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Trip Report Train trip from Townsville to Mt Isa

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I cycled around a fair chunk of Australia a few years ago, the mid-life crisis on a 15 speed bike. Maybe I’d watched “Easy Rider” too often, and wanted to make my own movie in my head. Maybe I was just insane.

I’d pedaled my way down the coast from Cairns to Townsville, hating the endless boring cane fields, and needed to get back to the drier inland. Bought a train ticket and put the bike in the goods van. The train trip from Townsville to Mt Isa was quite an experience – rail gauge in Queensland is narrow, and their trains look ancient. I was expecting to see one of those observation cars on the back, with John Curtin or Ben Chifley waving to people. Outback travel, across most of Queensland, about eighteen hours.

And the train was joined by your classic travelling drunk. Within two minutes of getting on, he was asking “WhenarewegettingtoMtIsa?”. “Tomorrow lunchtime, mate”.
“WhenarewegettingtoMtIsa?”. “Tomorrow. Shuddup, you silly old bastard”.

Eventually the train pulls out, the last guy strolls out of the bar, swinging on as it gets under way, beer can in hand. Drains it, and with perfect calculation of speed, trajectory and windage, lobs it into a bin at the end of the platform. He’s done that before.

The conductor sights our drunk. “You haven’t got any grog in there, have you mate?. Because if you have, I’ll have to put you off the train.” Fervent denials of possession of grog. I’m hoping that he’s got gallons of the stuff – if he’s going to have an attack of the DT’s en route, I’d hate him to be without a friendly bottle. I’ve got a Sigg flask with some Johnny Walker in it, so I’ll be OK.

Talked with an Aboriginal couple, heading back to Mt Isa after a conference in Townsville. Cultural politics at work.
“How did it go?” She’s doing most of the talking, a woman of some substance, she’d chaired one of the working parties..
“Oh, just OK. It’s hard doing it indoors, around a table. It would have been easier if we could have brought the whole show to Mt Isa and sat them down on the ground. It’s easier then, because you can work out who is who, and what they are trying to do, by the way they sit. We’d have sat on the ground for a few weeks, maybe, but then everyone would have been happy.”

I’m reminded of the patience of Aboriginal people. At Wattie Creek, the Garunji people achieved land rights by sitting on the ground for eight years. It makes Wattie Creek a special place in Australian history. And when I was at the Barunga Aboriginal Festival a few weeks later, I heard over the PA, “Where’s the Wattie Creek football team”. Puts a bit of a lump in the throat, it would be like hearing the Gallipoli soccer side called, or the Kokoda rugby team summonsed. People with a link, a thread, to places where there has been great courage displayed. Or the Agincourt Archery Club if you were English, I suppose.

Stopped in the middle of the night, held in a siding for 40 minutes, waiting for a freight train to go up. The conductor tells me that the line is in bad shape, and that the train always runs late. “We’re meant to run about 40 miles an hour, but in some sections, we’d be off the track if we went over 30. Too much mining traffic on the line, heavy cars, and they wreck the sleepers. And two inches of rain, and the track is cactus. It’s all mud around here”.

Everyone gets off the train, smokes, walks around. The night air is soft, and there’s that train smell. Brake blocks, axle grease, diesel exhaust. The country smells as dry as dust, very quiet except for the thud of the diesel down the line. Some guy is sitting on a pile of sleepers, playing a guitar. He’s travelling up to MT Isa to do a few gigs. He’s bored, and starts playing every railroad song he can think of. Freight Train Blues, The L&N don’t stop here any more, a few bars of Midnight train to Georgia, Chattanooga Choo Choo, Bob Dylan’s Dream, Canadian Railroad Trilogy, Steel Rail Blues, The Dixie Flyer, The Spirit of New Orleans. This guy knows his stuff – everything from Bob Dylan to Gordon Lightfoot to Randy Newman.

“Ah, all they want to hear up there is bloody Country and Western, Garth Brooks. Really pisses me off”. Plays a bit of The Pub with No Beer, strikes a deliberate discord as the up freight passes, climbs back into the train as the engine hoots.

It was like traveling around New Guinea in 1965 by plane, landing at little grass strips in the highlands. The same thing - everyone hops off the plane and sits under the wing in the shade. Flying in DC3’s left over from the war, and sometimes you saw rows of square patches riveted on, a legacy of small arms fire. Unloading cargo - everything from boxes of bibles to drums of fuel - is finished and we pile back in. Black smoke from exhausts, the smell that means “piston powered aircraft”, a noise like machine guns firing bursts as the engines catch, and we stagger into the air. The pilots ignore the windsock, and take off down hill, flying with the cockpit windows open till it all cools down a bit.

Our drunk has finished his bottle of port, and I can hear him trying to balance a wine cask over a paper cup – no mean feat in a train if you are sober, an even harder feat if you are drunk, the train is rolling like a ship at sea and the lights are out.

Dawn, and the carriage looks like a cross between an Hieronymus Bosch painting and the embassy after the SAS has shot their way in and rescued the hostages. Bodies everywhere. People scrape themselves up, head off in search of tea. I’d never choose to travel in a sleeper – I’d miss out on the human zoo that I’ve just visited.

A bloke and his wife, sharing a breakfast table with me, going back to Mt Isa to sell up and move down to the coast, where their daughter lives. He’d had a stroke. “Since I had the stroke, I can’t get the ABC”, and I’m thinking, well, tiger, why don’t you adjust your antennae, and you’ll receive the Australian Broadcasting Commission loud and clear. His wife read the menu in the dining car to him and then I understood – he could no longer read. ABC. Simple.

Pull into Mt Isa at lunch time, and get the bike out of the van after a half hour yarn with the guard. Tell him I’ll spend a night in Mt Isa, and then should be in Tennant Creek in four days. It’s hot, about 34 degrees in the non-existent shade, and I’ll need to find some empty Coke bottles to carry extra water.

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