Riding the Legendary Ozback: Australia’s Heartland Express

The black velvet of the desert night was torn by a brilliant orb of white light trailing a glowing vapour trail, which arced low above the idle locomotive.

As it crossed the dark western sky over the vast expanse of the Great Victoria Desert, time slowed down and hearts sped up amongst the small group of stargazers at Manguri siding on the Central Australia Railway, 30km north-west of Coober Pedy in South Australia.

Standing in the darkness, 770km north of Adelaide and 1683.3km west of Sydney as the crow flies, the watchers were spellbound.

The light show lasted little more than a minute as what was later reported to be space junk turned glaring white like a welder’s arc as it fell through the atmosphere, then burst into sparks, then trailing red embers, with the pieces of metal dying to rich orange before being snuffed out.

Sightings were reported across thousands of kilometres from as far south as Esperance in Western Australia to Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of what a Perth astronomer later identified as a plummeting piece of a Russian spacecraft.

It was a fiery welcome to the Australian Outback that the passengers of the Ozback Explorer train would never forget — a truly cosmic experience.

By 6.30am the next morning, the train was 350km north on the Central Australia Railway at Kulgera siding, just across the Northern Territory border.

Its passengers were in a convoy of air conditioned mini-buses, travelling along a dirt road towards the Stuart Highway and Erldunda and the Lasseter’s Highway turn-off, 253km east of Uluru (Ayers Rock).

Square-jawed red kangaroos two metres high took in the morning sun, the bucks watching the passing buses with disdain from under the dusty canopies of the mulga trees.

The giant, three-trailered trucks called road trains that stalk the Stuart Highway had done their night’s work, with crows and wedge-tailed eagles roosting and ripping at fresh road kill, the eagles flapping up painfully slowly at the last minute to avoid oncoming vehicles.

And that was the beauty of the Ozback Explorer.

It did not boast tuxedoed waiters, exotic cuisine or silk pillows. But as a truly Australian experience, it ranked as one of the great train journeys of the world.

Setting out every evening from its wayside stops, piggybacking mini-buses on two flatbed wagons, the train snaked its way through the Outback night to take its passengers to a new destination by morning.

The Explorer was created by Cairo-born George Milaras, who emigrated from South Africa to Australia in 2003 with his family.

His involvement in tourist trains had begun more than a decade before with the launch of the successful Shongololo Express in Southern Africa, which ran from Johannesburg to Capetown, and later, the Southern Cross, which ran through six countries in two weeks – Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique, Swaziland and South Africa.

With the support of the Lithgow-based State Mine Railway society in New South Wales, the injection of $1.5 million and the boundless patience needed to comply with rigid Australian rail safety, environmental and operating requirements across three Australian states and a territory, Milaras had again pulled off a rail coup.

Using leased track time and Pacific National hook and pull (locomotive and driver) services, the Ozback Explorer hit the track in July, 2004, offering tourists a 14-day “rail cruise” experience covering 3,500km from Sydney in New South Wales to Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.

The track wasn’t smooth. It took the Explorer time to find its niche in Australian rail tourism and unfortunately, like the space junk, it burnt out financially after a relatively short-lived but brilliant burst of operation lasting only a few years.

But in its short lifespan, it was truly a “great rail journey”, comparable to South Africa’s Blue Train, the Orient Express, and Australia’s Ghan and Indian Pacific, but for different reasons. The Explorer wasn’t all opulence and comfort, but it took you to the very heart of Outback Australia.

Its tours included everything from cruising on Sydney Harbour to a visit to the War Memorial in the nation’s capital, Canberra, to Kangaroo Island, the Barossa Valley, Wilpena Pound and Coober Pedy in South Australia, and  Uluru (Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) and Alice Springs and Darwin in the Northern Territory.

Joining the train at Monarto siding in the hills north of the state capital Adelaide, in South Australia, the Kookaburra cabin with a shoebox-sized shower cubicle fitted me like a glove.

Such is the nature of train travel.

In South Australia’s internationally famous wine region, the Barossa Valley, we visited the Herbig Tree, a gnarled 500-year-old gum tree inside which German settler Johann Freiderich Herbig, 30, and his 18-year-old Polish immigrant wife Anna Rattey lived for three years from 1857, later moving into a pine-pug cottage nearby. They were the parents of nine sons and seven daughters.

Following the bus ride back to the train, the Explorer pulled out of Monarto siding at 10.30pm for the overnight run to Port Augusta, in northern South Australia. The next morning, at the end of their long shift, the locomotive drivers traded jokes and fielded questions as they ate breakfast with the passengers in the dining car.

A morning visit to the award-winning Wadlata Outback Centre revealed the stories of the Aboriginal Dreamtime dating back 40,000 years, along with those of the pioneer explorers and settlers through interactive displays, along with a geological timeline covering 15 million years.

Irony, sometimes tragic, was often the epitaph of the Australian Outback.

On January 21, 1863, feisty Scottish explorer John McDouall Stuart, arrived back in Adelaide to a public welcome after a 15-month, 3,000km epic journey on horseback and foot, successfully crossing the Australian continent south-to-north, from Adelaide to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

On the same day, the city of Melbourne was in mourning as the bones of Stuart’s rivals, Burke and Wills, who reached the gulf but died on the return journey, were being buried in Victoria’s first state funeral.

