A railway tale

As I come towards the end of the first month 0f 2018 I am already aware that my grand plans of focussing on writing this year is getting a serious battering.
I suppose one really needs to be a little more realistic when setting holiday writing goals I did however manage a couple of writing blocks, a fair whack of research and the reactivation of this blog, but that was it.
Then January came along with a series of emergency management issues involving fires and fruit fly. Not only did this cause an early return to work by three days early but also a three week blur of long hours and weekend work again minimising precious writing time.
I am well aware that I am not alone as we make the transition from holiday mode back to day to day reality as I became involved in many a conversation in various Facebook writing forums about finding that elusive time to write.
To my fellow writers who have taken to early morning writing starts I applaud you. Well done you!
Not being a morning person and particularly before at least one cup of coffee, an early writing sprint is currently a little beyond my abilities. Such a plan also clashes with my other grand scheme for 2018, to improve my fitness levels. This is particularly to counter the long hours already spent sitting at a desk. So any early start I have been able to muster so far this year has been reserved for the exercise sessions.
One evening last week however a moment of inspiration led to a combination of exercise and writing occurring in one full swoop. While taking a late evening walk Yours Truly suddenly came across an idea for a particular scene in the novel. I had heard how exercise can help creativity but I had not heard how one can take advantage of this moment and not lose the opportunity to keep up with the fitness regime at the same time.
However all was not lost. Realising the importance of capturing this light bulb moment, I flicked open the smartphone, switched on the microphone and dictated the scene while continuing on with the walk. While some might think it is taking multi tasking to the extreme, I did go to bed happy that night knowing not only had I made my 10,000 step goal for the day but also managed to add 400 words and a scene to the manuscript.
I should probably stop gnashing my teeth on my minimal writing time so far this year and look upon any chance for writing that I have been able to snaffle, no matter how big or small, as steps towards the my goal of a more focussed writing year.
So here I am finally once again able to fire up the computer, sit down, start typing away and tell you a story.
As today’s temperature in Adelaide reaches beyond 42C and the town seemingly in hibernation, it is appropriate to discuss a new form of story telling I have embraced recently – Slow TV – thanks to the SBS program The Ghan.
Despite no plot, dialogue or narration, I was mesmerised while watching both the three hour and 17 hour versions in recent weeks. To me it was story telling at its simplest.
While I didn’t watch both versions from woah to go, when I did sit down in front of the TV I found the concept absolutely captivating. Is it because it is just paring a story back back to it’s most basic or the fact that it is train travel lived vicariously? I believe my fascination might actually be both.
I’ve always adored train travel. From the Murder on the Orient Express, The 39 Steps, Anna Karenina, the Railway Children and others; I’ve loved the depiction of railway travel in stories. It is the thought, I suspect, of a captive cast who emerge to create a new world of possibilities, incidents and characters while the outside world rushes by.
As a young child taking various trips around Adelaide with my father at weekends on the old red hen railcars, I always had the feeling on the train that one was in a separate and complete world away from the scenes that flashed by the railcar window. It was only once you were back onto the platform would the two worlds merge.
Often freezing in winter or wilting in summer as you were stuck to the red vinyl seats the red hens nevertheless would take you out of your own backyard and allow you to explore the wider metropolitan area and beyond. I recall the joy of going through tunnels on the way up to Mount Lofty, playing with the the autumn leaves at Belair National Park, eating ice creams while walking along the beach at Brighton, Semaphore or Grange and going on the longer trip out to Gawler. In those days it was still a country town rather that an outer metro area and like the train journey to Bridgewater, it provided an opportunity to step out of Adelaide.
Yes train travel and I are like peas in a pod. It seems to be a natural fit.
It is no surprise that my first great travel adventure should be by train, although to be fair I should preface that statement by admitting my first interstate journey actually involved flight.
However there is something about your first great railway journey. It also now seems fitting in discussing my recent encounter with Slow TV my first great railway trip was in fact on the old Ghan – the Central Australian Railway – from Adelaide through to The Alice and included the original narrow gauge line from Marree to Alice Springs. That adventure is seared in my memory.
For little six year old me, going on the old Ghan was also my introduction to Central Australia, an area that was to play a further role in my childhood, although I wasn’t to know it at the time. What I do remember however is a three day journey north that made me realise how big our great country truly is.
