AUSTRALIA: An Outback Christmas On The Rails

Marie Barbieri discovers that desolate townships, gourmet cuisine, and ever-changing landscapes make The Indian Pacific Australia’s most iconic journey.

Sitting patiently in the Outback Explorer Lounge, I munch on welcome canapés of lemon myrtle curry puffs. I’m itching to hear the hoot and feel the train glide out to begin my 4,352km journey across the continent. A childlike wave of excitement kicks in as we jolt, leaving behind Sydney’s Central Station and its frenzy of tourists and commuters. As we roll our way through the valleys and hazy tree canopies of the Blue Mountains, it gets bouncy. And bubbles exacerbate the wobbles after Di Giorgio Pinot Chardonnay is popped. Chinking glasses with The Indian Pacific’s amiable crew and fellow passengers, cheers roar and cameras snap as this year’s guest performer, singer/songwriter, Brian McFadden (ex member of Westlife), handshakes his way around the carriage.

Entering my charming cabin, I find two three-seater sofas, a vanity unit and flip-top table, and I’m already enamoured with the romance of train travel. A cleverly designed en-suite with complimentary toiletry bag of goodies preens me for dinner. An entrée of Harvey Bay scallop ravioli anticipates the main course of a king prawn resting on a chunky grilled beef tenderloin with béarnaise sauce. I won’t reveal succumbing to the hazelnut praline and dark chocolate mousse, so don’t ask!

Chasing the sunset, the train pulls into Bathurst, where we’re greeted by a sea of tonsils and tongues, as hyper-excited children from The Assumption School realise they are only minutes away from meeting their idol. The schoolteacher prompts her Christmas carol-singing choir to open the first of the Outback Christmas Train’s platform concerts. A wave of mild mania hits when Brian McFadden and his accompanying guitarist, Robbie, join the stage. All sing “Please Come Home for Christmas,” before Brian offers his hand to a young girl in the front row. With a face of elated disbelief, Abby-Lee absorbs her moment of fame as they duet with a sweetly sung “Someone like you.”

Cozying down into my cabin, stealthily rearranged in turndown during the concert, I savour the complimentary chocolate found on my pillow, watching the luminescent stars twinkle. I’m not sure if it’s Christmas or the train that keeps me awake, but I cherish the silhouettes of trees that sail by, until the clunks and clanks of the railway fade behind my snores.

Breaking dawn
At 5.30am I rise with the sun as an emu races parallel to the train. Menindee Lakes swallow my window, with the low-lying sun reflecting off their glassy lids. The second concert kicks off at the silver, lead and zinc mining city of Broken Hill in collaboration with the Morgan Street Primary School. When Brian appears, star-struck youngsters bellow their Christmas cheer. It’s a far cry from the infamous history connected to this city. In 1860, explorers Robert Burk and William Wills set off from Broken Hill for the tropical north. They successfully completed the trip with camels and horses. However, upon returning, they never found their supplies, hidden by their associates for safety beneath a tree at Cooper Creek. Yes, the famished duo died. Food for thought indeed upon entering the restaurant for a breakfast of poached eggs, bacon, country-style sausage, tomatoes, toast and coffee.

Guardian Angels
In the lounge car we meet Senior Flight Nurse Barbra White from the Royal Flying Doctor Service. This year alone, she has assisted rescues for heart attacks, motorbike crashes, premature labours, snakebites and shark attacks. No two days are the same for these saviours. The Royal Flying Doctors operate 61 aircraft from 21 bases. Since 1928, they have provided 24-hour care across rural and remote Australia. Aside from performing invaluable aeromedical evacuations, they also run women’s clinics and treat via telephone. The iPhone has streamlined consultations and assisted treatment. Incredibly, it can even run an ECG. “We meet new people, see sunrises, sunsets, stars punching through the sky like down lights, lightning, flood and drought,” says Barbra. “And when someone is taking their last flight, the pilot might fly them along the coastline as a final wish.” While the Royal Flying Doctors receive government funding, they rely on public donations to purchase and maintain their aircraft and medical equipment. Each plane costs around six millions dollars!

