the world, his demands were pretty modest, for most of the time the world hardly knew he was there, but it was still not enough for him to have his needs properly attended to. Gnawing away at him was also the unmistakable fact that out there somewhere the woman who had smashed into him whilst high on drugs and ruined his life was still driving around, probably without a care in the world.

Returning to my cabin after dinner my bed was made but I did not immediately lie down. Instead I pulled up the blind, turned the light off and stared out at the Nullarbor Plain illuminated by the moon and through which we were still riding. It was a magical sight, as if belonging to another world, yet one which felt like I had once known but don’t ask me how. It was too dark for me to write without turning on the lamp, but that didn’t matter because I had already written enough for the time being, having filled up more than a good few pages. So instead of writing yet more words I sat there on my bed with Miles Davis on my ipod and continued looking out the window upon a landscape the likes of which in this life I had never seen before and would probably never see again. As for Miles Davis there were a few of his albums which I had listened to again and again during the course of my ride, namely Bitches Brew, On the Corner and Big Fun, in my opinion three pretty important releases in his extensive canon, although not everyone might agree. All three were recorded in the late 60s and early 70s, at a time when Miles was still a true pioneer of jazz music, before he blew his mind on what would be a chronic addiction to cocaine and heroin.

Guess at some point I was ready to turn in for the night but before I did so there was time for a final burst of writing, with my bedside lamp on and the words still flowing through me. Finishing off with a couple of pages on the moonlight Nullarbor and the traces it left upon my mind made the whole thing feel quite magical. This time, for my second night on the Indian Pacific I slept very well indeed, and my notepad beside me was now filled with many pages of words lifted from straight out of my visions of the Nullarbor. Mission accomplished as far as that was concerned, there was nothing more I could now! It was time to move on and wait until I was back in the London to see what exactly I had come up with. When I woke in the early morning we had already gone through Port Augusta, which meant we were now well and truly off the Nullarbor Plain and on the final stretch of our journey down to Adelaide and our waiting relatives.

The Indian-Pacific finally rolled into Adelaide at around 8.30 in the morning, an hour or so behind schedule. I had been awoken at 6.30 by the coach attendant who had handed me a copy of coffee and just like the day before, I drank it whilst sitting up in bed, window blind pulled up with scenes of early morning Australia filtering past me. I was feeling pretty good after my sleep and when I finished my coffee I got up and went to see how Dad was getting on. He hadn’t fared so well, he said that once again he found it difficult to sleep due to the bumpy ride of the train on the tracks. In his own words his bed had been “damned uncomfortable” and he looked tired, pretty shot at, as the rocky train ride on top of the cold he had been trying to shake off since leaving Perth had clearly taken quite a bit out of him. We would have to try to pace ourselves sensibly as the new day had the potential to be very long and tiring once we had disembarked. The last thing I wanted was for either Dad or me to end up completely and utterly exhausted before we had even spent a single night in Adelaide, but then again our two days and two nights on the Indian Pacific had been a once in a lifetime experience so maybe that was the price which had to be paid!

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