Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Return to the Nullarbor: by train across the lucky country

Indian Pacific at Two Wells, South Australia
In 1977 Marg and I decided that the cheapest way to finish our two year OE was by flying from Jakarta to Perth, hitching across Australia, then flying from Sydney to Auckland. Easy eh? Our first driver out of Perth enlightened us "Yeah, you'll have to get a ride across the Nullarbor. Took me two weeks to get a ride when I did it". Our fixed date flight from Sydney was in 10 days, so we clearly needed some good fortune to cross the "Lucky Country". At dusk at Kalgoorlie on the edge of the Nullabor, our first good fortune arrived in the form of a truck that stopped at every place between there and Eucla on the South Australian border: 900 km and 6 stops. Our second good fortune was a mining worker from the northwest who'd heard that his daughter was sick in Melbourne, hopped in his car and drove across Australia, picking us up in Eucla to keep him awake. So rather than being stranded in the outback, we returned to NZ and established home, careers and a family.

Lift across the Nullarbor, 1977
39 years later we decided to repeat the trip in reverse. Rather than hitch, we opted for the Indian Pacific train. We'd taken the Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin in 2011 and found that watching Australia go by was a satisfying travel experience. I'd taken the Overland from Adelaide to Melbourne in 2014, so the Indian Pacific completed the trifecta.

Despite it being Marg's Gold Card birthday, our age can't have been obvious when we checked in for the flight to Sydney; we were asked if our bagged Tern folding bikes were baby strollers . We settled into the Rendezvous Hotel on the Rocks, enjoying the promised terrace view of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. Next morning, we discovered that Air New Zealand baggage handling had bent the chainring on Lucie, Marg's bike. The nail file on my Leatherman didn't give enough leverage to realign it, so we headed out for breakfast, pondering how far away the nearest bike shop was. A tradie was working on the street. "Ah, you wouldn't have a shiftgrip you could lend us?" "Sure, mate, I'm off for brekkie. Just chuck it in the back of the ute when you're finished"

With Lucie's gear changing restored, we headed up to the cycle track on the Harbour Bridge - bikes get one side, pedestrians the other. It was peak commuter time, with numbers that would gladden the hearts of Skypath promoters. On the stairs on the north side a security guard was posted to keep order as bikers hiked up the stairs - except for one fit soul who stormed up the near 1:1 gradient centre lane.

We explored Milsom's point and Lavender Bay finding a series of sculptures by the trail.

Bib and Bub, iconic Australian Gumnut babies

A replica Luna Park lurks in the bushes
Marg checks out the real Luna Park
A ferry took us over to Darling Harbour, and we biked back around Barangaroo Reserve to the Rocks, passing a roundabout with a sculptural commentary on traffic, and the bike friendly cafe BarCycle where customers can practice their pedal ankling while sipping their lattes.
Barangaroo shared path

A quick loop around the Opera House and the Royal Botanic Gardens, lunching with the resident ibis, then we checked out the cycle lanes on the way to the station.
Tern touring the Opera House
Marg at Mrs Macquarrie's chair, Botanic Gardens
Two way separated bike lane, Castlereagh St
The Terns were checked through to Perth, and we settled in to our Gold Class compartment, home for the next four days.

We had a generous couch that converted into the lower of two bunk beds at night (and yes, there was a chocolate by the pillow every night!) and an en suite toilet and shower. Marg was a bit disconcerted to discover that we'd be travelling backwards, but it turns out that on the side trip into Adelaide, the 28 carriage train comes out the other way, so you end up doing half the trip forwards and half backwards.

We joined our fellow passengers in the lounge car as the train wound up through the Blue Mountains. We tried not to overdo the unlimited complimentary drinks. An English fellow passenger spent the evening taking selfies of himself with a soft toy kiwi, clearly confused by geography. Our turn in the dining car came as the sun set on the Megalong valley.

We woke to the arid red outback, though pools of water showed that there had been recent rain. We rolled into Broken Hill for our off train excursion to the Miners' Memorial, a gaunt sheetmetal structure on a hill overlooking the town, with plaques recording the grim human cost of mining, such as 12 year old John Armitt, asphyxiated by dynamite fumes in 1890.
Indian Pacific from the Miners' Memorial, Broken Hill
Back at the train with 20 minutes before the scheduled departure, we thought we'd go for a walk around the block. However we were pursued by two train staff  "We're locking the doors in 5 minutes!" With several hundred passengers to keep tabs on, and the risk of losing clients in the outback with the next train not due for a week, the protectionist approach isn't surprising, though it could be significant that until recently the rail company was owned by prison operator Serco.

At Two Wells, 60km out of Adelaide, we changed to bus for the Barossa Valley. The land ownership in the area reflects Australian immigration: from the original aboriginal occupiers, to British settlers, German immigrants such as the Seppelts who established the wineries, then Italians and now Vietnamese horticulturalists. We passed under the Long Tan bridge on the way to the Seppeltsfield Winery, where the chef explained the wine and snack matches laid out for us in the cavernous storage shed.

In the museum, a minute book recorded the important decisions in the early days of the German community "That we hold our Xmas Party...It was suggested that we have more sport this year mainly for the children... Ask that Mr H Wendt be Father Xmas". We left through avenues of date palms, planted as depression employment for the Winery staff, though it's only recently that the enterprising chef has discovered that while the dates don't reach full maturity in the South Australian climate, the immature fruit can be pickled to produce capers.
Brazier for heat treating barrels, Yalumba cooperage
At the Yalumba Winery cooperage we saw how time, heat and steam make staves of imported oak into wine storage. On a larger scale, Yalumba used to store wine in big underground vats, the concrete walls sealed with paraffin. These have now be converted to elegant dining rooms, where we had our dinner before being bused into Adelaide to rejoin the train.

Next morning we were still in South Australia, but definitely outback. The scrubby landscape occasionally sported pink wildflowers, and nondescript buildings topped with solar panels, their purpose not apparent apart from providing nests to storks.

By lunchtime we'd reached Cook, a ghost town where a well meaning group had defied the Latin meaning of Nullarbor (no trees) by planting 600 trees around the town, but only a few survive. In an attempt to retain services, the town hospital was advertised with the slogan "If you're crook, come to Cook". Now only a few railway workers live in the town.

The WA/SA border obelisk flashed by in mid afternoon, and at dusk we pulled into Rawlinna, the rail halt for the eponymous sheep station. Tables were laid out alongside the carriages, warming braziers lit, and a roast meal was served up under a Milky Way made visible by the lack of city lights.

In the night I woke during a long stop at Kalgoorlie station, the ornate Victorian ironwork contrasting with a sleek inter city train parked across the station platform. Later the sun came up as we progressed through gradually more arable landscapes, kangaroo giving way to sheep and alpaca (apparently alpaca protect the sheep from foxes), scrub to bright yellow fields of canola.

By mid afternoon we'd reached Perth, and the next stage of the adventure. While it was more expensive than our last crossing of the Lucky Country, the Indian Pacific gave us four days of travel experience, great food, attentive staff, and a true sense of how big our western neighbour is.