So the question is why would any sane person under his or her own volition choose to spend two or three days imprisoned in a tiny train compartment, looking out at what has been described as the most isolated, abandoned, desolate, monotonous, god-forsaken and consistently boring landscape on the planet Earth. And the answer to this question is another question: how could you possibly understand the true Australia without experiencing first hand the Outback, which in terms of land area accounts for something like 95 percent of the country. How could you grasp the spiritual dimension of this place, the profound yet real inner force that gives the country and its people their character and raison d’etre, the very soul of Australia?
So now that we have made this extraordinary journey in search of spiritual truth and profound understanding, do you want to know what we have learned and how this has changed our perception of the true Australia? The answer is this: The Outback is the most isolated, abandoned, desolate, god-forsaken, monotonous, and consistently boring landscape on the planet Earth. Any other questions?
But wait! There is something to this soul of Australia stuff.
When we boarded the train, it was dark and time for bed. We made our way to the lounge car and had a glass of wine while our compartment was being converted to a bedroom and when we awoke the next day got our first peak at the Outback. It is not that the landscape is all that different from what you can find in parts of Arizona, New Mexico, or Nevada, and most of it is beautiful in its own stark and often subtle way, which after a period of time tends to grow on you. In fact a good part of the trip, the landscape was very similar to Sedona with its red dirt and gently rolling hills and olive green and gray, tumbleweed-type cactuses and scrub trees that look a little like giant broccoli plants. Other parts were just endless stretches of flat land with brown sage punctuated by an occasional, scraggly tree. You wonder how it ended up where it did and how it survives.
What makes the Outback different from these deserts in the U.S. and other places is the lack of any human activity or signs of life and the vastness of it all. It goes on and on and on. You also get the impression that it was just like this some 60,000 years ago when the first humans made their way here. There is literally nothing else quite like it on the planet Earth.
To say that there is no sign of any human activity or life, however, is not exactly right. During our two-day journey we did see two settlements of three or four dust-covered ranch houses with beat up, pickup trucks in front and observed a number of unused, dirt roads leading nowhere, some completely straight, leading as if to infinity, and others meandering through the cactus plants. But where are these roads going? Who uses these roads? Who owns this property and why? How do people living in the two settlements get their food? What do they do all day? These are the profound questions we were asking as our 30-car train made its way along the longest stretch of straight railroad track on the Planet Earth.
And, oh yes, we also saw six cows in a desolate field with no shade and no water and over a thousand miles from human activity. And a highlight of the trip: toward the end of the first day around twilight we got our first and only glimpse of kangaroos in the wild, a whole bunch of them, hopping around just like kangaroos are supposed to do. Another highlight: stopping in the middle of the desert at sunset with everyone piling out of the cars and then treated to a delicious meal of lamb and fresh vegetables served under the stars (and half moon) at picnic tables lined up beside the train. How they pulled this off remains a mystery.
So back to the question of why people take this trip. First of all, this train had 30 cars, all but four (the dining cars) were fully occupied by paying customers. I figure that comes to over 400 people. We were not alone. There is, however, only one train from Sydney to Perth a week, so maybe 400 people is not such a big deal. Also, we were as far as I know the only Americans on board. I asked one of the attendants if Americans ever take this train and he said, “Oh, yes, six or seven months ago we had a couple, I think from Texas or someplace.”
The vast majority were Australians who I believe were on the train to better understand their country and to have a good time, taking advantage of the free booze, good food and fellowship. Many seemed to be part of groups of four or five or six friends. A few were codgers like us with adult children. Even though school is out for the summer holidays, there were no teenagers or kids. We chatted with many Australians and also several Brits, a group from Japan, a couple from South Africa, another from Canada—except for the Japanese all connected by their Anglo heritage. Everyone was relaxed and friendly and seemed to enjoy each others company, getting to meet new people at meals or in the bar/lounge, and just watching the landscape go by. By the end of the trip I think we were all hooked. I certainly heard no one complaining.
Bottom line: given the distance of the journey, the cramped quarters, the desolate landscape, there are a lot of other enjoyable things that people can do in Australia over a two or three day holiday. Few, I believe, are making this journey “for fun.” There are, I believe, other reasons, which are not the same for everyone but boil down to a search for understanding.
So should the Outback Indian-Pacific adventure be on your itinerary if you get to this country? Absolutely. Otherwise how else could you begin to understand the soul of Australia?