Crossing Australia by Train
Our Sleep Storyteller-in-Residence, Phoebe Smith, talks about the adventure behind her latest Sleep Story, Crossing Australia by Train
It’s difficult to imagine a time pre-car travel. An era when the only option to get somewhere was either via a very long journey on foot, or taking whatever form of transport was available – be it horse and carriage or, later, bus or train.
As cars have become increasingly cheaper to buy and the ability to drive seems less of an option and more of a necessity, it’s easy to forget the simple joy of purposely choosing a slower mode of travel.
The more frenetic my life has become the more I have been drawn to travelling places overland by train. There’s something very special about covering great distances being pulled by a locomotive. Firstly there’s the speed – or rather lack of it. Nothing is rushed, the train moves at its own particular pace. Then there’s the wonderful (and rare) feeling of not having to concentrate on anything in particular. While someone else concerns themselves with funnelling the carriages down the tracks, you can simply sit back and relax. The whole world passes by outside your window and all you have to do is watch it go by, without a care.
I’ve enjoyed many a view from the luxury of a moving chair. From the tall silver birch trees of Siberia, to the great steppes of Mongolia, the vein-like canals of Italy’s romantic city of Venice and, most recently, the expansive reaches of the Australian Outback.
Covering a lot of ground in this way feels as though, rather than just getting somewhere, you actually earn it. Every single mile or kilometre is felt, observed and appreciated. The wilderness that exists between the northern end of the country in Darwin and the oceanside reaches of South Australia is not simply flown over as though a blank piece of paper, where you could be anywhere in the world, but rather every single piece of your time is accounted for, as though by taking the journey in an unhurried fashion you are filling in the blank spaces on a map with pictures and stories.
With nothing else to concern yourself with you start to notice a whole lot more. For me it was taking in the subtle changes that occur along the open desertland of the Northern Territory enroute into the depths of the Red Centre at the heart of the country’s interior. I was utterly entranced. After hours spent passing sandy terrain the significance of greenery – any greenery – which means water is present, became so much more meaningful.
The houses I passed – though granted there were not many – didn’t just get dismissed, but rather set my imagination in motion as I pictured just how tough it must have been to even transport the materials in to build it to somewhere so remote – especially before the advent of the train. Then I started to imagine the kind of people who would have been drawn to such a place. Were they escaping something? Were they embracing hope, hope that they would find some kind of natural treasure – be it gold, opal or even coal? Or did they even have a choice about coming out here, perhaps they were duty-bound to guard a territory or man some kind of construction – perhaps the very construction of the railway line itself.
Because of all the time spent on the train, every stop felt like a treat. The luxury of stretching my legs and feeling terra firma beneath my feet was indescribable. The fresh air smelled more amazing than I ever thought possible. And the joy experienced at being free to explore beyond the confines of a carriage was palpable.
But there are simple pleasures back on the train. Every activity you do seems novel – the ability to take a shower when the carriage is rocking from side to side, enjoying lunch or pre- or post-dinner drinks while covering miles without any effort at all. And, on overnight journeys such as on The Ghan, there’s something really quite magical about travelling through the darkness while you sleep, knowing that in the morning you will wake up somewhere completely different. It’s as though you’ve travelled through time itself.
Arriving in a new place every day, as I often do when I travel by train, means I never truly know what to expect until I step outside. Though I’m leaving the comfort of familiar surrounds, the payoff is that my senses are suddenly reawakened. I’m in a different climate, with all new smells, sights and colours all about me, with the opportunity to meet new people and try new experiences.
I may have sat in the same place over all those days, yet due to the nature of travelling, I am somehow changed by all I’ve witnessed on my journey.
And yet when I reach the terminus, and arrive in my destination station, it’s never a truly sad moment as endings usually are. Because there’s something very reassuring in knowing that even after I get off the locomotive and end my journey, the train, the trusty train, my little piece of constant in an ever-changing ride, continues, going backwards and forwards on these tracks, on a never-ending voyage.