The Adnyamathanha people tell the story of two giant snakes which ate up all the people at a corroboree and coiled together to form Wilpena Pound, a 17km-wide, 8960ha volcanic basin cradled in the heart of the Flinders Ranges, a three and a half hour drive north of Port Augusta.

Flying low over Wilpena in a light aircraft, the snakes’ rib cages can almost be imagined in the vertical cracks of the red rock ramparts that rim the pound.

In the evening, a sheep shearing demonstration at Spear Creek (a 7280ha sheep station near Wilmington in South Australia’s southern Flinders Ranges) was followed by a bush barbecue. The shearer deftly clipped 7kg of fleece from off the sheep’s back as the laconic station owner talked about fly-blown sheep, falling wool prices and rising demand in Asia.

Beneath a rising moon, the Ozback Explorer pulled out of Port Augusta, heading west into the night, bound for Manguri siding, a 400km run along the Trans Australia Railway to Tarcoola, then 200km north on the Central Australia Railway.

In the darkness, the Explorer passed two freight trains at crossing loops on the Trans Australia line, looming out of the desert night in shadowy flickers and a hissing rumble of thousands of tonnes of metal on a ribbon of steel.

The 100-wagon freight trains up to 1.8km long and weighing up to 6,000 tonnes, snaked their way on through the night, hauling freight across Australia to the eastern and western seaboards.

At Manguri the next day, there was a 360-degree view of absolutely nothing, but a desert sunset still managed to fill up the sky.

The visit to the nearby opal mining town of Coober Pedy was equally deceptive, a stark moonscape of sun-baked mullock heaps dotting the horizon and 25,000 mine shafts which produce 85 per cent of the world’s opals.

It’s believed around 3,500 people live underground here, many in comfortable dugouts. But the population of Coober Pedy is only an estimate. The Australian Taxation Office lists a population of 2,500 people, but the town has 5000 post boxes. Some people go to Coober Pedy to “lose themselves”.

Here eccentricity is acceptable, a place where a former north Queensland crocodile wrestler can charge visitors a $2 donation to look through his dugout, filled with erotic and weird artwork, its walls festooned with thousands of pairs of bras and knickers “donated” by visiting female tourists.

In the cemetery, an empty beer keg with the inscription “Have a Drink on Me” is the headstone for one grave, drunk dry by mates on the day of the funeral of  Karl Bratz.

That evening, the train crossed the Northern Territory border, arriving at Kulgera siding at 6.15am, in time to see the sun rise over the Simpson Desert.

The small convoy of buses rumbled across cattle grids, stirring the birdlife as it passed through the desert on the 327km drive from Kulgera to Uluru (Ayers Rock).

Crows and kites swirled up from the road kill in the distance, interrupted in their grisly task of stripping dead ‘roos, while a flock of galahs leap-frogged across the spinifex, rising and falling in one fluttering grey mass in search of seed.

With the Erldunda Ranges sitting low on the northern horizon turning purple blue in the rising light, the passengers were bound for  a sunset view of Uluru (Ayers Rock), an overnight stay at Voyages Ayers Rock Resort, and an optional early-morning helicopter flight around the rock and to Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) in the west.

Amidst the sparse, harsh beauty of the red desert, watching the sun set on Uluru in a burst of pink, orange and red as the black silhouette of Kata Tjuta smouldered in a fiery western sky, one elderly German tourist cried.

Later, on a whistle-stop tour of Alice Springs, tourist shoppers were tempted by rack upon rack of didgeridoos and stacks of stockmen’s hats. For less than ten Australian dollars, they could own a “Dreaming Stone”, a small, smooth, hand-painted river rock  featuring brightly coloured kangaroos, boomerangs and miniature dot paintings.

On the lawns of the Uniting Church of Australia’s Mission House, old, wizened Aborigines sat and watched the tourists go by through rheumy eyes, immersed in their own sad dreaming.

Fifteen kilometres south of Alice Springs, at the Bohning cattle yards at Roe Creek Siding, the train lay empty and idle, waiting to be brought back to life for the return trip east, with the crew unaware that this would be one of its last runs into the desert.

A herd of black, crusty cattle raised a cloud of dust as they wandered past the train to the holding yards, urged on by a lean stockman.

Beside him, dwarfed by his stock horse, rode his helmeted six-year-old daughter on a small pony.

An endearing glimpse of the Australian heartland, off the beaten track.





Photo Credits

“Boarding the Explorer at Monarto Siding” © Vincent Ross. All Rights Reserved.

“Bogie and Light. Kulgera Siding” © Vincent Ross. All Rights Reserved.

“The breakaways near Coober Pedy” © South Australian Tourism Commission

“Opal Coober Pedy” © South Australian Tourism Commission

“Coober Pedy cemetery. Carl Bratz headstone.” © Vincent Ross. All Rights Reserved.

“Kata Tjuta on fire. Sunset at the Olgas” © Vincent Ross. All Rights Reserved.

“Stockmen” © South Australian Tourism Commission

“Stockmen 2” © South Australian Tourism Commission

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  • Transported to Devils’ Island – Part 1

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