Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Indian Pacific Spans the Land

If anyone wonders what my train postings would have sounded like set to country music, this should give you a pretty good idea. The song is by Australian music legend Slim Dusty. It was one of those pieces of music that played over the train P.A. system. I’m tempted to pretend that I hated it, but the truth is I like songs about trains and I love ones that mention exotic place names. He had me at “Nullarbor.”

Monday, June 29, 2009

High-Calorie Kalgoorlie

Not long after leaving Cook, we crossed into Western Australia. For a while, the landscape didn’t look any different, but gradually, as we left the Nullarbor Plain, the bushes got a little taller and closer together. By late afternoon, we were seeing real trees again, and it was clear we’d left the harshest part of the desert behind. By evening, we were approaching the gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie, where the train stopped for several hours.

By this point in our journey, we’d realized that the rule about not being able to get off the train unless you’ve booked a tour was completely unenforced. So we had the sense to explore Kalgoorlie (“Kal,” to its friends) on our own. This involved passing up the opportunity to take a nighttime bus tour of Super Pit, the world’s largest open-cut goldmine. We decided we could live with that.

We were too late for the sights of Kalgoorlie, which are almost all museums, devoted to mining, history, and the sex industry. (This last one was our first clue that Kalgoorlie might be a little rough around the edges.) We set out on foot anyway. We’d had dinner already, but were hoping to find a restaurant where we could have dessert. Almost as soon as we’d left the train station, we passed an Asian-infused white-tablecloth restaurant, but passed it by, hoping for something a little more….I hope we didn’t use the word “authentic,” but we probably did.

Kalgoorlie reminded me of gold rush-era towns I’ve been to in Alaska and the Sierras, but Kal is what Australians call “fair dinkum;” the real thing. Places like Skagway and Nevada City have preserved main streets with hitching posts and bars with saloon-style swinging doors. Kalgoorlie has actual dirt-streaked men slumped over schooners of beer who have come directly from the mines to their barstools without passing the 21st century. It’s a real hard-drinking, two-fisted kind of place where a stagecoach or a shootout wouldn’t look too out of place.

Because the mines are still going strong in and around Kalgoorlie, the town is fairly prosperous, and nice to look at, even at night. There is one very long main street, supposedly wide enough to turn a camel team around in. I have no idea how much space that requires, but I imagine Hannan Street can handle it. The buildings mostly date from the 1890s, which is when gold was first discovered here.

Unfortunately, the only establishments open when we arrived at around 8pm were Chinese restaurants and the kinds of hotels you drink at. We figured our dessert chances would be better at a pub, and I decided that the one with a sign advertising “hot skimpies” looked promising.

At this point, I feel like I should explain my train of thought. Australians are compulsive diminutizers, especially where consumables are concerned. In a week in the country, I’d learned, for example, that “brekkie” is breakfast, a “chockie” is a chocolate candy, and a “stubby” is beer that comes in a short bottle. Somehow, in that context, it made sense to me that a “skimpie” might be edible, and that a place serving them might have sweets, as well.

No sooner had we walked in the door than our dreams of dessert were snuffed like the flames on cherries jubilee. We found ourselves in a pub with only a few patrons, all young guys who looked like they’d stopped having fun about an hour ago, and were now settling down to the serious work of getting drunk. “Skimpies” turned out to refer not to any kind of snack, but to the black latex bikinis worn by the barmaids. I’m sure we made quite a sight, standing there in our fleecy pullovers with wallaby-in-the-headlights expressions on our faces. There was no option but retreat, so we left.

A few doors down, another hotel had a menu posted that included pie. It really was pie, but we never got any. We were ignored by the waitress for about 10 minutes, and when she finally came around, she told us that the kitchen had just closed.

