Saturday, February 28, 2009

Photo Recap – All Good Things Come To An End

It’s a recurring phenomenon with me: a feeling of melancholy during the last few hours of any long distance train journey. It’s happening again as I finish a last drink in the lounge car and shake hands with two of my fellow passengers in case we miss each other on the platform. In less than two hours, the Ghan will conclude this amazing and unforgettable 1851-mile journey that bisected Australia from north to south, from tropical Darwin through Katherine and Alice Springs to temperate Adelaide.

We left the harsh desert during the wee hours and, at the moment, are passing through broad fields from which wheat has recently been harvested. There’s been a terrible heat wave here over the past several weeks, but that appears to be over. The Train Manager reports that the temperature in Adelaide will be warm but comfortable when we arrive just after 1:00 p.m.

This is also cattle country ... and sheep. In fact this area north of Adelaide reminds me a lot of the countryside seen as Amtrak's California Zephyr, which runs daily between Chicago and the Bay Area in California, passes through Nebraska and Eastern Colorado.

Before I forget, there are some things about Australia that take some getting used to. Take, for example, these four coins, the values for which are (left to right) 50 cents, one dollar, 10 cents and two dollars! I joked about it with an Australian back on the Indian Pacific, who pointed out that our dime is half the size of our nickel, but worth twice as much. He even knew about the one dollar Susan B. Anthony coin which we Americans kept confusing with quarters before giving up on it entirely. So, on second thought, never mind!

The Ghan rolls through a long slow arc around the town of Port Pirie. There’s a smelter operating here and the principal feature of the company -- in fact, of the whole town -- is the smokestack. That sucker is 200 meters high … or 656 feet for the metrically challenged.

The Ghan is still traveling through farmland, but moving at an easy pace as we pass residential communities that are coming more frequently. Adelaide is up ahead on the horizon and in less than 30 minutes, the second and last of these two extraordinary rail journeys will be over.

Tonight I’ll be in Adelaide – a city I would love to revisit – and tomorrow I’m off to Sydney via Qantas and a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at their magnificent Opera House. What better way to spend my final night in Australia? Then, after an overnight flight to Honolulu on Hawaiian Airlines, I connect with one of Hawaiian’s inter-island flights for the fast 22-minute hop back home to Maui.

I’ve been away for only 15 days, and I thoroughly enjoyed my travels crisscrossing Australia by train. But every time I return and see this place again, I get a lump in my throat. These eight islands are all uniquely and quite different, but Maui is special. The locals say Maui no ka oe … Maui is the best … and it’s hard to argue that. In fact, go ahead ... click on this photo and tell me I'm wrong!

Friday, February 27, 2009

And Then There’s 'A Town Called Alice'

Once again we’re back in the middle of the trackless hot and dry area that makes up most of the middle of the Australian continent. The first to successfully settle and populate this area could not have done so without the camels and, if you doubt that, book a trip on the Ghan and spend some time studying the passing landscapes.

As far as I can tell, terrain is the principle difference between this area and the great Nullarbor Plain to the south. Here there are hills, and those off in the distance could even be mountains. And here, unlike the Nullarbor, there is, we are told, an actual wet season when rains can be prolonged and heavy.

The Ghan reaches Alice Springs shortly after 9:00 a.m. and passengers file off the train and onto an assortment of buses and vans ready to shuttle them into the main part of town or to one of the optional tours being offered. Today, my choice is to be on my own, to wander around “the Capital of the Outback” and just let impressions happen as they will.

There are a lot of “backpackers” riding in Red Class on this train and this is where a lot of them are getting off. The term is pretty much applied to anyone under 30, wearing T-shirts and jeans, and traveling on the cheap … and there is an entire segment of the tourist industry in this country specifically geared to serving these intrepid folks.

Stepping off the shuttle bus in the center of town, I feel right at home because at first blush Alice Springs looks a lot like a small town in any hot part of the U.S. with buildings that are right out of the 60s. Just over there is the local K-Mart. And the air conditioned indoor mall, here, has a huge Woolworth’s as the anchor store. (The photo above is of a shop where clothing and other essentials were being collected to aid victims of the terrible bush fires in Victoria, far to the south.)

