Full Speed Ahead | Travel | Smithsonian
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Full Speed Ahead

A railroad, finally, crosses Australia's vast interior—linking not only the continent's south with its north, but also its past to its future

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Early on a warm January morning, I boarded a freight train emblazoned with aboriginal designs in Adelaide on Australia’s south-central coast, bound for Darwin, 1,800 miles away. Ours would be the first train ever to cross the length of the Australian continent, and as we clattered toward Australia’s desert interior, huge crowds of people, whites and Aborigines alike, lined the tracks to wave and cheer. They jammed overpasses. They stood under eucalyptus trees or atop utes, as Australians call pickup trucks. They clambered onto rooftops. Schoolchildren waved flags, mothers waved babies and, as the train rushed under a bridge, a blind man waved his white stick jubilantly above his head.

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The first hours of the journey took us through the wheatgrowing district of South Australia. The harvest was in, and the fields were covered in fawn-colored stubble. Near Quorn, a tornado spiraled up, like a white cobra, scattering chaff across the ground. As we approached the Flinders Ranges, a wall of rock that glowed purple in the evening light, a ute appeared at the side of the track with a man and a woman standing on the back. They held up hand-lettered signs. Hers said, “AT.” On his was written: “LAST.”

Trains have been rolling between Adelaide and Alice Springs, an oasis of 28,000 in the heart of the continent, since 1929, so our journey wouldn’t officially make history until we traveled beyond The Alice, as the town is known locally. But that didn’t seem to matter to the exuberant crowds, nor to the local politicians who gave speeches at each stop, taking their cue from Prime Minister John Howard, who had hailed the train as a “nation-building project.” Although 90 percent of the country’s population lives in coastal cities, making Australians the most urban people on the planet, the red center, as the desert interior is known, has always been their defining landscape. “We’re so aware of the emptiness,” says Adelaide-based economist Richard Blandy. “To cross that emptiness is emotionally significant for Australians.”

Australians have been dreaming of a railway across the red center since an Adelaide businessman first proposed it in 1858. The government promised to build it in 1911, but droughts, two world wars, economic downturns and doubts about its viability kept the project on the drawing board. Finally, in 1999, government and business leaders got behind the $965 million land bridge from the prosperous south to the increasingly important north, home to vast natural resources and a gateway to Australia’s trading partners in Asia. (In March 2003, ten months before our train rolled, Australia and East Timor agreed to divvy up an estimated $37 billion worth of fossil fuels in the waters between them.)

The transcontinental also has a military function. The Northern Territory has always been the most vulnerable part of the continent; Darwin is closer to Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, than to Australia’s capital, Canberra. To counter today’s threats—particularly from terrorist groups operating within Indonesia—the railway will provide supplies to a squadron of F/A-18’s based near the town of Katherine and also to the armed forces, many of which are based in the Northern Territory.

More broadly, says Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey, “there’s something symbolic about a railway. A road usually follows bush trails or other paths, but a railway is created in one grand gesture. We’re a visual people, and a line drawn across the map, almost dead center, captures the imagination.” Says Mike Rann, the premier of the state of South Australia: “Australians tell stories about their ancestors and the outback. So this train is not just about the future. It helps tell the story of our past, as well. It helps tell the Australian story.”

“Ok, fellas,” said Geoff Noble, the locomotive engineer, “let’s make some history!” We were stopped a few miles south of Alice Springs, on the second day of our journey, and I could hear the high-pitched whine of crickets, like a dentist’s drill, and feel the heat hammering down on the cab. He eased the throttle of the 3,800-horsepower diesel into gear, and we began moving again.

Among the crowd waiting to greet us as we got off the train in Alice Springs were camels decked with brightly colored saddlebags, tended by a bearded man in a blue turban and flowing robes. He was Eric Sultan, a descendant of one of the cameleers who helped found the town in the late 19th century. Camels first caught on as pack animals in the Australian desert beginning in 1840, and by 1910 some 12,000 had been brought in, mostly from Peshawar in present-day Pakistan. The camels hauled wool and gold, supplied cattle ranches and aboriginal missions, and helped build both the Overland Telegraph in 1871 and the first railway from Adelaide to Oodnadatta in the 1880s.

By the 1930s, the internal combustion engine had put the cameleers out of business; they turned their animals loose, and today there are some 650,000 feral camels in central Australia. They’ve long been regarded as a nuisance, because they trample fences and compete with cattle for food. Now, in an ironic twist, an Alice Springs company has begun shipping the animals to countries in the Middle East.

The Aborigines, Australia’s indigenous people, settled on the continent at least 24,000 years ago from Papua New Guinea. According to aboriginal legend, the landscape was formed by creatures such as the Euro, a large kangaroo, that traveled particular routes, known as songlines. Asongline can stretch for hundreds, even thousands, of miles, passing through the territory of several different clans or family groups. Each aboriginal clan must maintain its part of the songline by handing down the creation stories.

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