It was sunny and warm as I boarded The Ghan train from Adelaide Railway Terminus. The year was 1969 and I was ready for an adventure. My cousin and his wife saw me off and waved as the train slowly moved off towards Alice Springs and the Red Centre of Australia.
The train gradually increased its speed and soon buildings and houses were few and far between. There were to be a few stops along the way before we reached our destination. One stop was at Port Pirie, a large town north of Adelaide and Port Augusta, where a large crowd of local aboriginal folk came on board. Most of these passengers were heading home to Alice Springs, having worked in Port Augusta.
After Port Augusta there was another important stop, about 300 kilometres south of Alice Springs. This was Oodnadatta. This stop was important as a water refilling station. The idea of stopping in the middle of the desert to refill dwindling water supplies caused no end of conversation and jokes by many passengers. When we did arrive at Oodnadatta the landscape was flat with undulating red sand dunes. Scrubby clumps of grasses and low bushes with an occasional stunted trees was the extent of the sparse vegetation.
We were told the stop at Oodnadatta would take 20 to 25 minutes. Passengers were allowed off the train at their own risk. However a warning was given not to go far from the train as it was a water station only, with no shops or buildings anywhere near. Most of the passengers stayed in the comfortable air conditioned train. A few of us younger people got out in the heat. It was hot, very hot indeed, especially in the sun.
I noticed a young aboriginal family walking towards The Ghan. There was a tall man and his wife who was carrying a baby in her arms. This family was obviously poor. They wore no shoes and their clothes were old and very dirty. The baby’s face was covered with flies! It was evident they had been walking all day in the hot sun as they looked quite parched and exhausted.
The aboriginal man went up to the dining room carriage and asked for some water.
“S’cuse me boss man, got some water to drink for me and me missus?” he said.
The man at the carriage swore at the young man and told him to go away. The language he used and the tone of voice was extreme.
My fellow passengers and myself could not believe how the railway employee could spoke and treated this man, who simply asked for some water for his family. The contrast between the comforts we had on the train and this poor family walking across the barren desert country could not have been more extreme.
Watching the two men together in their brief encounter was enlightening. The anger in the face of the train worker who was well fed, well dressed, had a secure job and who abused this needy man and his family was a disgrace.
Later, when we sat down for a luxurious dinner with fine wines to choose from, I tried to discuss the plight of the aboriginal family. No one would talk about it despite my questions. No one would even look at me and, before long, the three table companions left me alone. That day I realized that there were two very different types of Australians.
Frank is a member of June’s Writing Clan which gathers weekly at the Leopold Community Hub on the Bellarine Peninsula, Victoria. Clan members inspire and motivate each other through participating in weekly writing warm-ups and through sharing progress on their main writing projects – both fiction and non-fiction. Frank assures me that his story about The Ghan is true. He has never forgotten the lesson from that day.