But there are also a large number of aborigines here, too … all chatting in one of their own tribal languages, of which there are a great many. One, a “stockman” or cowboy, cuts a very impressive figure. He’s wearing a western hat, long sleeved shirt with a dark blue bandana at his throat, and slim jeans that are cut just so over his western boots. Others, in fact most of the others, are dressed more shabbily, but are moving about their business through the mall, stopping for an ice cream cone or peering into shop windows.

I’m back aboard the shuttle bus at noon and back at the train station 10 minutes later, relaxing with a cold drink in the Ghan’s lounge car and swapping stories with other passengers about our morning excursions. The aborigines are mentioned and one man – mid-50s, shaved head and a blunt spoken Aussie businessman on holiday – says, “Most of us aren’t very proud over how the indigenous people have been treated in this country.” After a brief silence, the subject is changed.

Underway again and, sometime that afternoon several announcements are made that we are approaching the Finke River, described as one of the oldest rivers on the planet and which we will be crossing on a bridge that is 450 meters (1500 feet) long. And – ta-dah! – here it is. It’s wide, all right, but bone dry except for a few spots where water can still be seen in low spots. (Britannica describes it as “a major and intermittent river.”) Once again I’m struck by the one consistent impression I've had while crisscrossing this continent: how hot and dry it is so much of the time.

Tomorrow: Adelaide, and good things coming to an end.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Photo Recap – Small Town, Big Heart

Just after lunch, and a bit over 200 miles south of Darwin, the Ghan eases to a stop in the town of Katherine, a soggy or dusty (depending on the season) town of some 7,000 people. By now the weather has cleared and I head off down the platform to a van waiting to take us on a two hour tour of the town.

First stop is at the town’s charming museum, several rooms of interesting artifacts and mounted newspaper clippings. One of the earliest of the “Flying Doctor” services was located here, with pilot/physicians responding to emergency calls from remote ranches and farms hundreds of miles away in the outback. There is an extensive display and one of the first planes used carefully stored in a nearby 'hanger'.

One of the first to fly out of Katherine was Dr. Clyde Fenton, whose skills as a physician were balanced by his daring as a pilot. In the first several years of his “practice”, Fenton racked up some 75 minor events, referred to officially as “mishaps”, with his plane, a 1934 deHaviland Gypsy Moth. The authorities found that ever-increasing total a bit embarrassing, but Fenton insisted on taking chances in order to reach his far-flung patients. Eventually, a Solomon-like solution was reached: they stopped counting. Dr. Fenton survived , flew with the RAF during World War 2, and died in 1982. The local school here was named in his honor.

And speaking of schools, Katherine is also the site of a unique school where the 17 teachers conduct classes for 208 students scattered over 800,000 square kilometers … Australian kids who live in remote areas or are with parents working a foreign countries throughout Asia. Teachers and students are linked by computers and monitors and satellites. One more example of how the Australians have coped with their unique circumstances.

Back on board the Ghan and rolling south again, there is just time for a few libations to sooth parched throats – touring is a strenuous business – followed by a quick shower in the small lavatory that opens off my compartment.

Meanwhile, we’ve clearly left the wet, tropical climate of Darwin and are now traveling through an area that boats some actual hills. It’s still green out there, but much dryer and not nearly as lush as the country just a few hours behind us. You’ve got to pay attention, because the Ghan’s Australia is constantly changing.

I know, I know … this is really cruel, but I do need to offer a few words of praise for the food that is presented to us thrice daily. My choices tonight were a zucchini, leek and blue cheese soup and a prime beef filet with caramelized onions and baby carrots. This was the dessert: a rhubarb and ginger ice cream torte, topped by raspberries in a rosella flower syrup. The stick-like thingy is chocolate. Life is good.