Her only suggestion was the hotel we had just fled, and that’s when we realized that we needed to find a place a little less authentic. We went back to Danny’s Restaurant, the first place we’d passed, and somehow white tablecloths didn’t seem so off-putting any more. Inside the décor was Japanese minimalist with no mining kitsch to be seen. Our waitress was fully clothed, and happily brought out the dessert cart for us.

Pipi had sticky date pudding, which was delicious. It was more like moist cake than a pudding, and coated in a caramel sauce. I had my first-ever pavlova. I wasn’t sure I would like it because meringue covered in whipped cream sounded a little insipid, but it was so good that we later made it at home. Sweet, creamy, soft, crunchy, and fruity, this classic Australian* dessert was exactly what I was in the mood for. I only wish we hadn’t wasted so much time that evening looking for something more real.

*I realize that pavlova is one of those things, like Russell Crowe, that Australia has appropriated from New Zealand. I think that there’s enough of both to go around.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Cook, Australia

On the train, there was a PA system that piped music into every car more or less constantly. Luckily, this could be turned off. I say “luckily,” because it was terrible music. Every once in a while a good song would lull me into listening. Midnight Oil’s “Dead Heart” made me smile and think to myself, “Hey, I’m listening to an Australian song, IN AUSTRALIA!” Then the next song would be a syrupy ’70s ballad, like “I’ve Been to Paradise, but I’ve Never Been to Me,” followed by a show tune, and I’d remember that Bill Bryson, in his book, In a Sunburned Country, described the soundtrack to this journey as probably being taken from an anthology entitled “Songs You Hoped You’d Never Hear Again.”

Sometimes the music would be overridden by a commentary track. This you couldn’t turn off, but that was okay with me because I love passive learning. Give me an excuse to stop what little I am doing, and disembodied voice spooning factoids into my brain and I’m happy.

One tidbit that I gleaned while crossing the Nullarbor Plain is that 99% of the population in the state of South Australia lives south of the 32nd parallel. I had to wait until I got home to my atlas to discover the significance of this fact. It’s basically a fancy way of saying that almost everyone in South Australia lives if not in the city of Adelaide, then in one of the many communities along the state’s southern coast.

The inlanders are scattered very sparsely across an astoundingly empty landscape. We got a glimpse of just how lonely life can be for these one percenters when we stopped at the tiny town of Cook, South Australia. (Latitude 30.61421 south.) Cook was never large, but when the owners of the railroad stopped relying on the town’s well to refill the trains’ water tanks, Cook turned into a near ghost town. Today only five people live there permanently, supporting themselves by selling trinkets and soda to train passengers and providing accommodation to train staff who take required overnight breaks here.

As you can see from the sign, the locals have a flinty sense of humor. There really did used to be a hospital in Cook, but it has been closed for years. (I also took a picture of a small building labeled “Historical Gaol Cells of Cook.” It wasn’t until I got home that I realized the joke—it’s an outhouse.)

The nearest town of any size is Ceduna (3,500 people), a five-hour drive away. There’s a tiny airfield, although I’m not sure where you can fly to, and of course, you can always take the train. Well, not always, but it’s an option four days out of the week.

On those four day when the Indian Pacific passes through, the population explodes a hundred-fold for about half an hour. It must feel a little like groundhog day for residents, because I imagine every group does pretty much what we did: laugh at the silly signs; read the plaque commemorating the 60th anniversary of the day the Men of the Trees planted 600 saplings (sadly, 60 years later, they couldn’t find a tree to pin the plaque to; it’s attached to a boulder); gaze down the line of track stretching a hundred miles in either direction without a bend; buy sodas; and then hustle back to the train when the air horn blows, leaving Cook and its five souls in peace until the next load of shutterbugs chugs into town.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Nullarbor Plain

Here is a list I jotted in my notebook the day after Adelaide. It is entitled “Things I Would Not Be Surprised to See on the Horizon,” and it includes the following items:

A covered wagon
Mongol hordes
The Mars Lander

After leaving Adelaide, we traveled through the night, heading roughly northward and following the eastern rim of the Great Australian Bight. For a few hundred miles, the track followed close to the ocean, and we passed through many towns.

