I’m about to board The Ghan and traverse Australia from south to north and I’m so excited that I ask another traveller to take a cheesy photo of me beside the train. It’s an impressive beast: 29 carriages, 710metres long in total and with 28 crew, including five chefs.
This is the first sleeper leg of my trip and I love my basic little cabin with its neat fold down beds and fold away sink. As soon as the bar opens I treat myself to a little bottle of bubbly and sit in my cabin with a huge smile on my face, toasting the journey (and all those friends who are with me in spirit).
I watch the scenery for a while – there’s been plenty of rain up here so the outback is much greener than usual – then wander down to the lounge car to see who else is on the train. They’re an eclectic bunch.
I chat with Gertie, an Aboriginal woman in her 50s who is making the journey to Darwin with her two aunts. She tells me of her homeland ‘out back of Burke’ and that the government has recently bought back a parcel of land for her people. ‘It was amazing, who would have thought 50 years ago that we would get this land back,’ she says. ‘We’ve got water on the land and everything. Usually they don’t give you anything with water on it but we’ve got plenty.’ She’s strong, resigned and optimistic all in one when she tells me of the community’s hope to build a business. ‘We need to get jobs out there for the young ones. They’re lost,’ she says. ‘Even the ones who don’t live a traditional life, they’re just lost.’
Her aunt agrees that jobs are needed but she highlights a growing problem on indigenous lands. The land is considered wilderness and ecologically important, meaning its Aboriginal title holders are expected to conserve it not use it. Their white neighbours farm and run cattle, but they aren’t allowed to. ‘What’s the point of having the land?’ asks Auntie. ‘What are we gonna do with it. We don’t have any money, how can we maintain it?’ They are eco-refugees; title owners only in name, she says. See this story by columnist Noel Pearson in The Australian for more.
I also meet Rodney, an American from Oklahoma City who’s going to Darwin and back again. He’s wearing a bandana and has a bushy moustache and wiry black hair that springs unruly from underneath it and reaches to his shoulders. His blue eyes have plenty of smile crinkles around them. He’s genial and chatty and politically astute. His views on the US Congress make me giggle. ‘We’d to a better job if we just pulled 535 people from this train,’ he says. ‘In Oklahoma we’ve got two of the craziest wing nuts representing us. They haven’t got half a brain. We thought if we elected two of them that would add up to one brain but in fact it was more a case of multiplication and now we’ve got a quarter of a brain sitting there,’ he says. Turns out he worked on the railways in the US so this trip is a bit of a busman’s holiday for him.
We sit and fall into silence to watch a stunning sunset play out on the western horizon. The sky changes from blue to pink to orange, fiery tentacles stretching for miles and bathing the land flame red.
Then night falls and it’s black and deep and velvety. There’s no light except that from the train. Later, the conductor comes along and slides the bed down, fully made up, from its hiding place in the wall. I turn the light off and the darkness reaches in and wraps itself tight around me. After a moment, stars begin to appear, first one then two then hundreds. It’s as if I am lying under a black velvet blanket and someone is pricking tiny holes in it with a pin. I go to sleep with the gentle light of the stars above me and the rumbling noise of the train below.