Tomorrow: A Town Called Alice.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Photo Recap – A Fond If Soggy Farewell to Darwin

Here’s a departure from the norm: Darwin’s train station is a 30 minute taxi ride out of town, well beyond the airport. And when I get there, the rain is coming down in sheets … so hard that Great Southern Railway, operators of The Ghan, have buses there to take us from the terminal itself directly to our respective railway carriages.

In fact, when the bus stops and opens its door, the steps into my carriage are directly opposite. Step off the bus, step on the platform, step up into carriage “H”. Is that service, or what! Once loaded, the Ghan gets underway, rolling past a couple of hardy souls braving the torrents to wave good-bye to a departing relative.

The on-board newsletter announces a 10:00 a.m. departure from Darwin and, by a happy coincidence, that’s also when the bar in the Ghan’s lounge cars open! There’s nothing like a champagne reception to brighten up a rainy morning. (By the way, I’ve noticed that the sleepers are referred to as “carriages” but, for some reason, it’s “the lounge car” and “the dining car.” I meant to ask about that, but forgot. Anyone know the reason?)

After riding through the Nullarbor Plain, it’s almost shocking to look out the window and see all of the lush vegetation. See those strange brown shapes? Termite mounds! There are billions of the little buggers out there, and they’re the reason all the cross ties (known as “sleepers” here) are concrete. Clearly, wood just won’t work.

They told me I would be I would be in this part of Australia during the Wet Season, and I am certainly a believer! The ground is saturated, rivers that will be dry in six months are overflowing their banks, and what will be nothing more than low spots in October are lakes today. Haven’t seen any crocs but, says one of the crew, they are definitely out there!

Three-and-a-half hours and 200 or so miles later, the Ghan arrives at the town of Katherine. We’ll be here for almost five hours, and it’s stopped raining, so I pile onto a van with 8 or 10 other passengers for a tour of the area. And – for me, anyway – it proves to be one of the more interesting diversions of the whole trip.

Tomorrow: Katherine and Doctors that fly and classrooms with digital students.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Photo Recap: Perth to Darwin and 100% Humidity

The night before my flight up to Darwin, as I arrange a wake-up call, the woman at the hotel’s front desk says 30 minutes will be plenty of time to allow for the check-in. Well, as a veteran traveler, I know better and this morning I arrive at the Perth airport nearly two hours before my flight is due to depart ...

… and end up cooling my heels for well over an hour. She was right: It took exactly 23 minutes to get my boarding pass, check my one small bag and go through security. Qantas, and the airport authorities here, really have their act together. By the way – and I may have mentioned this before – I have learned that Qantas is an acronym for Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Services, which explains after all these years of wondering, why there is no “U”.

For 15 or 20 minutes after taking off from Perth on the way to Darwin, we pass over farmlands that look for all the world like much of the mid-western U.S. Darwin is close to the equator and will be very tropical, but everything in between is Australia’s vast central desert – barren red earth, scorched by a blazing sun, and virtually uninhabitable.

Darwin is at the far other end of the spectrum from 'dry'. It's overcast today with heavy rain off and on, but still very warm. The Novotel hotel has five floors of guestrooms surrounding an atrium with a central air condition system that manages to keep the staggering humidity at bay … but just barely. By the way, this town was repeatedly bombed by the Japanese during World War II.

And about that humidity … My goodness, a stroll into the park just the across the street is enough to break a sweat and following a narrow walkway down through the thick, steaming foliage to the beach starts me perspiring profusely.

I’m sure there must be classic sandy beaches around here, but this sure ain’t one of them! And there’s not likely to be one in my immediate future since we’ll have a tropical downpour for the rest of the day and I’m going to be off tomorrow morning on my second rail journey. Oh well, I can always hole up in the hotel restaurant where smoked crocodile is featured on the menu.

Tomorrow: Aboard the legendary Ghan, south to "a town called Alice" and on to Adelaide.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Photo Recap – Perth and Fremantle

Most people think that three nights on a train is an eternity. Me? I’m always sorry when I near the end of a train ride, no matter how long I’ve been on board. It’s true again as I sit having breakfast on the last morning of the last day of this ride on the Indian Pacific.

