SIXTY-FIVE hours on a train. Give or take. Sound like fun? Surprisingly, yes. After a full day and night aboard the Indian Pacific, I am relaxed and content.
SIXTY-FIVE hours on a train. Give or take. Sound like fun? Surprisingly, yes.
After a full day and night aboard the Indian Pacific, I am relaxed and content.
When I boarded in Sydney, I thought Agatha Christie’s murderous book about the Orient Express was an instruction manual to survive such a lengthy train ride, not a work of fiction. But I was wrong. Absurdly long train journeys can be fun, but not for the faint of heart.
I am in the lounge car burning off breakfast with a hearty hand of solitaire.
Just me, a latte, a deck of cards, peace and quiet and War and Peace. Heaven.
I bought Tolstoy’s epic work of literature for the Trans-Siberian Railway — the ultimate train ride at 9289 kilometres — but perhaps Dostoevsky’s The Idiot might be more appropriate.
The distant chink of silverware from the adjacent restaurant car indicates my fellow travellers have risen and are enjoying breakfast.
I alternate between sips of coffee and glances at the scale of the landscape beyond the glass.
Spotting breaks in the nothingness of the arid everywhere becomes a pleasant pastime.
The occasional wind-sculpted gum tree or desiccated spinifex grass tussock; a Wedge-tailed Eagle circling unsuspecting prey, high in the cirrus.
Australia’s coat of arms has come to life: kangaroos and emus dancing in the heraldic golden rays of the midday sun.
It’s the raw Outback.
It’s cork-hat-wearing, crocodile wrestling, not-Fosters-beer-drinking, true-blue Australia . . . without the sand, heat, flies, snakes, spiders, in our plush, perfectly air-conditioned 5-star carriages.
But the landscape is changing. Here and there, green begins to invade the desert palette. And before long, the sand and red earth surrender to verdant farmland.
After 24 hours aboard I’m used to the relentless jolting and lurching inertia of the Indian Pacific but not the squeal of steel on steel, which heralds our next stop.
A cheery, sing-song voice pipes over the intercom we’ll shortly be arriving in the outback town of Two Wells for the first of our South Australian excursion options: the Barossa Valley.
“Or hang on for Adelaide, ’tis but 30 minutes,” announces the twee Gaelic trill.
So I linger longer, for just a wee while.
South Australia’s capital is a tidy, welterweight metropolis.
It was designed in the 1830s by a British Colonial Official named Colonel William Light: a smart British outpost to honour the wife of William IV. Like Queen Adelaide, Colonel Light was pious and dutiful, and Adelaide City is often called the city of churches on account of the number of belfries and spires.
Portraits of Light are smart and orderly, just like his city. He laid Adelaide out on a grid, a square kilometre, and surrounded it with a green belt of parkland. The result is a city uncluttered by the acne of urban sprawl.
To the west is Glenelg and the seaside, a short tram ride away. At the end of Jetty Road you’ll find an office to book a dive with Great White Sharks. It’s in the former Rodney Fox Great White Museum, once temple to victim-turned-protector of the mighty toothy leviathan.
To the west is the Adelaide Hills wine region, home to the magnificent Grange Hermitage. It’s the coif of legend, with a price tag to match. The 2012 vintage retails for $759.00.
Having done a stint in Adelaide and its environs as a student, I’m keen to lunch at my favourite restaurant, Chianti, so I’m reluctantly giving the Barossa Valley a miss.
But for now I want to squeeze in another chapter. I’ve traded my Tolstoys, War and Peace for Anna Karenina, and savour snippets of grand enfilades and gilded domes.
Margot takes a micro-sip of her macchiato and a devilish Mona Lisa half-smile caffeinates her face.
But my thoughts quickly turn from the exalted as an armful of clanging bangles shatters my tranquillity. Suddenly Margot is upon me in a bedazzling, garish poncho.
I am moderately caffeinated but not sufficiently so to stave off another war of the words. She fashionista catwalks to my booth. And stops. And turns.
Her unblinking, soulless eyes come to rest on my 9 o’clock shadow and her pinched nostrils indicate disapproval, again. I find myself explaining the complexities of shaving one’s face on a train. I was forced to abandon my chin to a schmear of unkempt fuzz.
Fear swamps me and my voice squeaks up an octave.
It’s “near impossible” I founder.
“You’re not married are you?”
I shake my head.
Her eyes admonish my mismatched socks and poly-blend sweater and unshaven face.
Of course he’s not married her eyes betray; he can’t even dress himself.
She yawns. Actually yawns.
So I chuck her a quote she won’t possibly get and finally seize victory: “Wait till I put my beard aside, for that hath done no treason.”
Quick as a flash: “Thomas More, 1534” she says.
