There’s an odd kind of surrealism to long distance train travel. I’m looking out the window at the brown, foaming waters of the upper Swan river (although this far upstream it could well be the Avon) swollen by the rain from the massive frontal system that’s rolled over the state for the last few days. The waters are pouring violently over rocks and boulders, just a few meters from where I sit, yet all I can hear is the endless thrum of the diesel engines pulling us eastwards.
I’m one hour into the eight hour train journey from Perth to Kalgoorlie, and am passing through the deeply eroded and disected edge of the western continental plateau. People are starting to settle in now, taking off jackets and coats, and either producing food from their bags, or ordering it from the attendants. Even the baby a few seats back has got used to the rythym and settled down to sleep. The train is winding in and out of the steep valleys, occasionaly bursting out into patches of sunlight, but mostly travelling through shadow and occasionaly patches of low cloud, hiding in the deepest valleys.
I’m not typing this, I’m writing it longhand in a notebook with a ballpoint pen for later transcription. This is somewhat appropriate – for all our development railway travel is still an eighteenth century technolgy, so it’s fitting that I’ve reverted back to a more primative form of recording to match. This is of course lost on the man sitting in the window seat next to me. He keeps trying to read over my shoulder, but as I usually do in public I’m writing in the oksos, so he hasn’t a hope of understanding it.
It’s eight fifteen and the landscape has changed. We’ve emerged from the state forest of the escarpment and into sheep country. The land is flattening out and the man in the window seat is trying to sleep. These cripsy bacon biscuits are making me thirsty.
Eight twenty five and it’s raining in Toodyay. Much to my relief a number of small irritating children have just alighted. We continue on our way, passing through cuttings of rich red earth. The sun is out, but the sky ahead is black.
We’re in dairy cattle country now. The trees are changing from dark barked to pale white, like ghosts gums. We lost the river at Toodyay, but a fragment of rainbow is flaring up against the dark skies ahead. Grey green rocks are poking up out of the hillsides.
The track suddenly divides. A gigantic grain elevator looms. It’s the W.A.R Avon Yards, a great comglomeration of warehouses and workshops, laced with railway track. We pass under a bridge, and enter Northam where we briefly meet with the river once again. More people alight, but some get on as well.
Golden fields to the right under a mist of rain. Canola? Perhaps. I don’t know.
We are surrounded by sheep once again as the Kalgoorlie pipeline appears. Running hundreds of miles from the hills of Mundaring, carrying water from the coast inland to the desert city. The greatest achievement of the cursed C.Y.O’Connor. The ravages of salt start making their first appearances on the land, marring the green fields.
A forest of dead and dying trees. Salty mud lies in swathes between the the bare trunks. In twenty years the entire wheatbelt will look like this.
Another grain elevator, a twin for the last one looms up. I miss the name of the town, and the driver offers no clue. A sign flashes past. Merriden? Earthquake ravaged Mekering? It’s gone too fast to tell.
Salt ravaged land stalks the northern horizon. It sudenly swings southwards, and the train travels through a desert landscape of barren sand, low saltbushes and brackish ponds. It pulls back, but remains like a dark shadow to the north, returning to haunt us with another patch just outside of Cunderdin. It’s hard to appreciate the magnitude of the salinity problem until you see it for yourself.
A frieght train rushes past. It’s carriages are compressed by our relative speeds until they seem only a metre long each. The land becomes flatter, and the trees shorter.
We’re well into the wheatbelt now. Green stalks sprout from the fields and the driver has to blow the horn to scare pink and grey galahs off of the tracks. Then, as if to confirm my thoughts, the driver announces that we’re pulling into Tammin.
Tammin! Scene of the year 12 Geography camp. Looking just the same as it did nine years ago, from the gigantic grain elevator (built to the same standard plan as every single one along the line) to the co-operative store full of metal tubs, to the old westrail depot (still in use to torture students, to judge by the tents outside). Even the big fat bastard tree is unchanged. It hasn’t changed a bit since 1993.
More’s the pity.
If you squint, Kelleberin looks like Guildford. It has the same period buildings interspersed with eighties brick, the same types of trees, even the people look the same. The only difference is the empty fields stretching to the flat horizon visible down every side street.
You get a feeling for when we’re nearing a town. The road, the pipeline and the tracks all come closer together. The train slows down. Some buildings and a grain elevator flash past, then it’s all gone.
The driver announces we’re pulling in to Southern Cross, but the train doesn’t stop. Did I fall asleep? Was I so wrapped up in my book that I didn’t notice? The mystery remains.
Time has started to melt and run out at the ends. The constant thrum of the engines and the rise and fall off the power lines between their poles has a hypnotic effect. The man in the window seat pulls the curtain halfway across to keep the sun out of his eyes. We stop somewhere (Merriden?) and most passengers dash outside to stretch their legs and have a smoke. I stay inside. The land becomes completely flat, the fields dissapear and desert scrub takes their place. How long has it been since I wrote last? How many towns have we gone through? I can’t remember. I read my novel and the landscape flashes by unnoticed. The attendants offer empty seats to the remaining passengers, and I swap sides, leaving the man in the window seat to snooze on on his own.
A hill rears up suddenly in the distance, visible over one of the salt lakes that have been appearing out of the scrub for the last hour. The contrast to the flat desert is startling. It looks for all the world as if someone has excised Greenmount Hill from the Darling Escarpment and relocated it a thousand kilometres inland. As we draw near, a mob of emu scatter across the lake, startled by the train. Sunlight flashes off the iridescent patches on their necks. I think of grabbing my camera, but they’re gone before I have time.
The hill draws closer, and we pass it by. Hidden in the scrub at the summit are two buildings, disturbingly white against the drab olive vegetation. Who would build this far from anywhere? Vehicle tracks lace the steep sides of the massif, but the train pulls by, and this strange outpost remains a mystery.
The train pulls to a halt by a small brick shed and a man alights. He walks off into the scrub carrying his backpck. The train continues on. I presume he knows where he’s going.
The refreshment service is discontinued, and we pull into the outskirts of Kalgoorlie. The mountainous refuse piles of the Superpit looming up behind the city provide a contrast to the flat desert surrounds, and a beacon on the highest point flashes continuously. It is 3:00 in the afternoon. I gather my luggage, and alight.
I have arrived.