Friday, June 26, 2009
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.