The next morning, though, we awoke to land that was flat, dry, open, and forbiddingly orange in color. As the morning went on, the sand cooled to a salmony pink, but the few trees went from stunted to scrubby to non-existent. The only signs of human habitation were the occasional remains of burned-out bonfires and discarded Victoria Bitter cases. Once I looked out the window and saw a large skeleton (Camel? Horse? Cow?) next to the tracks. That’s when I knew for sure we had turned west and arrived at the Nullarbor Plain.

The Nullarbor is a forbidding patch of desert where temperatures can reach 130F and only about six inches of rain fall annually. The name Nullarbor sounds Aboriginal, but it’s actually derived from a Latin phrase meaning “no trees.” Early European Australians had a mania for crossing the various geographical obstacles that punctuate the continent, but still didn’t manage to traverse the entire plain until 1841. The first white man who did, Edward John Eyre, described the Nullarbor as “a blot on the face of Nature, the sort of place one gets into in bad dreams.”

Of course, he didn’t cross by train. Which is too bad, because we were told (admittedly by train staff) that the Indian Pacific is the best way to see the Nullarbor. It’s certainly the most comfortable. There are roads across the region, but the major ones skirt the desert, and the little ones are unpaved. Navigating them involves some intense advance planning to make sure you don’t run out of gas or water.

We didn’t have to worry about any of that on the Indian Pacific. The temperature was perfect and gas wasn’t a worry on the air-conditioned electric train. There was a water fountain in the corridor, and we had a box of Tim Tams stashed away. All we had to do was sit back and watch the starkly beautiful and astoundingly empty landscape pass by.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Addled in Adelaide

Now that I am home, the first thing everybody asks me is “Didn’t you just love Australia?” And I did love being there. It is a beautiful country and we had a great time. After travels in Asia and Europe, it was really refreshing to feel very far from home but yet be more or less able to communicate with the locals.

The second thing everyone asks me is, “Aren’t Australians just the nicest people?” It seems that everyone, even people who have never been to Australia, have somewhere met an Aussie and found this person to be instantly likeable. I know I have. In Xi’An, China, in 1992, I shared a table at a crowded restaurant with a pair of women from Melbourne, and before dinner was over, we were making plans to travel to Tibet together.

Everywhere Pipi and I went in Australia, we were treated with kindness, and noticed people going out of their way to make sure our trip went smoothly. The best example I can think of was when we took a city bus to an animal park outside of Perth. The old lady at the front of the bus could have let us discover for ourselves that the part of the park where the animals were was a good mile uphill from the bus stop, but she didn’t. She grabbed my arm as I was about to exit the bus and explained that there was an intercom near the bus stop, and that we could use it to call a free shuttle that would pick us up and take us to the part of the park she’d correctly guessed we wanted to visit. She didn’t have to do that, and I don’t think every American would have, but one thing you’ll never hear an Australian say is, “Leave that lady with the map alone; I’m sure she’ll figure it out somehow.”

As kind and generous as everyone was, though, there was something a little unsettling about Australia. It was hard to put my finger on, and even harder to articulate. As much as I enjoyed my time there, I did feel a number of times like I’d slipped into a wormhole and emerged in the 1970s or ’80s. And not the fun, neon-lit ’70s and ’80s, where we danced under disco balls and had hair we can laugh about now. This felt more like the pre-United Colors of Benetton, Cold-War ’70s and ’80s; the time when we found it entirely plausible that Chinese people were keeping ancient secrets from us, and nobody thought Sting was being overly dramatic when he sang, “I hope the Russians love their children, too,” because everyone knew those Russians were different.

The best example of this cultural time warp I can come up with is a comment made by a tour bus driver in Adelaide. Adelaide is the capital of the state of South Australia, and the train stopped there late in the day that started in Broken Hill.

