The impressions that form when one thinks of Australia are its serene, pristine, almost infinite beaches. I can go to the extent of saying that Australia and beaches are synonymous and get people to agree. Only a handful would object. The ones who do so are the travelers. For beyond the beaches lies a continent, a huge mass of land trodden only by the rare.
It was my last few weeks in Australia and I had covered pretty much twenty percent of the Australian mainland coastline; from Brisbane to the Twelve Apostles. There were three things I had not done, gotten on a long train journey, visited the Ayers rock, and the Great Barrier Reef. Financial and time factors prevented me from doing the latter two. After deep consultation with the friend I was supposed to travel with we decided to settle with Broken Hill. We called it a settlement then for we had no idea what the trip would have to offer us. We had not imagined in our wildest dreams that we would share a trip so amazing that we would almost reinvent ourselves. Two factors led us to our decision of Broken Hill; it would give us a sense of the Australian Outback that lay north, east, and west of us and we could get an experience of the Indian Pacific, a train that bolts from Sydney to Perth, a journey across a continent.
It was the 2:15 p.m., the 8th day of May, a normal autumn afternoon in Sydney when we reached its Central Station. As usual, the Indian Pacific had attracted a number of passerby’s, to admire or wonder what this strange rail was doing here. It was not every day and everywhere one would come across this beautiful sight after all.
We quickly located our seats and boarded the Red Service. Travelling in our carriage were a wide range of people, from colour to their age. As the train slowly pulled out of the station, at 3:00 p.m. sharp, there were varied levels of excitement from our fellow passengers. The windows the Indian Pacific had were huge; almost as big as a 52 inch television. The only difference was the movie being played was the changing scenery as the train gained momentum. In a matter of minutes we were leaving suburban Sydney and ascending the Blue Mountains. About two and a half hours of our way into the journey, as the train weaved its way through; we would catch occasional glances of the setting sun behind the now not so Blue Mountains. With the darkness our big televisions were switched off forcing us to get up and make our way to the Matilda café. A pleasant lady offered us decent nachos and a limited variety of beers. We each got one and made our way to the tables. It was not late before we were on our second beer and talking, talking of people and of the strange land this train was going to drop off tomorrow morning. It was late and mostly everyone had made their way back to their seats. Soon there were only us and one person. Tom – a German backpacker on his way to Broome. He smiled, introduced himself and sat down with us. Time flew as we shared stories. It was almost one o’clock before we decided to retire for the night. I looked out the window a last time before closing my eyes; it was pitch black dark. There was not even a single light in the farthest of directions.
It was around 5:00 a.m. when we opened our eyes. Our televisions were back on. Outside lay a huge expanse of land, small shrubs scattered all over it and some few hills in the far, far distance. As I looked around our compartment I realized we were the last ones to wake up. Broken Hill was an hour away and I was determined to get my breakfast before reaching. We shot to the Matilda café, got our caffeine and toasts, sat down with Tom once again. The sun was slowly rising over the horizon as we raced through the desert. We stared at it for a while, sipping our coffees with thoughts of god knows what running through everyone’s mind. What I know is there was silence and everyone seemed mesmerized as the golden ball came up.
After about an hour The Indian Pacific pulled into the Broken Hill station – a long, desolated station. We hastily got off bidding farewell to our German friend. There were a few passengers who had gotten off the train probably to get a better view of the town with no people visible in the streets at 6:00 a.m. To pay our respect to what was a memorable train ride we stayed at the platform for a while taking in every detail of the majestic train for the last time. As we observed we struck conversation with another traveller, an Englishman who had gotten on the Indian Pacific with the sole purpose of watching the Nullarbor Plains. I remember later on when I had gotten back to Sydney researching Nullarbor Plains and Broome, and being absolutely fascinated.
As we slowly made way to our hotel on Argent Street which was a short walk from the station the great rail slowly pulled away. Within minutes it was darting towards the horizon slowly disappearing into broad daylight. We were greeted by Mandy at the doorstep of The Grand Palace. It did not seem so much like a hotel rather a warm, old palace with a homely touch by Mandy. The whole place had furry carpets as thick as rugs. A big, long corridor led us to our room, a spacious room with high ceilings. We both kicked off our shoes jumped into the bed as if we had met an old friend. We must have been very tired; so tired that we drifted into sweet slumber the moment we touched the soft mattress.
It was around half past nine when we came back to our senses, both surprised that we had fallen asleep. We freshened up and went outside. It was a bright day and the city had come to life. There were people engaging in deep conversations over their coffee, a community BBQ being held in the park, children waiting to cross the streets, bankers in their formal attires, and us two strange people in this far away town. We decided to get breakfast at the café below our hotel, overlooking the park and the intersection. After a hearty meal and the observation of a life passing by us we decided to get our observations on the move. We asked the glowing barista for directions to the Visitor Information Centre and went our way.
