The Train Singer
I have never been so excited to see a camel in all of my life.
It was the middle-aged German woman, travelling alone on our train, who spotted the beast beside the track.
“Camel! Camel!” she cried, as we all jumped to the right side of the carriage to catch a glimpse. By the time we held up our cameras, the camel was nothing more than a speck near the tail of the train, but we managed to talk about the humpbacked-creature (and how we’d wished there were more of its kind, to provide us with entertainment as we crossed the barren desert) for at least 45-minutes following the sighting.
There was another adrenalin-filled moment later that day when the same woman let out an “Oooh!”
“Camel?” I exclaimed as I ran over to the window.
“No, it’s a bird!” and we all stood glued to the glass, watching one blackbird circle above the red earth.
How did this common (relatively unattractive) bird manage to hypnotise my fellow passengers and I? Well, to answer that question I need to tell you a little bit about train-time.
You see – one day of train-time is equal to about 25 years of real-time. When you’re stuck in a confined space with strangers, you basically discover their entire life story within the first three hours of the trip…which means on day two (after living together for approximately 50 years) you resort to conversations that include “If you could eat ANY flavour of ice cream right this minute – which flavour would you choose?” (Thank Christ for the Brazilian guy onboard who answered ‘pineapple champagne’ – adding some confusion to the conversation and allowing us to probe deeper into the strange culinary traditions of his homeland) (Mine was Jaffa…just in case you were wondering). The camel-blackbird incident occurred on day three (i.e. 75 years into our journey)…so was it any wonder that it caused such a hoo-ha?
Don’t get me wrong. I can handle some down time. I very much enjoy disconnecting from the outside world and watching the clouds roll by. I can survive without mobile reception, Internet access, televisions and radios. I love talking with new people. And I don’t mind playing a card game or two to pass the hours but there’s a certain kind of cabin fever one gets when one is trapped on a train.
We were scheduled to do several ‘whistle stops’ during the three-day journey from Sydney to Perth, which would have allowed me time to stretch my legs, suck in some fresh air, go to the supermarket to buy some fruit (and take a break from the 65-year-old man onboard who’d begun making romantic advances, despite the 100 times I’d mentioned that I had a boyfriend).
But unfortunately our train left Sydney four hours behind schedule, which meant our stops were shortened, dramatically. For example, the three hours we were due to spend in Broken Hill became ten minutes – during which we were ordered not to leave the platform. The six hours we were to spend in Adelaide became 40 minutes and we were advised not to exit the station compound (three cheers for my mates Geoff and Wendy who arrived with some bananas and nectarines for this fruit-deprived passenger!).
The only time we were actually allowed off the train for more than an hour during the journey was in Kalgoorlie on day three, where the train arrived at 10pm…just in time to have a drink at the topless cowgirl bar and take part a brothel tour. (I opted instead to search the streets for an ice cream parlour to get my Jaffa-hit…a mission which I failed to achieve).
Why was I riding this delayed-train across the desert? For an adventure! And as with most adventures, you never exactly get what you bargained for.
The deal I’d brokered was a free ride in the Red Class in return for putting on two performances in the Gold Class. (A quick summary of red versus gold: Goldies get a decent-sized cabin with a private bathroom and they dine in a ritzy restaurant that serves three course meals - with different options for entrees, mains and desserts. Meanwhile, down the other end of the train, the Reddies get a tiny cabin, shared toilet/ shower facilities, and the choice of either a Subway-style sandwich or meat pie for lunch). And so, twice a day, I lugged my guitar up the length of the train, to sing in the luxurious lounge as the Goldies sipped their complimentary champagne.
Which brings me to the phenomenon known as IPGT (otherwise known as Indian-Pacific-Gig-Time), in which train-time (as opposed to real-time) moves even slower, resulting in a half-hour set stretching for approximately 200 hours/years.
The IPGT clock began ticking, ever so slowly, when the train manager introduced me as a bush poet. Maybe that’s why the crowd seemed uninterested in my music…they were propped up on their leather lounge chairs expecting stories about Clancy of the Overflow and Ned Kelly...and all I had was a song about knitting and a nudist.
Then again they never got the chance to properly hear my music due to the fact there was no sound system onboard. Well, there was a microphone that was connected to a few small ceiling-speakers inside the Gold Lounge but it did not come with a stand, which meant I had to rely on the kindness of an old chap called Ray who held the mic up to my face during my first gig, dropping it a little during each song (no doubt due to the fact that his arm was being drained of blood) so that by the fourth tune I was forced to lower my head so that my chin was almost resting on the top of my guitar. I gave him a rest after that and decided, despite the noise of talking passengers and the moving train, to sing without a microphone.
On day two I was able to gaffa-tape the mic to the top of my camera tripod (MacGyver would have been proud) but that didn’t make up for the fact that my guitar had no amplification. If I’d had Internet access, I would have been tempted to recite some Henry Lawson and give up on the music-thing all together.
Although it wasn’t part of my contract, I put on a few performances down in the Matilda Café, which was in the Red Section of the train. Despite having no sound system whatsoever (not even a gaffa-mic), and despite the train staff choosing to bang and clang in the kitchen while I was singing…I actually thoroughly enjoyed those gigs.
The Reddies listened with interest to my songs and stories. Maybe it’s because we’d shared our icecream flavour fantasies. Maybe it’s because I knew that David used to earn pocket money when he was a kid by blowing up beaver nests with dynamite and that he’d been in trouble with the law in recent years. Maybe it’s because I knew that Ted had been an alcoholic and regretted ruining his relationship with Maggie, the love of his life. Maybe it’s because I knew that Malcolm was on his way to Mandurah to try and find a woman called Tess who he’d fallen for 15 years ago in Thailand. Maybe it’s because I knew that Edward was leaving his friends and comfort zone in Sydney to start a fresh in Perth and he was scared shitless. Or maybe it’s just because Reddies are the kind of passengers who run to the window with enthusiasm when someone cries ‘camel!’.
They say that happiness is a choice…and despite some challenges, I chose to be happy on the Indian Pacific. I found a little pocket of happiness in the Matilda Café, with my gang of Reddies. In saying that, I also chose to break my contract with the Indian Pacific, opting for a flight back to Sydney rather than three more days and nights on the train. And let me tell you, plane-time is a bloody beautiful thing!