Adelaide presented a dramatic contrast to Broken Hill. Adelaide has a population of over one million people, for one thing. It’s also a very attractive city, with the downtown core almost completely surrounded by huge swaths of parkland. But it doesn’t have a lot of sights per se. Almost every place of interest the driver pointed out was some kind of historic house, once owned by the second governor general of something, or the lady-in-waiting to someone I’d never heard of.

I confess that my mind started to wander a little bit, but I snapped back to attention when the driver pointed out a particular park that he said was often inhabited by homeless Aboriginal people. “The city tries to get them into housing,” he huffed, “But a few days later, they’re always back.” He paused, and then added, “It’s just in their culture.”

From the little I have learned about Aboriginal culture, I think it is true that most Aboriginal groups do have a long history of being nomadic. But they do not have a 40,000-year history of lying around drunk in the landscaping, and I thought it was a little disingenuous of him to imply that the whole sad and complicated situation can be explained by the fact that those people are just different.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Silvertown Blues

Our first opportunity to visit an outback outpost came early in the trip. Not long after sunrise on the first morning, the train pulled into the mining town of Broken Hill. There aren’t many stops on the Indian Pacific route, so we booked a bus tour to be sure to take advantage of this one.

The street names, which read like my high school chemistry textbook (Sulphide, Iodide, Cobalt, Bromide) were new to me, but I had seen some of the actual roads before. Broken Hill played itself in the 1994 film Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It’s the place where the drag queens think they’ve won over the locals after a fun night at the pub, but wake up to discover that their bus has been vandalized.

For a small town—the population just dipped below 20,000, down from a peak of 30,000 in the 1960s--there is a lot to look at. In the heyday of mining, there were 72 pubs. Many of these handsome stone buildings with wrought-iron balconies still stand, cheek-by-jowl with “tinnies,” small buildings constructed at least in part out of locally plentiful corrugated metal. There’s a radio station housed in a building with a façade that looks just like an old-fashioned wireless, and a six-story slag heap. The heap isn’t exactly pretty, but it’s interesting. The bus driver told us that there is $17 million worth of silver in that pile, and that the technology exists to extract it, but the process would cost $42 million—one of the cruelest examples of good news/bad news I’d ever heard.

After the town tour, we were taken to the bald, gouged, and artificially flattened top of the highest hill around. I assumed that this was the town’s namesake, but later I read that the original, eponymous hill has been mined out of existence. Lead, silver, and zinc are still being carved out of the remaining land. We were told that in the early 1900s, explorers complained that the dense foliage in this part of the country literally ripped the shirts of their backs, but today the landscape is denuded of trees, and full of deep crevices that have been mined for ore.

Our attention was directed to three flagpoles on the hilltop. One flies the Australian national banner. The other two were both unadorned. One, we’re told, flies a red flag when there’s been a mine accident, and the other waves a black one when there has been a fatality underground.

The black flag has flown over Broken Hill more than 800 times in the last 150 years or so. It’s not surprising, then, that the most prominent building on the mountaintop is a memorial to the miners who have lost their lives here. The rose-studded walls list the names and ages (one was only 12) of every victim. The date and cause of death are also listed, and the litany is darkly fascinating. There’s probably no good way to die in a mine, but I was still shocked at how many horrible ways there are to go. I noted falling, electrocution, tetanus, lead poisoning, explosive mishap, an ore-cart crushing, and a live burial under mine tailings before I’d even finished with the 19th century.

When we’d had our fill of underground death, we were bundled back on the bus and driven down the hill. The bus stopped at an art gallery, Silver City Mint & Art Centre on Chloride Street. Here we could browse what seemed like acres of art, including an impressive array of chains and bracelets crafted from local silver. There were paintings, heavy on horses and big-sky landscapes; whimsical pottery; only-in-Australia novelties like wine bottle holders fashioned from rabbit traps; and, incongruously, a large candy counter. (Australians do seem to have elevated liquorice to an art form, so maybe that’s the connection.) Not for sale was a work of art called “The Big Picture,” billed as the world’s largest acrylic painting on canvas by one man. That’s a lot of qualifications, but at 12,000 square feet, it will almost certainly fill your large-canvas viewing requirements.