As we walked along Argent Street our impressions of Broken Hill aligned with what we had read about it. It was an old town and must have been prosperous during the early years. All the buildings were old, mostly with wooden verandahs yet they did not lack detailing or precision. They were beautiful all standing in a straight line with similar architectural elements. We also passed and visited the war memorial on our way; there was a Tafe campus who proudly stated that they stood on Aboriginal grounds. The town and its people were composed as if living in perfect harmony. We reached the Visitor Centre, our would-be departing bus stop after two days. We reached the Visitor Centre in a while, enquired about the symposium, Silverton, collected some maps and hailed to cab to the airport to collect our hired car.
“You know everyone goes to the symposium, and Silverton, and the war memorial. But I will tell you of a beautiful place you cannot miss – the Menindee lakes”, said our lovely cab driver, whose name I had asked but am sorry cannot recall as my memory fails me. “As it is you are hiring a car and I promise you it would be a worthy visit” she carried on. We promised to look into it as it is we had onlythe day and the tomorrow.
We raced our way towards the Living Desert as soon as we got hold of the car. Within ten minutes of driving we were out of the city riding down a highway. The highway was straight and empty with flat land extending till ones sight could reach. This was our first realization of the vast outback that lay ahead of us. The vegetation was scanty, the mud yellowish red in colour. In the far distance a small hill loomed with a big sign stating it was The Living Desert. We got off the highway and took the small track of road towards it. There was nobody there. It was as if we were the only two people in that whole continent. But not for long! As we got off the car a jeep approached. It was the caretaker of the Living Desert. He was an interesting man, dedicating his old years to re-vegetate the small hill which the years of drought had almost caused catastrophic results. He gave us a brief introductory lesson on the types of plants and animals the desert had and urged us to stay within the walking trails. We soon went our way exploring.
The vegetation was still scanty, almost filled with only shrubs and a very few trees. We wondered through the trails sometimes running into kangaroos and animals whose name I could not get. In the desert was a small section where there were logs with different structures carved on them. Upon reading about it, we realized it was a project done by the students of Tafe who tried to reflect the different cultural traits of Aboriginal people. It was a small reminder yet again of whose land we were treading upon. Atop a hill was a small metallic disc denoting the directions of the major cities of the continent and their distances. We sat down there for a while taking in the breathtaking view of the wide expanse that lay around us in that hot sunny day with a few clouds scattered above us.
We slowly retrieved our way back to the parking lot after hours of intense walking in the heat. Although the sculpture symposium was right beside us we decided to come back to see it in the evening with the setting sun. We decided to go back to the hotel to rest for a while. On my way back we noticed an interesting thing about Broken Hill. Most of its streets were named after minerals, like Sulphide, Oxide or Cobalt Street.
In the evening we went back the same road to the symposium. Now the symposium was an interesting place. It is an example of art being taken outdoors rather than the conventional museum. Twelve international and local artists have paid their homage to certain elements of nature and humanity commissioned by Lawrence Beck in 1993. These sculptures are best viewed under sunset or sunrise
where the stones reflect dynamic colours from red to yellow. As we ascended the path leading to the symposium we noticed that we had a lot of visitors. Most of them had champagne and picnic baskets waiting to bid the sun farewell. We observed the sculptures, some respecting mothers, some the brave, some the moon, and the jaguar swallowing the sun. Scattered tourists sat down looking into the horizon waiting for the sun to slip in. We were disappointed when the skies did not change colours as promised. The sun had almost slipped in when I asked my friend that we should leave. Oh! How much do I hate my impatience! For no sooner had we reached the car the sky changed – into a dazzling yellowish red spread all around the sky. Our view was disrupted. We raced back to the symposium but we were late. Too late! Within a span of two minutes we lost what could be the best sunset of my life until then. It was almost dark and we left with a disappointment so painful that we lost our smiles for a while.
Disappointment soon led to a few smiles as we sipped some drinks at a lovely bar in town. We decided to dine in the bar itself and later took our drinks to the balcony upstairs to enjoy the cool breeze. It was around eleven when we called it a night. We walked back to the hotel and straightaway collapsed on our beds.
The first emotion I felt the next morning was of hunger, a craving for a good breakfast. We hastily got ready and headed to The Astra for some breakfast. Did they serve one of the best beans and eggs I have ever eaten? Over breakfast we planned our day out. Since Silverton was not very far away we decided to put that in the evening and head to Menindee Lakes as the sweet taxi driver had suggested yesterday. With a completely satisfied tummy we headed towards Menindee – Broken Hill road.