It was December 1972 and I was part an extended family group travelling to Alice Springs to spend the festive season with family members living up there. This was the era when the Stuart Highway was still unsealed, so if you wanted your car at the end of the journey, the best way to ensure the vehicle reached Alice in one piece was via The Ghan.
A very early summer morning saw me walking through Adelaide Railway Station’s Marble Hall, holding Mum’s hand and in awe of the beautiful stonework, providing a calmness that promised great things. However the peace didn’t last long as one was suddenly became immersed in the hubbub of checking in luggage, making your way through the crowds to the platform and ultimately our carriage. There was a further burst of activity as conductors punched tickets, valets directed you to your cabin and rushed goodbyes were made to family members staying behind in Adelaide as the final call and whistle rang out.
Waving goodbye through the window, a little thrill ran through me as the train pulled out of the station, through the parklands, the northern suburbs and finally onto the mid north countryside. For the first time I was finally in a train that was going beyond Gawler!
My fondest memory of that initial leg to Port Pirie was my first foray in the dining car and being allowed to choose my own dishes (for a six year old this is significant). It must have been for lunch as I recall having cream of chicken soup. I know I was already a fiend of chicken noodle soup but this seems to be my first recollection of cream of chicken soup and it also seems to be the meal that fostered my ongoing love affair with pepper.
I was continually fascinated as I sat in the carriage lounge watching the country side pass by. Boredom strangely was not a factor here. There was something always seeking your attention, whether it was the ever changing landscape, being hypnotised by the ongoing thread of the electricity and telegraph poles and lines, observing one end of the train from the other while as it rounded a bends, or waiting in the siding as a goods trains rushed by.
After the change of trains at Port Pirie the clocks dotted through the train gained in significance with me as I moved through the carriages from the lounge to our berth and into the dining car. Whenever I came across one I would start to work out how long it would be before we reached our next stop at Port Augusta and onto our the change of trains at Marree that night. I was learning quickly that keeping a track of time was very much a part of train travel.
However I was also about to learn that in the case of the old Ghan keeping to timetables was not its forte.
The first inkling of this train’s idiosyncratic time keeping occurred just north of Port August while in the dining room having dinner.
Unlike the chicken soup of lunch I no longer recall what I was eating when the train came to a halt. By now used to the train stopping at various stages of our journey so far to allow for the passage of the goods trains past us, neither myself or anyone around me thought this stop signified anything different and we continued on with our meal.
However the longer the train remained stationary and without the accompanying rumble of a goods train passing by, it soon became apparent that this was no ordinary stop. In time one of the conductors came into the car to confirm our suspicions. This time the stop was due to a derailment of a goods train further north of the line. We would shortly be continuing on with our journey near to the derailment point and staying in the train overnight until the buses arrived in the morning for us to continue to Marree.
The old Ghan was once again showing how she was the mistress of her own timetable and not Commonwealth Railways. Derailments, from buckled rails brought about by the searing heat and floods that often came from no where to wash away the line, were a common part of life on the Central Australian Railway. I was soon to learn that it was a rare occurrence for the Ghan to ever complete the journey on time.
By the time dinner finished the train had once again set off and subsequently Yours Truly was packed off to bed to enjoy for the first time the delicious pleasure of being rocked to sleep by the gentle motion of the train moving through the starlit desert night.
The next day emerging out of the train in the morning light, we were all able to see the damage ahead of us caused by the goods trains. Twisted rails and wagons concertinaed across the sands. It was clear that our train was going nowhere.
This was also the first time I had step out of the train onto the parched country side and already the morning air brought the promise of the heat that was to come. It was quickly apparent the bus trip to Marree was going to be uncomfortable. This was before we even saw the buses.
A short while after breakfast the buses turned up. I can’t remember clearly the older family members reactions to what we were going to be travelling but salubrious they weren’t.
Our transportation to Marree was to be via buses used by Leigh Creek coalminers. While you could see a hint of the past lives as a part of Adelaide’s metropolitan bus network, they had nevertheless gone through a serious transformation in their new role of carting miners through the desert. All now remained was a ghost consisting of just the metal skeleton of the bus frame, the glass having been removed to enable as much air as possible to flow through.
My grandfather, realising that as being the youngest passenger on board the train I was going to need all the help I could get in making it to Marree. So as the transfer of passengers and baggage occurred he walked through all the carriages, obtaining empty drink cans and filling them up with water before stocking them in the bus. All I now remember of this bus journey was the searing heat as we bounced along the unsealed rocky road with my mother pouring water from the collected cans over me and constantly wetting the face washers that were wrapped around me neck in an effort to keep me cool. Thank you Grandpa for coming up with your great plan.