Little of this art was to my taste, but if I’d been more ambitious, I could have used our allotted half-hour of browsing time to seek out something a little edgier. There are about two dozen galleries in town, giving Broken Hill one of the best artwork-per-capita ratios in the world, so I could almost certainly have found satisfaction somewhere.

When I got back on the bus, my watch told me it was about half-past eight, though it was in fact only 8am. Broken Hill is in the eastern state of New South Wales, but it has closer business connections with the South Australian city of Adelaide, 318 miles away. So the town operates on Australian Central Standard Time, making Broken Hill a chronological island perpetually one half-hour out of synch with the surrounding state.

Whatever the exact time, it occurred to me that it was very early on a Sunday morning for an art gallery to be open. Perhaps because I hadn’t yet had my morning flat white, I didn’t realize until we were once again rolling through the nearly empty streets that the place had, of course, opened especially for us.

From the top of the hill outside the mining memorial, three landmarks had been easily visible. One was the Palace Hotel on Argent Street, where the pub scene in Priscilla was filmed 15 years ago, testament to a movie career that never really got off the ground. Another is that silver-ridden slag heap, a daily reminder of the quickly diminishing returns to be had from mining these days.

The third was the 27-car, 2,332-foot-long Indian Pacific train that we had come in on. Today, as it does every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, the locomotive had disgorged hundreds of people who have purchased little and seen no color outside of the Arizona/New Mexico brownish-red range in as much as three days. Under these circumstances, almost anyone might acquire an appreciation for art.

If the Palace Hotel is Broken Hill’s boisterous past, and the spent pile of ore its uncomfortable present, then the train would seem to be its future. Broken Hill never made it as a movie Mecca, and will never again be a boomtown. But it’s interesting to consider a future that involves drawing people to Broken Hill’s mineral bounty, rather than selling the silver away, leaving Broken Hill with nothing but more and more names on a wall and ever-deepening holes in the ground.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Broken Hill

I’d meant to write something lengthy about a visit to the town of Broken Hill, NSW, but I didn’t get it finished. I’ll finish my thoughts next week, but for now let me set the scene with a photo of the downtown. You can see the train in the foreground. The large brick building at the far left is the Palace Hotel. This pub had a cameo in the movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It’s the place where the drag queens initially encounter some hostility, but one manages such an exquisitely obscene comeback that everyone has a good laugh and suddenly it’s like they’re all old friends. The rules of Aussie mateship are more complex than an American can ever imagine.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Into the Outback

Like Eskimos with their proverbial avalanche of words for snow, Australians have a colorful range of synonyms for “the middle of nowhere.” A partial list includes:

The bush
Woop woop
Mallee scrub
The dead heart
Back of Bourke
In the backblocks
Beyond the black stump

I mention this because on the train, Pipi and I became acquainted with nothingness more quickly than I expected. The Indian Pacific left Sydney in the mid-afternoon, and spent the rest of the arvo (see; it really is a different language) snaking through the suburbs of the largest city in Oceana. By sunset, we were in the Blue Mountains, which, though rural, are a popular getaway for Sydneysiders, and still felt pretty settled.

In the morning we woke up in the outback. We were still in the state of New South Wales, but we were hundreds of miles inland from Sydney and a world away. The ground was flat, red, and dotted with sparse, scrubby trees that didn’t grow more than 20 feet tall. It looked like Texas allowed Arizona to give it a makeover--nothing dramatic, just a little color and a few arboreal accessories. It was exactly as lonely as I’d hoped, and I felt like I could take in the emptiness for a little while longer before I would feel the need to discover an outback town.