It was a fair drive of at least an hour and a half to Menindee and surprisingly there were no other settlements in between. The drive was a fairly scenic drive as we sped along the desert. Occasionally we would sight mobs of emus running through the shrubs in the far distance. Other than that there was no sight of life at all. Even the shrubs and the grasses seemed to have given up to the heat. We could feel the lakes nearing us as we started to see trees that were green in colour and the vegetation grew in abundance. As we approached Menindee we could see scattered large bodies in the distance. It is funny how we missed the entry to Kinchega National Park and drove right past through it three times until my friend finally sighted a large wooden sign as big as the hoarding boards in the city. We laughed, embarrassed at our foolishness and entered the national park. This park had extensive driving trails but there was a slight problem. The roads were not sealed and we regretted not hiring a SUV or a jeep. We slowly made our way through the national park leaving a trail of red dust behind us. The jungle was big with lakes scattered like ponds all over the park. There were more emus and worse they were stubborn. They would take their own sweet time crossing the trails reminding us that we were in their territory now. After some time of slow driving through the jungle we reached a point where the road was closed due to bad weather. Just beside it there seemed like a small walking trail. We got off the car to check it out. The sight ahead of us was unbelievable. Ahead of us was an enclave. A lake so still there was no movement. What made it so beautiful was there were trees growing in the lake. And not small trees, big trees that to me seemed were older than us combined. We stared into it mesmerized that there could be a place so far away, so beautiful that words today fail to paint the same picture on your mind. And if I cannot describe this it worries me how am I going to describe you the sunset that we were to watch later that day. All I can say today is we sat on a branch with the water beneath us, wondered how long the trunk ran beneath the water and what lay ahead.
I am unsure of the seconds we spent in that enclave but it seemed short. We slowly made our way back to the car to see other parts of the national park. We went back all the way to the entrance and took another trail to see the Darling River. There in the bank we sat and watched a young couple and their dog fish. We were forced of the bank too scared of the ants that in no way seemed normal.
As we steered off the national park we went into town to have lunch. We found a small café and feasted on a bag of hot chips and juice. There were still many parts of the lake that remained unexplored but time did not permit us venture into those areas. We left playing a strange game my friend taught me to make the ride more interesting. Of course it was a game that my friend excelled in and crushed me to pulp.
After a cup of coffee in Broken Hill we headed towards Silverton 25 kilometres north of Broken Hill. This town is often referred to as ghost town and with a population of less than fifty people. And it did seem so. The roads again were not sealed and there were a few houses. The place seemed almost rural Mexico. There was a lone bar who surprisingly served Irish beer and after a hot and tiring day we could not crave anything else. Over the beer we were contemplating what to do next as there was nothing left in Silverton. We remembered a sign telling us of a view point some five kilometres away. Having nothing else to do we decided to check the place. If there is a god, I tell you, that sign was his way of saying, “okay, here is a second chance to watch another brilliant sunset, and don’t you dare turn impatient today as well”.
As we reached there I remembered my geography teacher once trying to explain us how we can tell the earth is round. Of course we were in the hills back then and there was no way we could practice his theory there. I had gotten to practice it in Australia several times watching the ocean disappear in the horizon. It proved that the earth curved at that point and continued doing so. Never had I imagined that I would be able to practice that in the mainland. I stood at a point and stared. The earth around me seemed to disappear in the horizon at a fixed radius. It was as if we could see the whole circle of a certain section of the earth. There was the sun, in the extreme west, a hot yellow ball preparing to slip in here yet give a new day to some other part of the same world. We watched as the sun changed its colour from every shade of yellow to red. Finally it slipped and then was when the magic happened. The entire sky lit up in a reddish flame. The clouds that had seemed so white looked as if it was red powder smeared all over the sky. It was a sight so magnificent that spellbound is a joke. That red sky painted our eye and minds as red as the blood pumping our hearts! Slowly, I looked at my friend. No words were spoken. It was not necessary. We both knew this sight had gotten us much closer. We have a shared memory; a memory that we would take to our graves.
It had been a while since we had been staring, speechless. Darkness slowly engulfed. As we got back in the car we made one last decision to head into the horizon to catch the sun like the Jaguar did in the statue up in the symposium. It was not futile. As we darted towards the horizon the sun was captured; a permanent impression on our minds. We drove till darkness completely overtook us.
It was getting late. We had to drop the car before the airport closed and had an early morning bus to catch. We decided to dine at the same place we had breakfasted in the morning. We each ordered a drink cheered to the settlement we had made last week, dined in some delicious steak and slowly walked back to the hotel to get some sleep.
It was 3:30 a.m. and we were back at the Visitors Information Centre all ready to board the bus that would take us to Dubbo, from then on the train that would take us back home. As we slowly pulled out and left Broken Hill behind I drowned in a deep sorrow of leaving. Slowly I fell asleep. In my sleep, I dreamt. I dreamt we were walking and no matter how much I strode the horizon was unattainable.
Travelogue by Pankaj Thapa