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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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Before the first bulldozer began work on the transcontinental railroad, local authorities commissioned a survey of the aboriginal sites that would be affected. Every sacred site and object identified by the survey was bypassed. To avoid a single corkwood tree, an access road was shifted some 20 yards. To protect an outcrop of rock called Karlukarlu (or as it’s known in English, the Devil’s Marbles), the entire rail corridor was moved several miles to the west.

As a result of this flexibility, aboriginal communities have largely embraced the railroad and liken it to a songline. “It’s two lines going side by side,” said Bobby Stuart, an elder of central Australia’s Arrernte people. “There’s the white line. And there’s the aboriginal line. And they’re running parallel.”

The Northern Territory has the highest concentration of indigenous people in Australia: almost 60,000 out of a total state population of about 200,000. Thanks to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1976, the Aborigines now own 50 percent of the Northern Territory, giving them an area roughly equivalent in size to the state of Texas. But poverty and prejudice have kept them exiles in their own country.

Near Alice Springs is an aboriginal housing project of some 20 cinder block dwellings, the Warlpiri camp, where men and women sleep on filthy mattresses on porches. There are flies everywhere. Mangy dogs root among the garbage. Burned-out wrecks of cars lie with doors ripped off and windshields smashed.

The Aborigines’ plight is Australia’s shame. For the first hundred years of white settlement, they were regarded as animals, and were shot, poisoned and driven from their land. During much of the 20th century, government officials routinely separated aboriginal children from their families, moving them into group institutions and foster homes to be “civilized.” Aborigines were not granted the right to vote until 1962. The first Aborigine didn’t graduate from an Australian university until 1966.

Sweeping civil rights legislation in 1967 marked the beginning of a slow improvement in their status, but aboriginal life expectancy is still 17 years less than the rest of the population. (In the United States, Canada and New Zealand, which also have relatively large indigenous populations, life expectancy of indigenous people is three to seven years less than that of the general population.) Aboriginal rates of tuberculosis rival those of the third world. Rheumatic fever, endemic in Dickens’ London, is common. Diabetes, domestic violence and alcoholism are rife. “There are dozens of places here in the Northern Territory where there is no reason for people to get out of bed in the morning,” says Darwin-based historian Peter Forrest, “except perhaps to play cards or drink a flagon of wine.”

They are so disenfranchised that on my journey in the Northern Territory, no Aborigine sold me a book, drove me in a taxi, sat next to me in a restaurant or put a chocolate on my hotel pillow. Instead, I saw aboriginal men and women lying in the street at midday, apparently passed out from drinking, or sitting on the ground staring into space as white Australians hurried past.

The transcontinental railroad has sent a ray of hope into this gloomy picture. Indigenous people were guaranteed jobs, compensation for the use of their land and 2 percent equity in Asia Pacific Transport Consortium, the railroad’s parent company. For the first time, Aborigines are shareholders in a major national enterprise.

As the train left Alice Springs and began to climb the Great Larapinta Grade up to Bond Springs, at 2,390 feet the highest point on the line, the excitement onboard grew palpable: we were the first people to cross this part of Australia by train. My favorite perch was an open doorway between two carriages. The engineer had warned me that if the driver braked suddenly, I could be pitched onto the track. But I spent hours watching what the Australian novelist Tom Keneally called the “sublime desolation” of central Australia, as we thundered across a wilderness of rust-colored dirt, saltbush and spinifex grass stretching toward a horizon so flat, and so sharply defined, that it looked as if drawn with a pencil. I saw no sign of human
life: not a house, not a person, not a car, just some scrawny emus, which scampered into the bush at our approach.

The emptiness took on even more menace about three in the afternoon when our train broke down—and with it the air conditioning. (Our 50-year-old German-built car had come to Australia as part of World War II reparations.) As we sat in the carriage with sweat pouring down our faces, I remembered that explorer Charles Sturt’s thermometer had burst in 1845 during his journey across the desert. “The ground was so heated,” he wrote in his journal, “that our matches, falling on it, ignited.”

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