 

At Adelaide, we take a whistle-stop tour to The Royal Flying Doctors’ hangar. We see the equipment the nurses work with and the plane’s tiny space they work within. Seven-year-old Charli relays her story of the hole in her heart that almost took her life. She expresses emotional thanks to The Royal Flying Doctors who saved her, before Brian and Robbie sing to a crowd of moistened eyes.

After passing Port Augusta, I spend the afternoon languidly in my cabin, snatching a slideshow of glistening salt lakes. Dinner brings grilled saltwater barramundi with cauliflower and horseradish puree, baby spinach, pancetta and broccolini. A sinful Belgian chocolate muntries pudding follows. Back in the lounge, Brian and Robbie erupt into a jamming session with Mustang Sally drawing in the crowd from nearby cabins. What follows are audible renditions of The Beatles, Hunters and Collectors and even Slim Dusty’s famous song: ‘The Indian Pacific.’

Souls of the Outback
Awaking to the rusty reds of the Nullarbor, low-lying shrubs pock the sandy plain. Clouds part for a suffusing sun to project its brilliance across Australia’s naked terrain. The train pulls into the wayward stop of Watson in the Maralinga Tjarutja Lands, revealing a lone tree decorated in tinsel. Vans and Utes powdered in desert ochre crowd the siding, anticipating the festive celebrations. Wide-eyed children from Oak Valley Aboriginal School look on with curiosity, as Brian McFadden steps down. These kids have travelled hundreds of kilometres to see the train, many camping out the night before.

 

A poignant marrying of cultures takes place as indigenous locals high-five us humble city-dwellers, with a few tears thrown in for the hell of it. Brian sits on a bench with two Aboriginal women and a child who dons his sunglasses while trying to string a tune on his guitar. The fact that he doesn’t know how to is irrelevant; here, in the heart of the Nullarbor Plain, anything goes.

This Christmas train has been running for twelve years, carrying on it a Ho-Ho-Ho’ing icon. Swapping reindeer for rails, Santa plunges into the 35C-degree heat, realising just how far he is from the North Pole, and sweats his way to a randomly placed armchair. The mob goes crazy. At this wayward outpost, it’s all about the local communities. Receiving their Christmas stocking (gift-bag) from Santa is the highlight of their year.

   

The mighty Indian Pacific summons us back. Pulling away, our indigenous friends run alongside the train, waving, as our two worlds part in different directions, both physically and culturally. We remain muted until the lumps in our throats flatten, and continue along the longest stretch of poker-straight rail-track in the world. Near bowling green-flat, it is devoid of a single bend for 478km.

Concertinaed sand dunes sweep the landscape that was once a vast seabed. The Nullarbor (meaning ‘no trees’) is essentially a limestone plain created by millennia of compressed marine creatures. Until around 50,000 years ago, the area was roamed by megafauna, such as the marsupial lion and giant wombat. Blurring the horizon today are tufts of saltbush and bluebush and the occasional bounding kangaroo. Trees are stripped bare in the fierce heat that bakes time to a halt. Mirages shimmer before clouds of auburn dust, until a stark ghost-town comes into focus. The train wheezes into Cook, one of the most isolated settlements on earth: population four. This once-bustling railway hamlet really is the stuff of movies.

 

Clambering off, as much shell-shocked as excited, I focus on what 1,100 kilometres east to Adelaide and 1,500 kilometres west to Perth, looks like. I come nose-to-padlock with two historic corrugated iron gaol cells hardly bigger than portaloos; brazen warnings for those who enter the souvenir shop to be honest! A sprinkle of buildings litter the landscape that rest the heads of weary train-drivers who changeover here, while other non-descript fibro constructions remain roasting on the scorching yellow sands.

