Exploring Australia 3: The Nullarbor Plain

Nullarbor Plain, Australia

Nullarbor Plain, Australia

Sleeping in Gold Class on the Indian Pacific is possible, but not easy:  the compartment is extremely cramped and, as I found last time I slept on a train, lying down magnifies bumps and twists in the track that are innocuous when sitting or standing.

It was very satisfying, however, to wake up to the sight of the Nullarbor Plain at dawn.  (Nullarbor is from the Latin – literally, no trees.)  The train ambled down the dead-straight track, with various pauses, until late in the afternoon when the train-captain solemnly announced that there was a curve ahead.  The railway itself provides incidents – occasional sidings with loading-bays for sheep, a limestone quarry, various passing-loops in which the Indian Pacific waits for the interminable container freight-trains heading in the opposite direction.

The Nullabor Plain is not monotonous, though it could be hypnotic.  Glancing up from a book every few minutes, it’s a surprise to find the landscape constantly varying – more or less vegetation, different colours, different skies.  The only sign of animal life the whole day was a herd of feral camels.  We never once saw a house, except when we stopped for refuelling at Cook (population:  5), once a thriving rail centre housing loco drivers, track-maintenance crews and all the necessary support including a school and a hospital.  When the line was relaid with termite-proof concrete sleepers the need for the community vanished, virtually overnight, and most of the remaining buildings are derelict.

Passengers are encouraged to leave the train for half an hour or more while the water-tanks are replenished, and it’s a pity that Cook doesn’t have more to offer.  A visitor-centre could interpret the Nullabor, tell the story of the building and operation of the railway and illustrate the lives of the railway workers and the sudden demise of the working community in 1997, and there are all kinds of commercial opportunities for a place where a couple of hundred fairly affluent people drop by four times a week with nothing to do but spend money.

As it is, there’s a tiny souvenir shop, where postcards are A$1.50 [nearly £1] each, and a set of lavatories.  The “ghost town” consists of very few unspectacular buildings and an expanse of vacant plots.  There’s nowhere to sit and not much to do.  At present, Cook is a missed opportunity.  That’s the most remarkable thing about the place.

In fact, I was eager to get back on the train.  On the Indian Pacific there’s every possible comfort, the incredibly hard-working, multi-talented staff are friendly, and you get what you pay for.  Why should I spend money on a can of Coke in a dump that’s dedicated to ripping people off?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *