Crossing the Nullarbor
I awake, in the upright position, to find myself having arrived on Mars. In reality I have entered the vast red desert plain between Adelaide and Kalgoorlie known as the Nullarbor. I am upright due to my economy class day/night seat aboard the Indian Pacific Express.
Boarding at Adelaide the previous evening, the train had already completed a third of its epic journey from Sydney to Perth. Already passing most of what might be considered as varied landscape for the entire trip. Nowhere is this more evident than here in the Nullarbor, with the unchanging vista of a vast and empty red desert, where the sighting of a mere tree is a noteworthy event.
This shouldn’t have come as a total surprise as the rough Latin translation for Nullarbor, is No Trees. Couple this (excuse the train parlance) with the longest straight stretch of track in the world, 478 kilometres without so much as a mere suggestion of a curve or bend, and you know you are on a journey like no other.
Gazing onto the plains, the only movement the eye can perceive is a wavering of the horizon that comes with intense heat. It is 8am and we are duly informed by the steward in our carriage that, “It’s a beaut of a day,” and the outside temperature is already approaching 100 degrees Farenheit.
I digest this news and consider the fate of the two explorers who first came upon this unending emptiness. In 1841, John Eyre and John Baxter set out on the arduous journey across the most inhospitable territory on the planet and it wasn’t until over five months of unimaginable hardship that Eyre finally made it. His achievement is honoured by the naming of the highway across the Nullarbor after him. Baxter’s lot however, was a little less satisfactory. Suffering terribly in the extreme conditions, he one day lay down in the middle of the plain and promptly became part of the food chain.
As the train grinds to a slow halt at Cook, I jump down with disproportionate excitement, ready to sample the town’s delights. My excitement withers almost as soon as my feet hit the red dirt and I survey the thriving metropolis Cook clearly isn’t. I wouldn’t be doing Cook (Pop. 2), a great injustice to describe it as a jumbled collection of tinned roofed shacks. Most seem to be disused, and judging by the foot thick mass of spider webs on the door handles, have been for sometime.
Half the permanent population of Cook is hemmed into the corner of her tiny shop by a swaying mass of agoraphobic passengers. Who seem intent on being the first to purchase all manner of overpriced oddities. To be fair the sole purpose of Cook is to service the trains and its passengers and any excuse to stretch the legs is most welcome.
Once the train gets underway again, I scan the landscape for anything to stir the imagination and I suddenly become aware that I’m really missing the point here. The emptiness is what makes this voyage so unique, where else can you see this. All the nothingness goes to the very heart of the endearing mystery of Australia.
Its vacuity is absolute, to bury your head into a book and give the desert an occasional glance is to do it a disservice. Sitting in relative comfort and safety aboard the Indian Pacific takes away the rawness of it all and leaves most people unable to fully appreciate how inhospitable the Nullarbor really is.
Later into the evening, as the train approaches Kalgoorlie, I feel a rather odd mixture of emotions, a sense of achievement on crossing the Nullarbor, a journey that even a lot of Australians don’t take. As we head back into what passes for civilisation in these parts, the strongest emotion however, is an immense sadness at leaving the desert plains behind.
Maybe it’s something primal or maybe it was just being able to relax and appreciate a part of Australia that all too often gets overlooked, but I can honestly say that I have never felt so satisfied by and privileged to share in absolutely nothing.