Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Making history across Australia

The huge train sat in three portions at different platforms. At 1.069 km, it
was too long for any one platform.
With bands playing and flags waving, we the lucky inaugural Ghan passengers
trundled our luggage to our cabin allocations, watched by the envious crowds
settled in camp chairs and picnicking under trees around Keswick railway

The place thrilled with a sense of history in the making.

And Great Southern Railways was making sure that it was properly celebrated
- so much so that every passenger was photographed for the record books
before boarding the train. Even the undercover police!

Each of us was given an Inaugural Ghan souvenir pack - a canvas tote bag
containing a framed commemorative certificate with our names in beautiful
calligraphy upon them, an Inaugural Ghan passenger trip medallion, badges
and a first day cover.
Our carriage stewards welcomed us aboard. In M carriage, Gold Kangaroo, my
man was Kurao (pronounced `Crow'), a Japanese-Australian whose bi-linguality
was invaluable for the Japanese film crew on board and whose calm efficiency
at the media bar kept all 45 national and international media travellers
extremely happy.

The cabins are not state of the art. They are the same as they have always
been - comfortable sleepers with compact little en suites. I had no
complaints. In fact I loved my little compartment with its large expanse of
Of course Gough and Margaret Whitlam had it rather more plush, albeit more
ancient. Theirs was the Prince of Wales carriage, an historic carriage of de
luxe suites which smelt of cedar polish. The Premier, Mike Rann, Governor
Marjorie Jackson-Nelson and NT Chief Minister Clare Martin had the
Chairman's carriage which had lovely double beds, a formal dining room and a
rather 60s armchair lounge room.
Generally, the sleeper carriages were interspersed with lounge and dining
cars - so there was a lot of convivialising.
Indeed, it was to the lounge cars we poured as the train heaved its way
slowly out of Keswick. And if we thought the send-off there was
enthusiastic, we had not bargained on the crowds which lined the track. Not
just through Adelaide, either. Out over the plains and clear up through the
Flinders people clustered at crossings, waved from hilltops, bridges,
roadsides, farmlands... Of course we had to wave back to them. In fact we
waved our way to Port Augusta.

That was the first stop and the first official function. There were buses to
ferry VIP passengers who had paid $12,000 for this voyage into history,
along with the huge gaggle of pollies who wanted to be part of the action 
but many chose to walk to the waterside marquee. They had to run the
gauntlet of anti detention centre protesters pointing out in banners that
the detainees were, after all, AfGHANs!
This stop was a chance for the first time to see the whole train - well,
almost. There were only a few moments on slow bends, for example, when one
could glimpse the incredible length of the Ghan - 45 carriages and two
bright red locomotives.
This also was a meeting with the original Ghan, now a Pitchi Ritchi steam
engine. The Pitchi boys had brought her up with passenger carriages and a
cargo of vintage cars to show the new Ghan passengers how things used to be.
The old engine was bedecked with gumleaves and looked divine. Everyone
wanted to be photographed with her. But few of the inaurugal Ghan passengers
realised the tenuous life of the old pioneer train - now run entirely by
devoted volunteers and at risk thanks to the exorbitance of public liability
insurance. Pitchi Ritchi had to pay $115,000 last year. When that policy
runs out in July they are not sure when they will stand. They hope for more
State government and regional local government support.
``We've managed to keep the trains running for 30 years, we will manage
somehow,'' said a sterling volunteer.
In Port Augusta there was another set of speeches from the pollies with
Mayor Joy Baluch throwing in her colorful twopence to the delight of the
local crowd.
And there was singing. James Blundell and Joe Camilleri were the train
troubadors seeming to enjoy every last moment of the experience.

