Nullarbor, from Latin meaning ‘no trees’, but that’s a bit of a misnomer.


Pauline Conolly at Cook in the Nullabor
Betwixt and between

Chatting to fellow passengers and gazing at the passing landscape  takes up a good deal of time aboard the Indian Pacific.   I always imagined the scenery  across the Nullarbor would be a bit monotonous, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Nullarbor Landscape
Salt pans on the Nullarbor

The train stops awhile  in the tiny  South Australian ghost town of Cook.  It’s nearly 40 degrees, but a dry heat which is not too bad. I was fascinated by this little place.

Pauline Conolly and Editor Des at Cook, South Australia
Drum roll……here we are in Cook!

My associate Editor Des  found himself in the old clink long enough to  give him a bit of a fright. It was the penalty for being caught smoking in the train’s dining car. 😁

Editor Des in trouble while crossing the Nullarbor on the Indian Pacific.

In 1982 volunteers planted 600 saplings around Cook, an attempt to provide some shade and greenery.  Some of the trees  are still  doing pretty well.

A eucalypt survives in the heat of the Nullarbor.
A hardy gum tree survives the heat.

Attempts had already been made to establish trees at Cook, despite the naysayers;

Sir – City dwellers, with the experience born of a sojourn in Cook while engines are being changed should not attempt to tell the world what the country for miles around is like, and what should be done with it. In fact, the Nullarbor Plain consists of a 500ft deep bed of marine limestone, with anything from nil to 12 inches of soil on top. In order to plant any trees at Cook a hole has to be blasted in the limestone first. Naturally the pepper trees are not growing ‘as luxuriantly as others planted at Wynbring and Tarcoola.’ The latter places are not on the Nullarbor Plain and consequently have every chance of producing decent trees.

The railway employees at the camps situated every 30 miles along the Nullarbor Plain have been experimenting in tree growing, at their own expense, ever since the line was built. With this evidence in their possession, no Government would be justified in expending public money to duplicate what has already been done by these splendid men…….ROY BROOKE, Adelaide. (The Advertiser, September 21 1945)

There was once a school and a hospital at the settlement, both long since closed. The following photo was published in the Adelaide Chronicle, on September 26, 1929.

The proud claim ‘If you’re crook, come to Cook’, only stands now thanks to a well stocked medical chest.  Cures for over-indulgence would be handy for most of us.  I was still recovering from the steak I demolished on a side trip to  Hahndorf, not to mention all the delights served in the dining car.

A great steak in Hahndorf before we cross the Nullarbor.
Interesting stop as we cross the Nullarbor on the Indian Pacific.

When it’s time to leave the fire siren sounds a long blast, and we all amble back to the Indian Pacific. Portable stairs are placed along the tracks so we can climb  back on.  Every passenger  has to be checked in……. you wouldn’t want to be left behind  way out here.

Our next stop is at another very remote location; Rawlinna.  Dinner is served by the train’s crew under the stars.  Just perfect. There is dancing later, as the Indian Pacific’s young musician sings and plays guitar.

The Indian Pacific at Rawlinna
Bring on the roast lamb and lemon myrtle trifle.

Rawlinna is just a railway siding, but surrounding it is Australia’s largest sheep station, all 2.5 million acres of it.

I must say there  is little time for reading on board the Indian Pacific. Passengers are too busy eating, drinking, chatting, and gazing  out the windows. Nevertheless, I feel an opportunity  was  missed in the lounge car’s tiny library.  Where were Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, and 4.50 From Paddington. And what about Girl on a Train?

The acerbic  Mr Warden  (who reported on the Indian Pacific for the Canberra Times  in 1985) appears to have spent most of his time reading. I can only imagine this was because in those days the food was too bad to eat and that he disliked his fellow travellers.  He managed to get through the following on his return trip across the Nullarbor;

Two big Thomas Hardy novels, two small Evelyn Waugh ones, a Nadine Gordimer novel, Roman Polanski’s chunky autobiography, The Book of Job (the Gideons even secrete bibles on board the Indian Pacific), a thick treatise on banksias and a fair chunk of Evelyn Waugh’s collected reviews and article.’   Good grief.

For bedtime reading I resorted to TROVE, that wonderful free archive of Australian newspapers. Look what I found, from 1934;


He was returning with his wife, by car from Western Australia. They were crossing the Nullarbor Plain at the time f the big flood, and became stranded miles from anywhere. It was an unpleasant position. But they had some food and a thermos of tea. It was only a matter of waiting until tomorrow. Tomorrow came, but the water did not go down. Instead, it reached the bottom of the car, and things were floating past – rabbits, and all the wild life of the plain. Once a huge mound came floating towards them; as it drew closer it was found to be a camel. The sandwiches grew less, and then ran out. The tea was gone long ago. The water rose higher, and they had to keep their feet on the seat. Then they discovered there was a piece of dry ground about a quarter of a mile to the left, evidently higher ground, although the plain had looked so flat. On this were swarming rabbits, lizards, birds, and every living thing that could escape the water. There at least was food, and any part of the car that was burnable went to cook it, for there was no wood of any kind on the little island. By carefully hoarding this fuel, the traveller was able to at least singe his wife’s rabbit for each meal. and if he ate his raw she did not know it, as he always had his meal before he waded back to the car with hers. This lasted for seven dreadful days. Then the water went down enough to get in touch with help, and a camel train came and hauled them out. – C.B. (Chronicle, May 24 1934)

I should  also point out that the giant  Indian Pacific does not  always glide  effortlessly along its rails.  It sways and jolts and shudders, just as any self-respecting train should.  Mr Warden described it as behaving like a frog with  sprained ankles, which is sometimes pretty close to the truth.


The moment  we leave the train in Perth,  a gang of cleaners  arrive  to prepare it  for a return to the East Coast.  And my word, there will be a lot to replenish in the bars and kitchens!

The Indian Pacific is given a clean and polish ready for a return journey to Sydney.
Sprucing up the train after its arrival in Perth.

Farewell Indian Pacific and your  wonderful crew. We enjoyed every minute and every mile across the Nullarbor. Oh yes, and every meal.  As we wander around Perth and Fremantle next day we keep bumping into people we met on-board. There are smiles of recognition as we stop for another  brief chat about our shared, three day experience.

We are already looking forward to our next long-haul trip. I think it will be on the Ghan, from Darwin to Adelaide.


  1. That was a fascinating account of your Indian pacific train ride. I haven’t seen enough of Australia as I tended to stay in my home state of Queensland and go to overseas destinations from there. I loved the photos. The scenery did surprise me too.

    • Pauline

      We are only just starting to explore Australia properly ourselves,Heather.

  2. Enjoyed your adventures, especially as I’ll probably never get to do the trip myself.
    And why would you go on a train trip, just to read books (as much as I love reading).

  3. Happy Christmas to the two of you in Perth? Loved your Indian Pacific posts, reminded me of the car trip with Tony back from WA last year. A bit envious of your stop in Rawlinna as I believe from better birders that is where you can see the Naretha Blubonnet.

    • Pauline

      And a very Merry Christmas to you and all the family, Margie. Have been to the cricket today. A bit chilly, but worth it to see us win the Ashes. Sydney Smith has to return the NADOW trophy to me…. Haha. I haven’t really seen many birds here, except lorikeets in the beautiful flowering gums.

  4. I have a voracious appetite for good reads, but not even I could get through 9 books in 3 days. Mr Warden must have been on the advanced speed reading course, even taking bad food and disliking fellow travellers into account!

    • Pauline

      Well Mr Warden did the return journey, but that was still a lot of reading!

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