Saturday, 25 September 2010

Riding the Rattler (1)

Both my grandfathers were railway guards. One worked the line between Mackay and Rockhampton, the other, between Toowoomba and Warwick. They called what they did for a living "riding the rattler".

This was back in the 40s and 50s, so I'm talking deep nostalgia. I can remember joining a crowd of people at Carmila railway station in the early fifties to see the first diesel powered train roar past. I was terrified by the noise - I must have been all of five or six at the time.


As a fourteen year-old heading off to boarding school, I rode the Sunlander from Mackay to Brisbane on my own. I don't remember being daunted by this. I do remember frantically trying to dispose of a lighted cigarette when the conductor came by at some point in the 1600km journey. It was a difficult exercise in an air-conditioned compartment.

Given this background, it seemed nostalgically appropriate to take the Indian-Pacific for the Adelaide-Perth leg of the journey.

Sunsets on the Nullarbor are something else.

The train is comfortable, well-appointed, and technically interesting. The logistics involved in getting what amounts to a long skinny multi-roomed hotel from one end of the continent to the other are daunting. The train staff were persistently cheerful and obliging,which in itself was impressive, given that they worked flat-out for two days keeping hundreds of generally geriatric and accident-prone individuals like me happy and safe.

With a head full of memories of being jolted about in Queensland Rail's 1960s narrow gauge rolling stock, I was pleasantly surprised to find that on the whole the ride was smooth and relatively quiet.

We stopped at Cook, about one third of the way across the Nullarbor, where I came across these pepperinas. Not much grows there, but these do and they're fragrant.I wonder if you could cook with them?

There were wildflowers.

Stopping to refuel provided an opportunity to inspect the train from the outside. The engineering is impressive. These things are built heavy - for comfort, not speed. The contrast with aircraft construction and layout is stark.There's plenty of industrial gauge steelwork about, and the quality (and complexity) of the internal plumbing and cabling is mind-blowing.

The train staff communicate with what look like HF radios - they wear them on their belts. It comes across as a little incongruous when the radio comes loudly alive as the waitress is pouring you a glass of plonk. The tucker's pretty good, by the way.

Cook has a population of two, which doubles when the train stops as extras come in to sell souvenirs. Obviously one of the four has a dim view of shoplifters.

Adelaide Aviation Museum

This is a small, but very well organised museum near the Old Port.

It is completely housed in one hangar, which isn't large, but both the quantity and quality of the exhibits make it well worth a visit.


The curators use a very basic technique to ensure that they pack as much as possible in the limited space. They simply remove the offending bits of the displayed aircraft.

In the case of the Aero Commander on display, they have amputated the tail. Larger aircraft have sections of wing removed. On the face of it, this sounds like vandalism, but it's done with care, airframe if it doesn't fit in the available space.This tecnique is confined to the airframes that allow visitor access.

There are four aircraft that are accessible - an Aero Commander, an ex-CSIRO Fokker F-27, an ex-Navy Westland Wessex chopper, and an ARDC c-47.

By raising the tail, the c-47 is arranged so that it's fuselage is level which makes for a more accurate display, given that the only time the tail was dragging was when the ship was on the tarmac.

The Wessex has a looping DVD that provides a history of the English Electric Canberra on operational service in Vietnam. Their role (out of Phan Rang) has largely been forgotten, but they were very effective and accurate. There is an account of the loss of an aircraft crewed by Bob Carter, who was a Toowoomba lad. His body and that of the other crewman were the last recovered in SVN. This incident happened in the last few months of my tour in 1970.

Seeing the F-27 brought back some sad recollections. My mother had invited three of my mates to my 13th birthday party in North Eton (near Mackay) where we lived at the time. The party was to be held the day after these kids flew home from Rockhampton (where they were at boarding school). They were lost when VH-TFB (Abel Tasman) hit the sea off Mackay at night in fog. This disaster made a profound impression on me at the time.

