by Tim Dawe
Some people bang on about the romance of trains and the joys of long-distance train journeys. Well, when you’re sitting in the same so-called sleeper seat after 24 hours (six of them competing for a night’s sleep with cute but frolicsome kids) staring glassy-eyed out the window at flat nothingness for hour after hour, Australia’s Indian Pacific train can be, well, downright boring.
So this imperceptible lurch (no gasps from other passengers) in an otherwise monotonously steady movement is a, “hullo, hullo, what’s this then” sort of moment. Ever so gently there’s a slight grab – yes, that’s the airbrake. We glide to a complete stop. You have to admire these big diesel locomotives; the coffee in my cup barely moves. Then there’s the familiar “ding-dong” from the carriage speakers; an announcement delivered in solemn tones.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Australia now has one less cow.
“We have just hit a steer and it has knocked out the air-conditioning. We’ll be remaining here until we pick up the pieces and put it back together,” says our duty manager, who doubles as a bit of a character.
Hit a cow? On the tracks? These silver slivers scything through vast emptiness? What would be chances of that in the middle of the Nullarbor Plain? I’ve not seen a steer, or in fact anything alive, on this lunar landscape in five hours.
Fortunately for us the backup power is instantaneous and the air-conditioning never misses a beat. Unfortunately for the workers I see outside (picking up pieces?) the forecast is for 44 degrees and it’s already 11 am. Perhaps because of the torpor of doing and seeing nothing for hours, looking out from my comfortable bubble at this hostile environment I don’t feel any sense of possible doom. But if somehow I was left behind out there, perish the thought, my fate would be worse than the cow.
I am travelling economy “sit up” class from Perth to Sydney via Adelaide and Broken Hill delivering a car to my daughter. My ticket is really only a small add-on to the cost of transporting the car, making me something like accompanying baggage. Our enforced delay happens to be smack in the middle of Australia, in the middle of the longest straight stretch of rail in the world, and only half an hour from Cook, where we have a scheduled one-hour stop.
Cook is tiny; not so much a town as a railway station and associated buildings. Yet it takes a time to take in. Is it real or simply a shimmering mirage, perhaps an image from a dredged memory of a Western movie?
The heat is real. Like a furnace, it seers through.
Cook has nothing in common with seafarers and is named after the sixth Prime Minister of Australia, Joseph Cook. The nation of Australia is based on the promise of the Trans-Australian Railway. Cook was established in 1917, firstly to service the railway construction workers, then as an integral part of the famous Tea and Sugar Train supplying isolated communities between Kalgoorlie and Port Augusta. Some towns and stations were established because of the Tea and Sugar Train.
Special cars were fitted to the train for this vital, wide-ranging supply service. Livestock were processed in the butchery car; there was a bank car, a clinic car, a movie car, and even a Christmas car. The Tea and Sugar service stopped in 1996 but even now Santa boards the Indian Pacific each December to give the kids of the Nullarbor some special cheer.
At its peak Cook was a thriving community of 300 people living in “splendid isolation”. There was a school, hospital, post office, golf course and swimming pool. Artesian water supported eucalypts and fruit trees. In 1997 the owners of the newly privatised railway reduced their needs from the town to a stopover bed and refuelling four times a week. The population dropped to two.
In the last four years there has been a population explosion: from two to four! Now two couples call Cook home; the men offload and on-load and the women run the little souvenir shop.
Blast the heat, it’s time to explore.
My first tentative foray is to view this mighty long train from the outside – and to check on my daughter’s car. Locomotives and vanishing point carriages make an impressive sight set against the flatness to the horizon. There is enough track here for an 1800m train. If only I could get some elevation for perspective. But it’s just too damn hot.
The station platform at least is shady. It’s long, nondescript and locked up. The only thing open is the tiny souvenir shop with the local ladies doing a moderate trade. I leave the kitsch and take an ice cream. Outside the shop at the end of the platform under a large shady tree is some local public art, or an excuse for witticisms, on old water tanks: “if you’re crook come to Cook, our hospital needs you, so get sick”.
I move away from the track towards obvious signs of a settlement. What stories these abandoned homes could tell of work and play and growing up in one’s own special universe. I come across an imposing two-storey residence emblazoned with a large mural of the only industry in town: railways. Local tourism infrastructure is a little thin on the ground here so guesswork and intuition is needed.
Two hundred metres on and one thing is very clear. Cook once boasted a reasonably sized modern swimming pool. But this one I am inspecting hasn’t seen water for years. In fact it is full of soil. A safety measure perhaps?
Further on is the residents’ former crowning glory, the Cook Country Club. It’s a hoot. The tatty tennis net still flaps over a baking clay court while the club house, a converted 1950s goods van, is in a very sorry state. As for the golf club, there is a large notice proclaiming it, but where it and the Nullarbor start and end is anyone’s guess.
I have no saliva left and my nostrils are burning. I have to return to the “comfort” of my sleeper seat (I never thought I would use those words) and do so in an arc past sheds and trucks ferrying supplies.
I end up at the rear of the platform that I missed earlier and discover Cook’s gaol (the plaque says: “Historic gaol cells of Cook”). I inspect a rusty corrugated iron structure resembling a large dunny except for the bars and bolts. On such a day my first thought is that it must be some instrument of torture. My second is: is it a joke? Maybe, there’s a lot of spare time for residents of Cook.
I return to my carriage. Was that an hour? Time doesn’t mean a lot in Cook – or for that matter, clickity-clacking over the Nullarbor on the Indian Pacific. I’m on my way again. Adelaide bound.
South Australia’s Cook is an isolated ghost town in the middle of a remote and unforgiving land. Certainly my brief stopover was no Cooks Tour, although I felt the warm embrace of its history. But its fantastic images will remain with me for ages.