Justine Tyerman practises tough love on her old tramping buddies who deliver a tirade of abuse at being left behind on her latest trip.
The TBs (tramping boots) had a hissy fit - literally - at being side-lined on my recent trans-Australia Indian Pacific train trip. It was not a pretty sight, steam pouring off their soles, laces in a tangle, eyelets red hot, hooks standing on end and a sinister hissing noise coming from somewhere deep within.
They had never set boot in the desert before and besides they did not like creepy- crawlies which made them a non-starter for the Aussie Outback.
Quick as a flash the TBs retorted that they were well-versed in the silt of the Arrow River – a first cousin of sand - and they didn't mind lizards . . .
But in reality, their sheer weight and size were the determining factors, I explained to them as I packed essentials only into the compact carry-on suitcase that would fit under the bed in my cabin.
The TBs then took desperate measures - they went on a crash diet in an attempt to trim down and got up early every chilly winter morning for a week to attend boot camp.
In the long run I had to practise tough love and tell them they would just not make the cut this time around. I only had room for one pair of light-weight walking shoes and that was that. Furthermore, there was no strenuous hiking or climbing involved on this trip, and they would be bored stiff with the lack of activity.
Their parting shot was that light-weight shoes with flimsy soles offered no protection and were unsafe footwear in the desert and they hoped I got stung by a spider or snake. Their reaction was most undignified or such mature footwear. Then they unleashed a tirade of abuse about loyalty and years of service, and how fickle I was. They even called me a wet weather friend.
But I made the right decision. The epic 65-hour, 4352km journey from Perth on the Indian Ocean to Sydney on the Pacific Ocean (hence the name of the train) was no place for the TBs. The experience would have brought out the worst in them. It was four days and three nights of serious relaxation, being waited upon, eating stupendously good food, drinking excellent cocktails and Aussie bubbly, socialising and making new friends . . . and very little foot work.
The TBs would have sulked in the cabin complaining about the lack of exercise and berating me for my uncharacteristic propensity for gazing out the window, motionless, apparently day-dreaming; and singing train-themed songs, loudly and out-of-tune, at our daily singalong-with-guitarist Mattie sessions in the Outback Explorer Lounge. There was even dancing in the aisle on our last night. The TBs don't do dancing.
Some days, when I asked Nikki, my lovely cabin hostess, not to stow my comfy bed away, I lay propped up on a multitude of pillows for hours on end, acutely tuned in to the changing images passing before my eyes - like frames in an old-fashioned silent movie.
The pace was leisurely, an average of 85km per hour, allowing me to immerse myself in the changing landscape as we traversed the continent. The green Avon Valley, the vast Western Australian wheat lands, lakes tinged with a pinky hue, the immense, flat Nullarbor Plain, the strange rock formations of the South Australian desert, and the staggeringly-high sandstone escarpments, cliffs and waterfalls of the Blue Mountains.
The off-train excursions at Outback settlements fascinated me, especially the history and lifestyle of the people who live in such remote places.
Kalgoorlie-Boulder on the western fringe of the Nullarbor was the site, in 1893, of one of the biggest gold rushes in Australian history. The area, known as The Golden Mile, is among the richest gold deposits in the world. We visited the massive 3.6km wide, 512m deep Super Pit gold mine, the world's largest single open-cut mining operation.
Rawlinna is home to the largest sheep station in Australia, a 2.5m-acre operation that runs 70,000 sheep. We had breakfast at the railway station there as the sun rose over the desert, a magical experience.
Cook, population four, in the middle of the Nullarbor, was once a thriving settlement of 200 residents, but is now a ghost town. It's an eerie place with empty houses and a long-abandoned hospital, school, tennis court and filled-in swimming pool.
Broken Hill, known as Silver City, is Australia's oldest mining town and has the world's richest lead-zinc ore deposit. It's also the base for the legendary Royal Flying Doctor Service . . . and the 1994 hit movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was filmed there at the Palace Hotel. Capitalising on their claim to fame, a couple of talented local lads regularly perform for train passengers in The Main Drag, a hugely-entertaining drag queen show at the Palace.
Adelaide, Australia's capital of festivals and the arts, was the only large centre we visited on the route, apart from Perth and Sydney of course. It's a graceful, well-designed city with many parks, historic buildings and the famous cricket oval where we were treated to a lavish breakfast.
But it was the Nullarbor that bewitched and transfixed me, the endless, seemingly- infinite nothingness of a plain covering nearly 20 million hectares (200,000 sq kilometres) created 25 million years old when it emerged from the sea.
The word Nullarbor is derived from the Latin nullus meaning nothing or none, and arbor meaning tree. There are no trees and the horizon is dead flat . . . or ever so slightly curved . . . in every direction, 360 degrees. A Kiwi accustomed to busy horizons, I was stunned by the simplicity of the distant straight line, especially when illuminated by the glow of dawn or dusk.
Nowhere else in the world have I experienced such an absence of visual stimuli. Miles and miles of stubbly low vegetation the colour of dried sage leaves, terracotta earth sprinkled with white rocks, the occasional kangaroo, emu or camel startled by the long silver snake of a train, eagles soaring high above the desert swooping in on some unsuspecting prey, a wisp of dust or the glint of sun on a ute window the only suggestion of human habitation.
It's hard to fathom why it entranced me so. It seemed to lower my heart rate, quieten the incessant voices in my head and allow me to become introspective, reflective, meditative . . . a deeply restful, undemanding interlude in a high-pressure life of fixed schedules and deadlines.
And the rocking motion of the train was soporific. I saw many a passenger fast asleep with their books still open and glasses perched on their noses.
People-watching was another favourite pastime. I was hoping for a train-load of Agatha Christie-ish looking passengers but the only person who seemed to have an element of mystery about her was a tiny woman draped in a shawl who looked like a diminutive version of the Feed-the-Birds-Tuppence-a-Bag lady in Mary Poppins. Oddly enough, she was wearing clumpy TBs under her long floaty skirt.
Travelling long distances by train really is the height of relaxation and indulgence.
The most stressful decision of the day was which gourmet dish or superb wine to choose from the extensive menus presented to us at mealtimes in the splendid Queen Adelaide restaurant. The service in Gold Class was exceptional and the care given to passengers, especially an elderly group on the train, was outstanding.
When I disembarked on terra firma at Sydney Central Station after four days of train travel motion, the ground was swaying under my feet and the sudden exposure to noise and crowds of people assaulted my senses. I wanted to take refuge in my cosy cabin or with my Aussie mates in the lounge. Given the choice, I would have re-boarded the train and repeated the journey in the opposite direction. Many do. The route may be the same but the excursions are quite different. However, it was time to face reality . . . and deliver the bad news to the TBs.
Far from having satisfied my lust for long-haul train travel, I'm now seriously hooked. The Ghan from Darwin to Adelaide is looming on my horizon . . . in spring when the wild flowers are blooming.
Justine Tyerman was a guest of Rail Plus and Great Southern Rail.
* The Indian Pacific is a four-day, three night 4,352km, 65-hour journey from Sydney to Perth and vice versa operated twice a week by Great Southern Rail.