The cause of the crash was never determined - it was in the days before black boxes.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Moody Old Town

Adelaide is a moody old town.

Weatherwise, it's a place of vivid contrasts. In the six visits I've made over the years, I've experienced most of them.

I remember a Sunday in March a few years ago being confronted by a 42 degree blast as we left the airport. It felt very much like Mt Isa. The place was slowly cooking.

This trip the city is sulking. The sun lurks rather than shines, and there always seems to be a sneaky cold breeze.

Back in 2002 I came to a Principal's conference here. It must have been about this time of the year, but it was hot then - totally different from now.

Speaking of contrasts - I can't help but compare Adelaide to Brisbane. Up north, there's a wider variety of vegetation and building styles. The first is a consequence of geography,the second of building codes and covenants. There's a lack of discipline and a sense of haphazardness in Brisbane. In Adelaide, it's all steel, masonry and angles, and there is a pleasing (sometimes boring) consistency in the building styles. The lack of timber surprises if you've been brought up in the tropics.

People here drive with a strong sense of self-absorption, reflected in their tendency to pull into a fast-moving stream of traffic without a backward glance. You can also (if you're mad enough) park in the clearways at certain times of the day. This has some interesting effects if you drive in the outside lane.

Still, it has a charm all of its own. People are generally laid back.They smile readily, and seem prepared to engage. They wear lots of black - perhaps climate related, but unlike the Melbourne black it's less about appearing cool, and more about "what the heck - I can't be bothered thinking about clothes".

There are festivals and trams, and some great tucker.The coffee's not bad either, even if it's best used to keep your hands warm.

I hope the sun shines in Perth.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Water Everywhere

I've been privileged to travel west during the best season for decades.

This is particularly evident in the country around Quilpie and Thargomindah. Water is everywhere. It brings out birdlife, snakes, and every creature that has been lying doggo for the last ten years or more.

This is rich country when the season is good, and it's easy to see how many early settlements were made which didn't in the long run, stand the test of time. Settlers looked at the country in a good year, and assumed it always looked like this.

Used as they were to reliable seasons in the old country, they simply couldn't get their heads around the notion that good rains came every ten years or so, rather than annually.

Right now, it's a treat and a rare privilege to see it.

The grins are nearly as wide as the waterlogged country.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Forgetful in Cunnamulla

My last trip this term was to Cunnamulla.

Cunnamulla is always interesting. It was particularly so this trip because of my erratic short-term memory.

I cart a bit of gear around the countryside - laptop, memory stick,mobile phone, files etc. Because of previous bad experiences (leaving a memory stick at Thargomindah, for example) I have developed a few strategies.

One that has worked well is to write a check list (aide memoire) on the back of the ID pic that I wear around my neck on a lanyard. The theory is that I always check this list as I get back into the vehicle after I leave a school, office or my accommodation.

Because I flew out this trip, I didn't have a vehicle, and had to leg it from one school to the other (there are two I work in at Cunnamulla). The "getting in the vehicle" cue was therefore absent, and when I arrived at the second school I realised I'd left my lanyard (with both the memory stick and the checklist attached) behind. There is a bizarre irony in that somewhere.....

This meant that I had to walk back to school one to collect it, and then walk to school two all over again.

The parish priest (the second school was the Catholic school) offered me his push bike* but I declined for two good reasons.

The first was that I would have run the risk of breaking both my neck and his bike in one go, and also that in Cunnamulla, everyone knows the parish priest, and I'd put odds on being the victim of a citizen's arrest on suspicion of nicking his bike.

It ended well,in terms of the work done, and I got plenty of exercise. The memory problem has, by the way, nothing to do with advancing years - I've been leaving stuff behind for decades.

The pic is the aircraft. I tried to upload a video - but my poor little EEPC didn't have the grunt. I'm travelling (Adelaide - Perth etc) so will have to put up with it.

*Apologies to BOAB.

Hugh White - Without America

Hugh White is always provocative, and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to criticising current defence policy. In 1995, he was appo...