Margot takes a micro-sip of her macchiato and a devilish Mona Lisa half-smile caffeinates her face.
I contemplate a commando role through the plate glass. Surely at 80kmh I wouldn’t break all my bones.
Margot grimaces or smiles. Sips her coffee.
“Mmmmmm,” she says.
I’m not sure if it’s a statement or a question but I sip too and assure her my latte is tremendous.
I get up to leave but . . .
“I would have a word,” she says.
It turns out to be many words and each carefully selected for my acute discomfort, beginning with: “when not being puffed by a journalist, do you think this train trip is value for money?”
“I haven’t really considered it in those terms,” I lie.
“Well perhaps you should. Readers want their money’s worth.”
And she stands with her hand on her hip waiting for me to consider it.
Instead I consider the intricacies of my financial diarrhoea and my total inability to save money.
Most writers are much better with letters than they are with numbers, I explain.
My pathetic attempt to make oblique amends for being a sponsored travel writer is futile and I follow it up with the somewhat beige: “Umm . . . well, I suppose it’s hard to put a dollar value on an experience like this.
I’m about to answer when the train shunts violently and Margot, her inquisition, her trans-seasonal ironic art smock and most of her macchiato end up in a heap in the booth opposite.
And I’m off. Chivalry is dead. Margot murdered it. I flick a backward glance at the carnage. She’s thrown a shoe and is covered in coffee but otherwise intact.
I run. I don’t look back. I flee to my cabin and pull the blind. And hide. And wait.
When the train finally pulls up in Two Wells I sneak a peak through a chink in the blind. Just enough to see Margot, distant but hi-viz in tangerine lipstick and DayGlo Prada pumps with an ice pack pressed to her forehead, stridulating about the dangers of rail travel.
She boards a coach and disappears down a dusty trail to Maggie Beer, Seppeltsfield and all the delights of the Barossa Valley.
We trundle on. The remaining guests alight at the Adelaide Parklands Terminal.
I ditch them and their guided walking tour of the city sites.
My sights are firmly set on Hutt Street where Chianti Restaurant and 600 grams of Bistecca alla Fiorentina (grass-fed Red Angus t-bone) await — along with a 2012 St Hugo Cabernet Sauvignon.
The family-run trattoria has been plating up since 1985. It’s won best breakfast, South Australia Restaurant and Catering Awards Hall of Fame three consecutive years.
I decline the dessert menu reluctantly and bid farewell.
There are only a few tall buildings in Adelaide and the human scale of the city gives it the appearance of a large country town rather than a capital city.
Sufficiently lubricated and slightly resembling an overstuffed turkey, I am just able to waddle the few hundred metres to the Boys Club Barbershop in the Adelaide Arcade.
It feels a touch decadent, but I decide to treat myself to a spot of manscaping. It’s walk-in only so I perch on the Chesterfield and wait my turn before I’m called to the vintage chair.
A handsomely-bewhiskered gentleman with a thatch of grey hair waiting for a cut strikes up conversation as the barber sharpens his razor on the strop.
I tell the gentleman I’m a journalist writing a story. He seems thrilled. Like Yoda without the word jumble, he imparts his wisdom with gloriously friendly sageness.
“Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen,” he says putting down his gardening magazine, “was the daughter of a middling German princeling — Georg I think he was.”
Apparently there were a gazillion German princes and dukes and margraves and counts and prince-bishops — many of them penniless.
The Brits often went shopping for partners in Germany — they were almost always Protestant and rarely came with political baggage.
Queen Victoria bagged one for herself and later, a couple for her daughters. But unlike Victoria’s Prince Albert, Adelaide married a man three decades her senior who already had 10 illegitimate children.
Princess Adelaide was one of the casualties of the race to produce an heir by the many sons of George III — the mad king. Adelaide married the Duke of Clarence, yet they bore only stillborn princesses.
She and her ambitious husband won the race to throne and were crowned in 1830, but with no heir, the Duke and Duchess of Kent’s daughter Victoria scooped the ultimate prize and reigned for the rest of the 19th Century.
During her tenure the British Empire reached its zenith, mainly due to the industrial revolution, which included the mode of transport I’m about to miss if I don’t get my A into G.
I thank the gentleman for his lesson in all things Adelaide.
I thank the barber for sculpting a presentable being from the yeti that walked in an hour ago.
Adelaide is one of the most walkable cities in Australia, but I hail a cab back to the station.
And while the barber didn’t even nick my neck with the cutthroat razor, I fear I’ve cut things too fine and I’m going to miss the train.
We pull up, I throw dollars at the driver and sprint to the train just as the last carriage door closes.
And with a loud burst of the horn the Indian Pacific slowly slips out of the station and away from Adelaide.