After a while we finally made it to Lyndhurst and the pub.
Taking a break in the shade of the Lyndhurst Hotel verandah, you could see the shimmer of the heat into the horizon as you looked out on the treeless plains beyond. It was at this point I fully appreciated just how unforgiving our big brown land could be. I was also grateful for the cold glass of lemonade that had come my way.
Looking out onto the sunburnt plains I overheard the adults behind me discussing the fact that while it was 42C in the shade, it was more like 50 degrees or more out in the sun. I didn’t doubt them.
However Marree still beckoned and all too soon it was time once again to rejoin the skeleton bus, the heat, the dust and the flies for the remainder of that bone shaking journey and more cans of water being poured over me.
On reaching Marree and sighting the train, we thought that worst of the adventures were over. The old Ghan still wasn’t done with us yet.
As we settled into our cabin we were advised by the conductor that the air-conditioning in our carriage had broken down and they hoped to replace it with one that worked. So for the rest of the afternoon the train shunted to and fro as other carriages were reorganised but for us it was to no avail. As our carriage contained the lounge car there was no choice but to continue on with our journey sans air.
Even in departing Marree The Ghan’s sense of humour continued.
As sunset approached an announcement came through to ask passengers who had been fortunate enough to have their carriages changed over to go onto the platform to identify their luggage. Given our carriage hadn’t changed we were sitting in the lounge area watching the activity occurring outside.
Seemingly without warning the train started moving. As with the collective thought process the night before just north of Port Augusta, the initial movement seemed no different to the shunting activity that had been occurring throughout the afternoon. However it soon became apparent that this time the train was starting to speed up forcing many to make a dash back into the moving carriages.
It is still one of the great mysteries of this adventure that the luggage seemingly left on the platform at Marree was somehow available for pick up on arrival at Alice Springs. I never found out just what happened but I suspect it was put on one of the goods trains that overtook us during that final leg north.
As we travelled into the night and into the next day slowly inching our way towards Alice Springs and despite our adventures encountered so far on the journey, I was still in awe of the country that was unfolding outside our carriage windows. Standing in the passage way with my cousin we marvelled as emus and kangaroos travelled along with us. Seeing them in their natural environment moving along the red sand and scrub suddenly gave life to the school and library books that until then had been our only reference to these magnificent creatures. For all her dramas The Ghan was still better than any classroom.
With no air conditioning and only a steel floor between you and the searing desert sand below, there was no way one could walk with bare feet. Jokes were abounding around the carriage about being able to cook an egg on the floor. It was one of my great disappointments that no one was game to try to test the truth of theory. However when going to bed during that our final leg to Alice Springs thongs were always strategically placed on the bunk in case one needed to get up during the night.
Finally in the early hours of Christmas Eve, three days after our departure from Adelaide we arrived in Alice Springs. My first great adventure on The Ghan was over but it was not to be my last, however the tale of those adventures are for another day.
In 2004 the 19th century colonial dream of a North/South transcontinental railway was finally realised when the new line via Tarcoola reached Darwin. I have yet to go on this full journey all the way from Adelaide to Darwin, other than what I have recently seen on SBS, but it is on my travel bucket list. I am looking forward to making the comparison of what I suspect will be a far smoother and comfortable journey against The Ghan of childhood adventure.

About crossbordertales

A former journalist and frustrated author currently working in media and communications based in Adelaide, South Australia. This site is a collection of my writing, the people I have met and photos that have come from living and working in both South Australia and South West Victoria a joy. I hope you enjoy these cross border tales.
This entry was posted in Cross Border Tales, memoir, This Writing Life, Travel writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A railway tale

  1. jsando says:

    I went on the Ghan once, when we travelled to NT in my last year of primary school. I don’t remember much about it, but this post makes me want to dig up my Alice photos to see if I can pull more details out of my mind. I haven’t watched the SBS show either, but have heard great things. Don’t worry so much about not being able to get up ultra early to write. You have a full-time job, I don’t and you are paying good attention to your fitness levels – I’m not (and I should be!). Everyone’s in a different situation. Etc. Loved that you were able to craft a scene during your walk –that is multi-tasking at its finest. 😉

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