Today, after almost two days of arid, sun-baked desert, everything is different. An hour before our arrival in Perth, the train is rolling through fertile valleys. This is one of Australia’s wine-producing regions and there are many vineyards passing by as we enjoy breakfast in the dining car.

Most of the Indian Pacific's passengers linger on the platform at the East Perth Railroad Terminal, saying good-by and exchanging phone numbers and email adresses with new friends.

Kings Park is a highlight of any visit to Perth. Originally King’s Park, being named for Edward VII, the Aussies eventually dropped the apostrophe and the park now honors any British king who might come to mind. Whatever … it’s beautiful and serene and a wonderful, mellow way to spend two or three hours.

Many of the trees in Kings Park, including these that line one of the roadways through the area, were planted to honor one of the young men of Perth who fell in battle thousands of miles away. (Note the plaques at the base of each tree.) Nearby there is a simple but elegant memorial built around an eternal flame, inscribed with some all-too-familiar names: Gallipoli, El Alamain, Tobruk and others.

The park overlooks the Swan River which passes through the adjacent port city of Fremantle where it empties into the Indian Ocean.

Perth, by the way, lays claim to being “the most isolated capital city in the world.” Well, maybe. What about Honolulu, the capital of the State of Hawaii? The West Coast of the U.S. is the closest land mass, and it’s 2400 miles away.

My second day in Perth, I took a cruise up the Swan River from Fremantle, passing a number of very posh homes built on bluffs with commanding views of all the traffic on the river.

Tomorrow: Heading way up north to tropical Darwin

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Photo Recap – Kalgoorlie and the Super Pit

About an hour after passing the derailment site, the Indian Pacific slides to a gentle stop at the station in Kalgoorlie. This has been a mining town since 1893 when gold was discovered. Until recently when the prices fell, nickel was also being mined. We’ll be here for just about two hours – time enough for a bus tour of the town.

In many way, Kalgoorlie still has the feel of a boom town. Many of the buildings are evocative of a much earlier era – this is one of several hotels reminiscent of Victorian times – and there are even three operating legal brothels. (Two of the working girls waved cheerfully as we drove slowly passed one of the houses, prompting our bus driver to recall rather mournfully that there were more than 40 such establishments in Kalgoorlie’s heyday.)

The town’s major tourist attraction is -- no, not the brothels -- the Super Pit, where gold is mined using “open cut” techniques. There is an estimated 8-9 years of life left in the pit, which is now nearly 1000 feet deep. See the headlights on those tiny little trucks down there? Each one of those trucks can transport 220 tons of crushed rock and it takes six truckloads to yield a golf-ball-size piece of pure gold. (My apologies for the slight blur to the photo. It was nearly dark when I took it and I had no tripod to steady the camera.)

This will help put the scale into perspective: It’s a tire for one of those monster trucks. According to our guide, each tire costs more than $20,000.

And this is one of the buckets used to scoop up the crushed rock and dump it into one of those trucks. Like the pit itself, all the equipment used here is massive.

By 10:30, all passengers have returned to the Indian Pacific for our third and last night aboard. Our final stretch run … another 375 miles or so westward ... will terminate in Perth on the shores of the Indian Ocean just after breakfast. (I was traveling alone in a two-person compartment, but lowered the upper berth for purposes of this photo.)

Tomorrow: Perth and the port of Freemantle

Friday, February 20, 2009

Photo Recap – Crossing the Great Nullarbor Plain

The Nullarbor Plain has to be one of the great deserts of the world. But its name is misleading. Nullarbor comes from the Latin meaning “no trees,” and while that may be an accurate description in some parts of this magnificent wasteland, it’s a misnomer in many other areas.

At first glance, these photos will probably look the same, but on closer examination, just like the Nullarbor itself, you’ll see differences … in topography, in the vegetation, in the colors.

