It was a searing reminder that building this railroad had required epic endurance, teamwork and hard yakka, as Australians call tough physical work. Six days a week, around the clock, a workforce of 1,400 labored in temperatures that sometimes reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit, laying nearly 900 miles of steel railway across the heart of Australia in just 30 months. There were no mountains to cross or giant rivers to ford—just deadly snakes, blowflies, monstrous saltwater crocodiles (at the Elizabeth River, a loaded rifle was kept close at hand in case workers who ventured into the water met up with a croc), and one of the most extreme climates in the world. Here it was the heat. And in the tropical upper half of the Northern Territory, known as the top end, there are only two seasons: the dry and the wet, as Australians call them. Between April and September there’s no rain at all, and during the next six months you need a diving suit to pick a tomato.
At their peak, the construction crews were laying more than two miles of track per day, and with every mile racist stereotypes of feckless Aborigines drunk on grog or simply disappearing from work, known derisively as “going walkabout,” were overturned. “There has never been a major project in Australia with this sort of indigenous participation,” says Sean Lange, who ran a training and employment program for the Northern Land Council (NLC), an aboriginal land management organization based in Darwin. The NLC had originally hoped that 50 Aborigines would work building the railway; more than three times that many found jobs. The railroad-tie factory in the town of Tennant Creek, where the workforce was about 40 percent aboriginal, was the most productive that Austrak, the company that ran it, had ever operated.
One aboriginal worker was Taryn Kruger, a single mother of two. “When I started at the training class in Katherine, there was only one white bloke,” she told me, a pair of welding goggles round her neck. “On the first day he looked round the classroom and said, ‘Hey, I’m the only white fella!’ So I leant over to him and said: ‘Hey, if it helps you, I’m the only girl!’ ”
Her first job on the railroad was as a “stringliner,” signaling the drivers of bulldozers and scrapers grading the track how much earth they had to remove. “I loved the rumble,” she said, referring to the sound made by the earthmoving vehicles. “When they went past, I would reach out and touch them. It was a rush.” Kruger eventually got to drive a piece of heavy machinery called a “cat roller,” which she pronounces with the same relish that others might use for “Lamborghini.” Now, she said, “sometimes I take my children up to Pine Creek. There’s a bit where you can see the railway from the road. And they say: ‘Mummy, you worked there!’ And I say: ‘That’s right, baby. And over here too. Look! You see that bit of track down there?
Mummy helped build that.’ ”
After the train had spent an hour sitting motionless in the outback’s infernal heat, a sweating Trevor Kenwall, the train’s mechanic, announced between gulps of water that he had fixed the problem.
At our next stop, Tennant Creek, some of the 1,000 or so people who greeted our arrival stared at the locomotive as if it had arrived from outer space. Squealing children waved balloons. A group of elderly women from the Warramunga tribe performed a dance, naked except for saffron-colored skirts and white cockatoo feathers in their hair.
As we headed north, the land seemed emptier and more mysterious. We were now entering the top end, where the wet season was in full deluge. With the water came wildlife: ducks, turkeys, hawks and nocturnal birds called nightjars rose up in a commotion of wings. Akangaroo appeared at the side of the track, mesmerized by the locomotive’s headlamp. My stomach tightened. Aconductor switched off the light to break the spell and give it a chance to escape, but moments later there was a loud bang, then a sickening sound.
Opening my cabin blinds at the start of our final day, I looked out on a wet, green world. Cockatoos zipped in and out of the trees. A wallaby found refuge under a palm tree. The humid air smelled of moist earth and vegetation. “Hallo train . . . welcome to Darwin!” a sign said as we pulled into the new Berrimah Yard freight terminal, the end of our journey across Australia. Darwin is Crocodile Dundee country, a hard-drinking, tropical city of 110,000 people where the average age is 32, men outnumber women by almost two to one, and the bars have names like The Ducks Nuts.
Before the Stuart Highway into Darwin was made into an all-weather road in the 1970s, the city was regularly cut off during the wet season. It used to be said that there were only two kinds of people in Darwin—those paid to be there and those without enough money to leave. Today, the city wants to be a player in Australia’s economy, and the transcontinental is a key part of that dream. “For the first time in our history, we’re connected by steel to the rest of Australia,” said Bob Collins, who as federal transport minister in the early 1990s was a passionate advocate of the project. “And that’s exciting.”
Collins, a white man who is married to an aboriginal woman, applauds what the train will do for indigenous people. Sean Lange says the coming of the railroad may spawn as many as 5,000 jobs. “There are 4 or 5 billion dollars’ worth of projects happening here in the Northern Territory over the next five years,” he says. “We’re determined that indigenous people are going to get some of those jobs.”