Back on the Ghan it was wave, wave, wave again. In cars, on motorbikes, on
the back of utes the people were out there cheering the train's first
Astounding enthusiasm. All of us on board were touched by the scale of
public response.
The bar was open so long as the train was in progress and coffee machines in
the lounge cars availed all of chosen refreshments. But mealtimes were the
thing. The Ghan has made wining and dining the big ticket. Daybreak
breakfasts to the fresh morning light - fruits and cereals, eggs and
sausages, even coconut panckaes with banana and passionfruit syrup. Lunches
were substantial and aklways interesting - some lovely curries among the
selections and sinful desserts. The meals had names - Finke River lunch,
Davenport Range dinner, Katherine Gorge breakfast. But it was the sunset
dinners which blew the senses. Butternut pumpkin and Bunya nut soup with
sour cream and gremolata, followed by perhaps steamed kingfish with
lemongrass-coconut sauce or maybe herb-stuffed galantine of Barossa chicken
with roasted veggies and Chardonnay cream sauce... Oh yes, and a warm apple
and Munthari berry crumble tart with cinnamon creme anglaise. All this as
the sun softly sinks over the horizon and the dusty pinks transform into
ruddy streaks - with garish yellow, orange and reds giving a last-hurrah to
After the lingering dinner, passengers repaired to the lounge cars and a few
drinks. The train carried five dining cars and five lounge cars. We, the
media, had our own section and by night we could chew the fat and discuss
what angles we could find for the coming day. Between us we must have
interviewed every last soul on the train - well, with the exclusion of the
American Ambassador, perhaps. He proved elusive.
We were able to visit the VIPs up front and also the sit-up passengers down
the back. Between you and me, the sit-ups seemed to have the most fun. Old
and young, they bonded and joked and partied all the way.

At Alice Springs everyone was bussed off to a five star lunch on
entertainments in the new Convention Centre. No flies in the Alice when it
comes to turning on the ritz.
And then it was the really exciting part of the Ghan journey - the new $1.3
billion seamless track north to Darwin.
And no more did the train clack or give those lilttle forward lurches. Just
a slight sideways rock and a smooth whooshing sound on the rail.

The rich ochres and blue-green scrubland of the red heart softly easy into
tropical lushness - palmettos, magnetic ant hills and flood plains - as the
Ghan hummed sedately into brand new territory.
Through the picture windows the landscape passed like a living documentary
revealing wild escaprments, drive river beds, rocky hillsides, lonely
station outbuildings and dirt roads leading somewhere nowhere. We could only
wonder, for there is a lot of landscape out there and not too many signs of
human habitation. And yet, at surprising spots along the 2979 journey there
were gatherings of people, the outback dwellers who had driven who knows how
far to see the first Ghan passenger journey from coast to coast.

Tennant Creek was Aboriginal dances by night  and more speechs from the
Premier Mike Rann by this time was waxing lyrical. His journalistic
background sang forth as he spoke of dreams fulfilled, the true spirit of
Australia reaching out to the inland.

And there was plenty to bring out the poet in us all.
BY night, lying in one's bunk in the dark cabin, the moonlit landscape
purred past - silver silhouettes of trees and contoured landscape. An
endless shadowplay of natural wonder.

By Katherine, we had entered the tropics and the world was swampy and
Despite a sea of red mud, the townsfolk turned out en masse to greet the
trainsfolk - bringing displays of all their attractions and displays of
their accomplishments. Kids danced, stockmen whip cracked, air force dogs
leapt through hoops of fire, Rotary ladies made cups of tea, arts and crafts
were sold, Aboriginal performers did ceremonial dances, tourism people
showed photos and brochures - and the Katherine bookshop displayed an
impressive range of books about the area. Katherine, population 11,000, has
the highest per capita percentage of tertiary educated people in the NT.

With outback bods on horses and in their RMs and oilskins, with the standard
of the bookshop and tales of the hot springs of nearby Mataranka, I think I
fell in love with Katherine. I want to go back.

But it was away on the Ghan for the last leg - a last stunning repast, some
last interviews.
And the through the tropical deluge we hummed, getting dripped upon as we
moved from carriage to carriage. In some places flood lagoons were so great
it seemed as if we were driving through lakes.

And as we neared Darwin and the rain eased, the waving crowds grew thicker
and we felt obliged to interrupt our packing to wave back.
And suddenly there they were. The unnoffical Top End welcome - which was a
rear end display. A long line of bare buttocks! Hard to say how many -
between 40 and 60. A lot of bot. Many whoops and waves from the train. It
was not taken as offensive - just cheeky.
A true display of backs to the future.

At the end of the line there was a large marquee seom distance from the
platform - and the pollies were giving their speeches again.
We had come the historic 2979 kilometres from the south - but, oddly, there
were still 15 to go to get from the station at Palmerston into Darwin
We boarded a bus  and, for the first time in three days, we stopped waving.

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