After a 30-minute stop at Cook, the Indian Pacific resumes it’s journey due west across the vast, desolate center of the Australian continent. Somewhere up ahead is the longest stretch of perfectly straight railroad track in the world – 324 miles. (It's gonna look pretty much like this!)

For the next hour or so, it's table-top flat, dry as a bone and, wherever you look, not a tree in sight … just what I expected from the stories I’d heard of the Nullarbor “no trees” Plain.

But, another 40 minutes farther on, I notice the rocks … some as large as oil drums … scattered to the horizon and beyond. There are no mountains for hundreds of miles. How did they get here? And how long have they been here?

It’s close to noon now and hot out there! The rail cars are air conditioned and comfortable, but I stepped into the little toilet/shower off my compartment a bit ago and it must have been 100 degrees from the hot air that was blasting up from the tracks through the 2-inch drain in the floor. But despite the searing heat outside, there is now vegetation in the desert: gray-green brush related to sage and small gnarled trees.

I’m happily distracted for a half-hour or so by a cold beer and some interesting conversation in the lounge car, but when I return my attention to the Nullarbor, it’s changed again – there’s red earth now, and sturdy full-sized trees with brilliant green leaves. Yet, for all intents and purposes, it’s just as hot and just as dry as ever.

Shortly after 6:00, the train slows to a crawl as we near the site of last week’s freight train derailment, caused by a sudden rainstorm and flash flood that undermined the tracks. After sitting on a siding for a few minutes, an eastbound freight trundles past, the first train to cross the temporary tracks that have been laid around the mess.

Now it’s our turn, and at a cautious 5 or 6 miles-per-hour, the Indian Pacific skirts what remains of the wreckage. The massive locomotives are still lying on their sides but, working with heavy equipment, crews have salvaged whatever they could, broken the wrecked rail cars into pieces and shoved the whole mess into a huge contorted pile of debris. Five minutes later, the Indian Pacific has resumed normal track speed and is heading directly into the setting sun. We’re due into the mining town of Kalgoorlie at just about dusk.

Tomorrow: Last night on board and on to Perth.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Photo Recap: Heading West Onto The Nullarbor

During the Indian Pacific’s three-and-a-half-hour stopover in Adelaide, I took a bus tour of the city. I really like this town. It has a very open and comfortable feel to it, well laid out with wide streets and numerous parks.

Halfway through the tour, we stopped in one of the parks where, we were told, the locals come to soak in the great “view” of their city. Apparently, this little rise is what passes for a hill in these parts. (Those light towers are for the local cricket stadium.)

Once underway again, the train heads north then angles westward, passing through Port Augusta, leaving the Southern Ocean behind and, just as the sun sets, striking out onto the Nullarbor Plain.

Morning finds us rocking along across this incredible, desolate vastness … blistering sand dotted with low gray-green brush extending to the horizon and for many hundred of miles beyond. Click on this photo and you will just be able to see a herd of wild camels, probably a quarter of a mile away.

About an hour after breakfast, the train reaches the dusty little town of Cook, originally established to service the steam trains that stopped here. With the advent of diesel locomotives, the town’s original population of some 35 souls declined and is, as of the moment we arrive, two!

While passengers wander around greater metropolitan downtown Cook swatting at the flies, the two locomotive drivers handle the refueling. Supplies for the two-soon-to-be-four inhabitants of the town are off-loaded and taken into one of the dusty buildings.

Cook’s two residents, both ladies, are busily selling souvenirs to passengers in their little shop. In response to a question, one informs us that the population of their town will double in three or four days when their husbands return from a fishing trip, 150 or so miles due south at the Southern Ocean.

Thirty minutes after our arrival, the Indian Pacific is underway and heading westward once again. The Nullarbor landscape changes subtly – from no trees to some trees, from yellow sand to red earth – and there are occasional sightings of wedge-tailed eagles and dingos, the wild dogs of Australia. Life on board settles into an easy low-key routine, with cold beverages in the lounge car. Offhand, I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be at this particular moment.
Tomorrow: More of the Nullarbor and we pass a derailment.