Veteran grey nomads often scoff at those novices who declare a trip across the Nullarbor to be little more than a featureless ‘ordeal’ to be ‘endured’ on the road between east and west.
“You just have to open your eyes and do your research,” they say.
But even those road-hardened veterans think twice about adding a detour of a couple of hundred kilometres to an already epic trek.
And, for those who really want to do what few others do, that’s what makes a trip to the South Australian ‘near ghost town’ of Cook a no-brainer. Linked to Eyre Highway by 100 kilometres of dirt road, the town which was established in 1917, sits proudly on the longest stretch of straight railway in the world … 478 kilometres of it.
Cook was developed as a base for the workers who maintained the Trans Australian Railway, and to accommodate changeover railway crews. Before the Second World War, it boasted a population of several hundred people, and it had a hospital, a school, a swimming pool, and even a golf course.
It’s been in decline for some though and, in 1997, it was effectively ‘closed’ when the railways were privatised and the new train owners no longer needed a support town here.
But it’s still the halfway point on the train journey across the Nullarbor, and the place where the Indian Pacific takes on water, changes drivers, and offers passengers the chance to stretch their legs and perhaps buy a souvenir.
To this end, there is a permanent population of four, all of whom are employees of rail company Pacific National, and there is also a floating population of train drivers who rest here between shifts. As well as the twice-weekly arrival of the Indian Pacific, a steady succession of freight trains – some up to 1.8 kilometres long – rumble through town.
For a ghost town then, Cook is showing a fair bit of life. There is a collection of interpretive signs scattered around the town explaining the significance of the remaining buildings, many of which are condemned.
And other signs take a more humorous approach. One declares Cook to be the ‘Queen City of the Nullarbor’, while another – presumably in a bid to keep its former hospital going – reads: ‘If you’re crook, come to Cook’. The hospital has now been demolished, the swimming pool filled in with concrete, and the school has long since closed.
Some travellers report camping is allowed next to the two-storey school building. There’s a mural of a train on the front of the school, and a tribute to Cook’s longest serving railway worker, Murray Sims, has been painted on the side of the nearby water tank. Another interesting feature are the two small corrugated iron sheds standing alongside the railway line. These are the historic gaol cells of Cook, which were built to detain criminals who were caught getting up to no good somewhere in the vast Nullarbor area until the next train arrived.
While there are still buildings and people here, the night-time howling of dingoes and the jaw-droppingly spectacular sunrises and sunsets are reminders that this is still famously the middle of nowhere.
And that’s what make it so special.