(A special thanks to Pipi, who researched the list of nowhere words, using the excellent book The A-Z of Australian Facts, Myths & Legends, by Bruce Elder.)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Photos Are on Flickr

I finally got photos uploaded to Flickr. Here are some quick links to sets I created for different parts of the trip.


Indian-Pacific Train


Melbourne/Warragul, Victoria

The Overland Train, Adelaide, and the Ghan Train

Alice Springs

Uluru (Ayers Rock)

Narrative will resume tomorrow!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

All Aboard the Indian Pacific—Please Remain Calm

We liked Sydney a lot, and could easily have spent more time there. We never got to the Tim Tam factory, for example. I’d also hoped to get to a second location of an excellent music store called Red Eye Records, although I bought so much music at the branch that I did get to that I’m not sure how much more I could have brought home.

I also could have snacked at Max Brenner a half-dozen more times, but as with the music situation, it’s probably best that I didn’t get to indulge myself further. So as much as we enjoyed Sydney, I think we were both ready for the next leg of our adventure, which was the three-night journey to Perth on the Indian Pacific train.

This train takes its name from the fact that you will, if you stay on the train for the whole 65-hour, 4,352-kilometer, trans-continental journey, glimpse both the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. Along the way, you pass through three Australian states, change time zones twice, and cruise along the longest stretch of perfectly straight track in the world—297 miles without a bend, and precious little change in elevation, either.

One of the first things I noticed as I settled into our cabin was a sign on the wall (actually an emergency safety notice) saying “Don’t Panic.” And I could see where Indian-Pacific passengers might be a little on edge: The economy-class sleeper compartments are small. Really small. By day there are two seats facing each other with a folding table between them, a comically narrow closet, a luggage rack high overhead, and a sort of a Murphy sink that folds out of the wall like the bed in an old-fashioned studio apartment.

I also noticed a bunk bed suspended about 15 inches from the ceiling, and my palms got clammy imagining sleeping in such a tiny space. By night, though, the bunk is lowered several feet, and a bottom bunk, perhaps inspired by the sink, flips down out of the wall. Full linens and towels are provided. There are single-sex toilets at one end of each carriage, and, remarkably, two showers at the other end. A red-service dining car served bland but perfectly adequate hot food. It was snug, but there was enough space under the seats and in the closet to keep our bags out of the way and our diversions close at hand. I confess that I did have a moment of panic when I first saw the tiny space where we would spend the next three days, but once we’d left suburban Sydney and spotted our first-ever wild kangaroos, I decided I was up for the outback adventure.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Just Because

Here's a koala eating eucalyptus. They do a lot of that.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Opera House

I thought I knew what the Sydney Opera House looked like. It’s smooth and white, right?

Not quite, as it turns out. It’s actually a slightly pinkish beige, and I learned on a tour that the exterior is made of ceramic tiles. They’re laid out in a pattern that suggests fish scales, or feathers. It’s a pretty outlandish building, designed by a Scandinavian architect who wasn’t positive his own design could even be built.

And if you think the current building is wacky, you should see some of the other proposals. A contest was held in the 1950s to solicit ideas for the design of Sydney’s new opera house, and the ones that didn’t look like Frank Lloyd Wright boxes looked like places the Jetsons might go to see a show.

And here’s another interesting tidbit about the opera house. The seats in the main performance hall (where unfortunately you aren’t allowed to take pictures) were made out of materials chosen because they absorb the same amount of sound as a human body. This means that a diva who has been rehearsing in an empty hall isn’t startled by a change in tone when the house is packed on opening night.

Maybe that’s common in opera houses, or maybe it’s a musical urban legend. But it impressed me nonetheless. Interestingly, the author Jan Morris, whose book Sydney I have with me, says that Australians like to sniff that they have the best opera house in the world. The only problem, they say, is that the façade is in Sydney and the interior is in Melbourne. I didn’t see an opera in either place, so I can’t say if I think this is true.