Bugger All

 


 

Cook is known, with typical Outback humour, as ‘the Queen City of the Nullarbor.’ According to a signpost outside the little village store it has a population of ‘4 people, 40 dingoes and 4,000,000 flies.’ It is fair to say that not much happens in Cook and the arrival of the Indian Pacific is still a highlight of the week. The railway has traditionally played a vital part in the ‘taming’ of the Outback and a rail journey across Australia remains one of the world’s epic travel experiences. Australians, accustomed to the mind-boggling distances involved in travelling their island continent, might tell you that the Outback is boring, that it’s empty, that there’s not much to see in what they call ‘The Great Bugger-all.’

 

But it is the immense scale that is often the source of fascination for outsiders. The great Never Never really does seem to go on forever and ever. And the best way to get a feel for this is in a coast-to-coast train journey through the wild Red Centre. The Indian Pacific takes two days and nights to travel between Perth and Adelaide and the distances are so great that you have to change your watch twice during the journey to take into account time zone differences. Leaving the Indian Ocean the train winds slowly into hills sprinkled with eucalyptus and ghost gums and by dark we had already entered the plateau for the long run towards the Nullarbor Desert. I fell asleep watching shooting stars flashing across the desert sky and when I woke the next morning we were in an ocean-like expanse of wilderness that stretched as far as the eye could see. Like a great silver spear piercing into the heart of the continent the Indian Pacific was tacking an almost perfectly straight trajectory into the rising sun. This is officially the longest straight section of railway line in the world and stretches for exactly 299 miles.

 

In the twenty minutes it takes for the train to re-provision with water you can exhaust all the attractions of the ‘Queen City of the Nullarbor.’ My fellow traveller Bruce however had an unusual reason to feel affection for Cook. His father passed through here on the Indian Pacific during World War II. In one of those weird twists of fate the train was delayed in Cook and he missed his berth on a ship that was departing from Perth. The ship sank with all hands. Adelaide is the intersection for the Indian Pacific and an even more legendary rail route that runs north to south through the very heart of continent. Named after the intrepid Afghan cameleers who originally established this route, The Ghan is famous today as one of the world’s most iconographic rail journeys. The Ghan is now over eighty years old but it is only for the last few years that rail travel has been possible beyond Alice Springs, all the way up to Darwin and the tropical ‘Top End.’

 

We left Adelaide at 6pm and by sunset the ancient slabs of the Flinders Ranges were already looming on a shimmering horizon. By dawn the next morning we were already in deep the Red Centre. As the train clattered doggedly northwards a seemingly endless desert landscape flickered across the panoramic windows like some super-hypnotic technicolor wide-screen movie. A mob of kangaroos bounded away at our approach and a pair emus looked up from their foraging to gaze gawkily after us. A herd of camels lolloped away, descendants of the animals that were brought here almost a hundred and fifty years ago to help tame the wilderness.

 

Twenty-four hours after leaving Adelaide we crossed the great sandy swathe of the waterless Finke River and an hour later the craggy hills around Alice Springs appeared under a glaring desert sun. ‘The Alice’ is, for many, the most atmospheric of Australia’s Outback towns and the majority of the Ghan’s passengers choose to break their journey and spend at least a couple of days here, or to use it as a base for visits to Uluru (previously Ayers Rock). Alice is a friendly, welcoming town which has that typical Outback quality of being able to produce unforgettable fun with minimal facilities: two good examples of this are Bojangles Pub (one of the 10 best pubs in the world) and the wacky boatrace along the dry riverbed that is known as the Todd Regatta.

 

Leaving Alice, the Ghan rolled onward into the Northern Territory and the landscape began to change radically. The Tropic of Capricorn and the Tanami Desert slipped past in the night. By morning the eucalyptus forest was already beginning to thicken and suddenly I realised that the landscape is now spiked with the shaggy heads of tropical palms. Near Katherine I started to see real rivers with flowing water. It came as quite a surprise to realise how quickly I had become accustomed to the ochre hues of the desert.

 

I had travelled about three thousand miles from the chilly beaches of Western Australia to the tropical reefs of the ‘Top End.’ Thinking back it was hard even to recall the kaleidoscopic variety of landscapes I had travelled through in this unforgettable trip across ‘the Great Bugger­all.’