Gifts and Glamour on the Christmas Express

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There was little to see but desert, saltbush and spinifex, a fleet of battered cars and SUVs, a couple of dogs, a half-dead tree festooned with tinsel, a solitary tattered old lounge chair and an aura of patient anticipation.

It was daybreak at Watson, an isolated railway siding near the defunct Maralinga nuclear testing site in South Australia, where there was not a single building, just 100 or so Aboriginal people who had camped under the stars awaiting the event some had driven up to eight hours to behold.

Watson was one of six stops where the 13th Indian Pacific Outback Christmas Train paused on its yuletide pilgrimage across the Australian continent from Sydney to Perth to entertain and thank the communities along the way that support the rail service throughout the year and to help raise funds for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

Joining the regular passengers were Santa Claus (Adelaide-based mining equipment sales manager Bill Jones), singer-songwriter and TV presenter Ricki-Lee Coulter and her guitarist Luke O’Dea to help spread Christmas cheer at five free railside concerts singing Christmas carols and some of Ricki-Lee’s favourite hits.

With pitstop community concerts and Santa appearances planned for Bathurst, Broken Hill, Watson, Rawlinna and Kalgoorlie, the 4,352km (2,704-mile) rail journey had begun at 3pm in Sydney two days earlier.

At the first stop at 7.30pm, more than 100 people had gathered at Bathurst station in New South Wales including the junior choir of the local Assumption School.

Ricki-Lee belted out a few robust numbers before encouraging the children to join her singing Jingle Bells, her suddenly mellowed, honey tones turning a jaded old song into something quite special.

Santa tweaked his beard, adjusted his broad black belt, checked his lolly bags and then raised a rousing cheer as he emerged from the train with gold bell ringing and a peel of ho-hos.

In less than an hour it was over until a repeat performance at Broken Hill at daybreak next morning after which the Indian Pacific headed to Adelaide and the media scrum along to record the show headed for the comfort of the Gold Service Outback Explorer Lounge.

After a $22million Gold Service revamp, the lounge is now a plush blend of velvet, brass and polished wood. The twin-berth sleeper cabins are snug and include a three-seater lounge that disappears under comfortable fold-down bunk beds, a large picture window and a white-tiled bathroom with a generous shower, fixed toilet and complimentary toiletries.

You can be mesmerised by the passing scenery in your cabin, in the lounge and in the equally lavish fine-dining Queen Adelaide Restaurant as you might tuck into blue swimmer crab ravioli, Dorper lamb cutlets from South Australia’s Flinders Ranges and the truly memorable crème dessert with biscotti and lavender pashmak.

After a three-hour stop in Adelaide the Outback Christmas Train rumbled west toward the longest straight stretch of railway track in the world, the 478km run across the Nullarbor Plain.

The Nullarbor, the world’s largest limestone karst landscape covering an area of 270,000 km² (104,000 sq miles) and dotted with hardy, drought-resistant bluebush and saltbush plants, straddles the border between South and Western Australia.

Ricki-Lee Coulter, who had never seen the Outback, was overwhelmed by what she saw when the train pulled into Watson.

“It was so cool, nothing but one chair like a throne in the desert and the tree with tinsel on it, it was all so simple,” she said.

“My typical gigs are over-18s, crazy shows, people in weird and wonderful costumes, flashing lights, dancers and bands. To strip everything back and take away all the production, lights, the glitz and glamour so it’s raw, all about music with just me, my voice and my guitarist entertaining those families and beautiful little kids who had travelled hundreds of kilometres just to see us for an hour, it was so humbling.

“I was crying before I even got out of the train,” she said.

On his fraying chair, Santa (Ho-Ho to the Indigenous kids) met the children who had come to see him and sing with a superstar, like four-year-old Khazaria Young who had spent five hours on the road from Yalata and six-year-old Billy Felton from Tjuntjuntjara Community 500km away in Western Australia.

This was Bill Jones’ second Santa appearance on the Christmas Train. “These kids are so beautiful,” he said, “so wide-eyed like possums in the dark. They tug on the beard and ask questions like ‘how did I get my reindeer and sleigh onto the train?’”

There was no concert at Cook, a ghost town siding further west with a population of two, caretakers Elizabeth and Frank Hillier who help service the Indian Pacific and who had been there for three months; well, four when their relief couple, Colin and Joan Martlew, turn up.

About three hours west of Cook, tiny Rawlinna was surrounded by vast cattle and sheep properties including the one million hectare Rawlinna Station, the world’s largest sheep ranch. Every December, when the Christmas Train calls, property owners, ringers, cowboys, cowgirls and just about anyone else within a few hours’ drive turns up for the show, for a chat and to share a cold beer.

Santa repeated the lolly routine while Ricki-Lee in a flowing, ankle-length, off the shoulder red dress left the kids and the ringers wide-eyed as she sang and signed dozens of autographs, for the kids, for mums and on the exposed bare chest of a large tattooed farmhand.

Kalgoorlie, a large gold mining town in Western Australia, was the final gig and turned out the largest crowd and on the home run to Perth I asked Ricki-Lee to nominate the highlights of what was only her third train trip.

“Those kids at Watson,” she replied without hesitation. “I love kids and love to see the smiles when I sing and how much it means to them.

“Some of them don’t even speak English but the smiles on their faces say everything I need to know.

“One thing that has opened my eyes on this trip and what has been so humbling, is that happiness is such a simple thing. It’s not about extravagance and complex things, it’s about love and joy and sharing.

“And,” she added, “never before have I been asked to autograph a man’s boob.”

Indian Pacific one-way fares between Sydney and Perth and vice versa cost A$3,890 Platinum Service, A$2,420 Gold Service Twin Cabin, A$2,178 Gold Service Single Cabin and A$868 Red Service Day/Nighter Seat (greatsouthernrail.com.au).

Story and images (except “Indian Pacific on the Nullarbor Plain”) ©Copyright David May 2013 (Copyright Agency Limited).

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