Riding the Rails – The Indian Pacific

November 16th, 2010  |  Published in Headline, Road Trips

(First appeared on the website www.wavejourney.com, 4/10. Second rights, Just for Canadian Doctors, and Just for Canadian Dentists Magazines, 9/10.)

I’m in the Aussie outback ghost town of Cook, population 3, one of the most isolated places on earth: no roads, 1100 km from Adelaide and 1500 km from Perth.

A sign is all that removes where once the Bishop Kirby Memorial Hospital stood. “The flying medical service provided a backup service and in later years the Royal Flying Doctor Service fulfilled this role until Cook ‘closed’ in 1998”, the plaque reads. The hospital had an operating theatre, two wards, and quarters for the hardy staff, who had to withstand a paucity of water and a surplus of dust storms along with plagues of rodents and flies.

The flies are back today and the heat somewhat fierce, but that’s OK, I can go back to the regal Indian Pacific and turn on the air conditioning in my stateroom. Great Southern Rail’s Indian Pacific line takes on fuel here, the halfway point across the continent’s expansive girth, from Perth to Melbourne, one ocean to another.

The journey may be 65 hours but it passes too soon. Meals are gourmet, staterooms comfortable, the attendants friendly and helpful, and the fellow travelers, mainly Aussies, it seemed to me, friendly, curious and chatty. Our first lunch was sea trout with hollandaise sauce and asparagus, accompanied by an excellent Verdehlo that slipped down our throats way too seductively.

Outside the window, the scenery unfolds expansively, rose and white gala birds flock, startled kangaroos bound away, and most surprisingly, camels stop their hunt for food to stare us down.  What are they doing here?  It’s not long until the audio programme in our stateroom provides the answer. In the 1860s, about 10,000 were brought from Arabia to transport goods. Once the railway came through, the camels were out of a job and went walkabout. They now number around 500,000.

The scenery has unrolled sleepily from the verdant Avon Valley, through endless wheatfields, to mallee scrub, a type of dwarf eucapyt only found down under, according to our luncheon companion, a retired army man.

At midnight we reached Kalgoorlie, taking a ‘Whistle Stop’ tour that swept us up into the windy night to stare down into its immense Super Pit, 3.6 km long and 512 metres deep.  Operating 24/7, the gold mine has been described as the richest square mile on earth. Thirty thousand people live the surrounding town.

The next day we awoke to endless flat rust limestone, the Nullabor Plain, anticipating our arrival at Cook, where we now stand swatting flies. Once a school, post office, stores, hotel, tiny jail and the hospital serviced this town in the middle of nowhere. Not much molders here now. Only a jail the size of an outhouse, a huddle of buildings, signs, and those flies.

Back aboard and riding the rails, we notice that the scenery is changing again, becoming lush and hilly as we approach Adelaide and its famous Riesling Trail. We’re taking a day off here to check out what all the fuss is about, and carrying on to Melbourne tomorrow.  After all, there’s no hurry, and no worries.

Before you go:

The official Australia tourism website: www.australia.com

Great Southern Rail: www.greatsouthernrail.com.au

While in Perth:

Don’t miss an opportunity to stay in the exquisite Richardson Hotel. Featuring vibrant art, spacious luxurious suites, exempory service and incredible cuisine. If you’re too tired to go downstairs, just open your fridge and freezer. The chef has prepared some entrees for you and wine to go with. www.therichardson.com.au

While in Adelaide:

Set up a tour with walkabout tours. (What guide Jeff Easley doesn’t know about wines couldn’t even fill a wine glass.) www.touraboutadelaide.com.au

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