Wandering along the dusty main thoroughfare leads me to a stilted building that warns: ‘No food or fuel for next 862km.’ Nearby is a swimming pool, with waves replaced by shrubs, a basketball court sporting rusty hoops, a hole-less golf course, a wicket-free cricket ground, a condemned school and a bush hospital whose life was evidently not saved. Yet Santa, broiling again in his red suit, manages to tee off from a pile of rocks. Go Santa!

Chugging off, we soon pass the border of South Australia and Western Australia, knitting together the Nullarbor National Park and Eucla National Park. The marker mirrors shards of lightning that announce a colossal desert storm. Windblown sand is twisted metres into the air and rain lashes down on the metal roof of the train, which slithers through the landscape like a silver snake. As the raindrops blow-dry off the windows, chains of ponds pool in the red sand of this sunburnt country.

Next stop, around 1,000 kilometres east of Perth, is Rawlinna, home to a 2.5-million-acre sheep station and Loongana Mines. Loongana’s lime assists with gold-mining at Kalgoorlie. A side-splitting situation unfolds as Brian and Robbie begin their trackside concert. Having no idea that the local fly population had also been invited, they naively begin singing.

 

However, much to the amusement of our thick-skinned audience of sheep farmers, jackaroos and kangaroo shooters, Brian hardly gets a word out for chewing on the flies and snorting them out of his nose. To the rescue comes Jos Engelaar, our ingenious handlebar-moustached train manager, and with a quick amputation of a nearby tree’s branch, frantically waves its leaves in the duo’s faces throughout the performance. We all re-board laughing our Santa socks off. You couldn’t make it up if you tried!

Christmas dinner is difficult. Choosing between the braised Coorong Angus beef cheek with native pepperleaf, the pumpkin lasagne with saltbush leaves and the kangaroo loin mignon with spiced quandong glaze is testing for all. So our table create a meze by sharing plates. As we dine on fine, regional cuisine, the view outside the windows begins to vegetate with mallee trees, resuscitating the arid landscape back to life. Soaring near the train with majestic pride are two wedge-tailed eagles, the emblems of which are pinned to the train’s carriages like royal brooches.

Our final visit is to Kalgoorlie, the gold-mining mecca of Australia. It’s home to the Super Pit, the world’s largest single-cut open mine, which is as deep as Uluru is high, and with a similar circumference. A platform concert begins with The Ngadju Dancers, a group of indigenous children of the Norseman Ngadju people. In traditional paints they perform Dance of the Father Emu. Christmas carols sung by Kalgoorlie Primary School lead into Brian’s last performance. And it’s a thronging crowd of teenagers pledging their undying love for this Irish singer.

Back in the Outback Explorer Lounge, fellow travellers celebrate carving through Australia’s midriff, taking three days and three nights to cross three States. Western Australia’s golden wheat belt and picturesque Avon Valley closes the show. And we reluctantly part with the train in Perth taking with us our newfound friends and shared stories of this iconic train journey. This goodbye is hard!

FAST FACTS
Getting there:
Take the train in either direction from Sydney’s Central Station or East Perth Station. Qantas, Virgin Australia and Jetstar service both cities.

Accommodations:
• Red Service offers reclining day/night seats in a shared carriage. Pay-as-you-go meals and drinks are available from the Matilda Café, with showers located at each end.
• Gold Service travel offers private ensuite single or twin cabins with in-room journey commentary and meals.
• Platinum Service provides optimal luxury train travel with a double bed (converting to a lounge during the day), a super-spacious bathroom, personalised cabin service, meals and drinks.
From 1st April 2013, all drinks and whistle-stop tours will be inclusive of the price for Gold and Platinum Service guests.

For a wide variety of prices and packages, visit: www.greatsouthernrail.com.au

Marie Barbieri is a widely published travel writer and photographer who contributes to international travel publications. UK-born, and now an Australian citizen, she continues to hop between hemispheres writing for UK, European and Australasian publications. Recently Marie has explored: The Cook Islands, The Greek Islands, South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, Tasmania’s Bay of Fires region, Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef and Geographe Bay, and New Zealand’s Bay of Islands and Coromandel regions. Check out her website at www.mariebarbieri.weebly.com.

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