Well, I made it through Australia. From Darwin to Adelaide, (3000kms south) then on to Sydney (2000km east of Adelaide) and out onto the golden sand and salty sea.
Australia is big, both in drought and flood, wealthy (but with loads of crazies and poor people), and utterly confusing. How did a country and people get so wealthy when the weather suggests barely anything / anyone could live here? Where the heck does everything we have here come from? China is one answer, and probably a quite accurate one. But at points in my journey it really did strike me how utterly inhospitable this place seems compared to lush India, fertile SE Asia, or even Iran.
I arrived in Darwin on Australia Day at 3am, slept in the airport for a while, swam, then generally cruised around the town. I had one beer and nearly fell over – my alcohol tolerance is down to about zero. The following day I spent reading Australian newspapers and magazines in the cool, spacious Northern Territory state library, then hunted down some books for the long journeys ahead. I swam laps in both mornings I was there, which was a treat. I was slightly disappointed to miss the crocodiles which seem to occasionally turn up lost in the pools ; )
The Ghan departed Darwin at 10am, and I was quite happy with the spacious compartment which offered plenty of ways to sleep even if I did only have an upright seat allocated to me. My wondrful 3/4 length ultralite thermarest has been an absolute life-save on this trip….
There is not much to say about the scenery from the three days – that part of Australia (I.e. Most of it) is quite flat, very dry, and covered in a vegetation mix that transitions from sparse forest with an understorey of grasses in the north into low scrub for the greater part of the journey. Bud Tingwell (Australian actor) provided a pre-recorded voice over for parts of the trip, filling us in on some of the history and sights to watch out for. The clouds are a real highlight – seriously.
We stopped in Katherine and Alice Springs for decent amounts of time (enough to take a tour), and I had a good time in both spots.
Katherine has a beautiful gorge, which I have already seen and which was out of bounds due to flooding. I just wandered around a bit, and went for a swim. Despite the lady at the tourist bureau warning me the water in the pool might be ‘a bit cold’, the 29 degree water was fine for me. Apparently they close it when the water temperature drops to a too-chilly-to-swim 20 degrees. Crikey.
Katherine also held some degree of fascination for me because I had just listed to a couple of podcasts on the ‘unintended consequences of the intervention’. The intervention was where the Federal government sent the army in to Aboriginal communities in northern Australia to control drinking, child-abuse and other social problems. They did not really think this through, and it hasn’t really worked well it seems. You can listen here, and also to Fiona Stanley’s emotional and intelligent reflections and call to action after decades of strategies and reports and too little action on Indigenous health (far worse than indigenous people in equivalent developed countries, and with life expectancies lower than many developing countries).
Alice Springs was also great, beacuse I like it a lot already – mountains, culture, arts, red dirt, it has a lot going for it. And this brief stop was especially good thanks to a lovely German girl (Veronica) lending me her bike so I could ride out of town to the Desert Knowledge Centre and CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems to see the solar arrays and other eco-stuff. Interestingly Veronica worked on the ‘intervention’, and amongst other part-time jobs drives the ‘bush bus’ to remote communities. She has probably seen far more of Australia’s interior and its people than all but a few thousand Australians I think.
I had met Veronica on the train before she got off in Alice, and I had a few other conversations with the young and old Germans, Dutch, English, and Australians sharing the lowest-class Red Kangaroo seats. I think this service could have been a little better – it felt like it lacked some little touches that would really mean it lived up to its title of a ‘Great Train Journey’.
Arriving in scorching Adelaide (44 degrees) my main interest was in going for another swim. Upon making it to the aquatic centre, I paid the relatively expensive $6.50 entry, plus $3 for secure locker to then walk into a total circus. Being a hot day, I was expecting it to be busy, but this was fantastic! People of every imaginable cultural heritage (Asians, Aboriginals, Lebanese, Africans, Australians, Greeks, Italians…everyone) were all splashing in every puddle of water in the centre, from the kiddies pool to the chaotic lap pool. It was quite cool to be literally swimming in a diversity which I have not seen since leaving London. And what joy I got from the diving boards – kids of all races and backgrounds having the time of their lives trying to impress their friends with their spins, flip and splash.
The cultural diversity on the bus from Adelaide to Sydney (via Melbourne) may have been slightly down from the bus, but only just. It was very comfortable and seemingly popular route. Sure, there were a number of weirdos, but that’s public transport for you and nothing a good set of earplugs can’t deal with. And, yes, I definitely have some characteristics of a weirdo myself.
Quite a journey in the end, and far preferable to the bus (and cheaper). I also really enjoyed getting through a number of books on Australia’s social trends, Outliers, Blind Faith.
In a way, I am glad the Mt Isa – Tennant Creek road was washed out, meaning I couldn’t catch the bus from Darwin to Brisbane. While I had to cancel meetings with some really great people in Brisbane, it was a unique opportunity to do this train trip. And, yes, the 4 day train/bus combo from Darwin-Adelaide-Sydney still produces far, far less carbon than flying. Which is important I think, given the infrstructure failures in Melbourne caused by recent heat-waves and continued water shortages and general ecological collapse that seems to be plaguing Australia now…
Although, a quick dive into the sparkling waters of an inner city beach seems to be great at washing all those worries away. Well, except for the worry that someone will steal all your stuff while you swim…
Now in Sydney, the pace has picked up, and I am glad to have had a few quiet last days on the train and bus. Now I am busy catching up with family (Mum!), old friends from around the world, and making new friends as part of the Hallbarhet2009 learning journey I am responsible for. More on that soon, here, on the Hallbarhet blog, and on Worldchanging.com