Train Tracks

imageLast night, over dinner, we were discussing past and potential train trips around Australia, which reminded me about a piece I wrote last year about a journey from Sydney to Canberra..

A train broods menacingly beside the platform swarming with perspiring humanity over-burdened with baggage, like camels, too busy boarding to pay attention to the pouts of an inanimate object. There is the usual scuffling panic as announcements indicate that departure is imminent. Early for once, and already arranged neatly in my space, I watch smugly.

As the train pulls out of the CBD, the skyline rapidly diminishes from high rise to lowland suburbia, and the railway line is now hemmed in by cyclone fencing and tarmacked roads. Rubbish, like magnetic particles, clings to the rim of the track, plastic bags, cans and chip packets blossoming amongst the ubiquitous weeds and parched grass. Concrete slabs span dribbling drains that were once brazen creeks, free and untrammeled. Grey walls and corrugated iron sheds squat resolutely by the tracks, embellished in graffiti that is neither artistic nor poetic.
Whisking through suburban stations too rapidly to read their names, we skim past school ovals, backyard fences, besser block warehouses, stations old and new, all bearing the same platforms and the same signs: Way Out; No Smoking; Smiths Crisps. Then miles of thick cables, gravel heaps, and napping carriages. On and on and on, suburbia seems to peter out, then scuttles back into view, an endless game of hide-and-seek.

And I am reminded, disturbingly, of Jeannie Baker’s beautiful picture-book Window, which depicts the insidious creep of suburbia and industrial estate across paddock and bushland.
And then suddenly, unexpectedly, we are free. The urban sprawl fades away. A final tarmacked road dissolves into dust. Now we are passing through open paddocks sown with spindly stands of grey gums and sprinkled with cows leaning rigidly towards the grass like the plastic toys we had as children.

Encased in our single-minded snake skin, we dart through raw channels of blasted ochre rock that disgorge themselves into unblemished bush. Dense green walls of trees and shrubs smother the landscape for miles, then melt away. Odd, isolated, scrawny white gums, their bleached, bone-like branches bent and twisted as if crippled with arthritis, cling to rocky outcrops.

A dab of floral colour, purple and yellow, flares up in the dappled light beneath the trees like the flicks of a paintbrush, as a kookaburra flits suddenly away, skittering off its wooden post, startled by our unexpected and sinuous arrival in his landscape, too large a snake to battle with alone.
A stretch of river spreads out behind a rocky dam, its waters sequined with sunlight and beaded with water weed, engulfing a shorn-off Stonehenge where no druid has ever sacrificed on that broad altar stone with curved sickle knife.

Lonely farmhouses peer at us glumly from beneath overhanging verandahs like heavy eyebrows. Telegraph poles salute stiffly, and we are chased down the track by a narrow dirt track that runs alongside for two or three miles until it staggers to a stop, like kids determined to give you that final farewell wave at the corner.

Yerrin-bool, Mitt-agong, Bow-ral, Burradoo, Bun-danoon, Bunga-dore, chanting a rhythm in time to the clacking of the steel wheels on the iron girders.

Buttercup yellow soursobs are scattered along the dry verges. Ferns, deep green and dusty, smother the banks. A five-bar gate, a rusty, corrugated iron shed, a shrinking waterhole, gaping like a wide-mouth frog, crying out for rain that won’t fall for weeks yet.

Another sandy track through the trees, like the Road Less Travelled, arrives at a remote weatherboard station with a hyphen of a platform, too short to contain even one carriage of our serpentine train. A flock of white birds twinkles across the stubble of a recently shorn heat field.
The outskirts of another country town: low cream brick bungalows stark and new inside their fenced and barren quarter-acre blocks, clustering together for warmth like refugees at the town limit, wanly watching the comfortable, established town below.

Diggers gouge through the dry, lumpy earth, stockpiling barricades of mallee roots that lie across the ground like so many carcasses. And meanwhile this glinting silver thread stitches its way south, under bridges, over roads, pulling the edges of the fabric together, zipping up the railway sleepers, ka-thunk… ka-thunk… ka-thunk….

Under a broad blue tablecloth of sky, stained by a streak of bleached white cloud. Sunshine strikes a wire fence so it glitters and sparkles like cobwebs full of dew.

A kangaroo breaks cover, disturbing a crabby cockatoo, who squawks and flaps, beating his vast wings in irritation, before swooping off over a row of dollhouse-sized weatherboard cottages, neat and sweet like maiden aunts that coo over a graveyard lazing serenely across the slope of a hill.

And I sit, glued to the window. Marking time. Heading home.

*With thanks to Google images for the kookaburra on a fence post.


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