Standort: / Meldung: "Australia by Rail: The Legend of Kurtys"

Johnny Bliss

Disorderly artist, journalist, and late night moderator, with a fetish for microphone-based hooliganism.

11. 9. 2015 - 13:20

Australia by Rail: The Legend of Kurtys

In a country as big as Australia, rail employees working aboard passenger trains spend nearly as much time on trains as off. It is more a lifestyle than a job. But what sort of crazy person chooses to live on a train?!

Around the beginning of this year, I took a tour around Australia on its trains, the Indian Pacific (which travels east-west and vice versa), and the Ghan (which travels north-south and vice versa).

I chose to do this as a sort of sequel to my previous journey across Canada by rail. I wanted to see how the experience would compare in a similarly large, but ultimately very different, Commonwealth country.

* - Canada's landscape, as I recall, was dotted with many small forests, towns, lakes, rivers, mountains, waterfalls, meaning whatever you saw outside was constantly changing.

Not so, in Australia.

While many aspects of the trip were similar to the trans-Canadian, others were completely different. The landscape in Australia tends to be a lot more minimalist*; whether you are travelling through the savannah-like portions of the Outback, or the grassy plains of southern Australia, whatever you get, you get a lot of, for hours and hours at a time.

The landscape does change, but it when it does, it does so slowly. It's like you are looking at a picture that is always changing so subtly that you can barely tell it's happening, but if you look again three hours later, the soil is just that little bit deeper a shade of red, or the grass more sparse.

One thing that sticks in my mind: on my trip up north to Darwin, I remember noticing these spooky red shapes rising up out of the grasses. At first they were very small, but they slowly grew into massive proportions, their shapes eventually looking like tall robed figures or monsters with multiple heads... As it turned out, these were, in fact, termite hills. I've never seen anything quite like them before or since (see below, 'Ghan landscape').

In Canada, we were always searching for bears and elk in the lush green forests facing the tracks. Here, you could get anything from a herd of camels running alongside the train, to venomous snakes at a pitstop, kangaroos, bulls, vultures, and so on.

However, the experience ON board was very comparable. I had a very comfortable second class private cabin, and three course meals prepared fresh by on-board chefs. The class system was a bit more obvious - those traveling with economy class had really uncomfortable, bland-looking seats in a cramped environment, and no beds. Meanwhile, the platinum class (only for the super-rich) had giant rooms with queen-sized beds.

Gone, unfortunately, were Canada's beautiful big dome cars, presenting a 360 degree view of the nature surrounding us. Gone, also, were the folk musicians, paying their way on the train by playing songs for us.

* - considering that it's Australia

Perhaps unsurprisingly*, I found there to be a much stronger drinking culture. I admit to having spent a significant amount of time by the bar, drinking my new favourite beverage, a delicious combination of local rum and ginger beer. It wasn't only alcoholism that led me there - there was, of course, the company too. Just everyone was there, so you could hear the stories of your fellow passengers, and find out why they were doing this.

And that was how I met Kurtys, the bartender on the Indian Pacific train.

All the staff on the train who I encountered were friendly and sociable, but Kurtys was unique. You would be chatting with him about local culture and songs - and suddenly he would come out with some story of how he used to sing and perform live theatre professionally around Australia.

Or, he would admit with some discomfort, there was that time when he got approached for a job as a mortician and ended up spending ten months working in the funeral industry (!!).

Kurtys-Mortician Job

Like many of his other occupations, Kurtys started working on Australia's trains much by chance. But living a sizeable percentage of his life on a moving train seemed to suit his temperament quite well.

Kurtys Interview-1

Johnny Bliss, 2015

Interview with Kurtys at the train station

Kurtys on the vast empty spaces of Australia

"The Adelaide to Perth leg goes across the Nullarbor; Nullarbor [...] is latin for 'no trees'. And there are no trees there! [...] You're traveling literally for eight, nine, ten hours, looking out the window... at nothing!

"When people come on the Indian Pacific, they think 'this is going to be boring'. You have to turn that off, you have to turn off the pre-conceived idea that it's going to be boring, to enable you to see, for what it is, the vastness of how huge Australia actually is."

Kurtys on remote communities, accessible only by train

"There [are] a few places along the western part of the track where we will take their mail to them; we are basically their mailmen. We also take their shopping to them. On the way through from Adelaide to Perth, they'll give us lists of what they need from Perth, and then we'll drop them back to them. Without us, they have no contact with any kind of outside world.

"A lot of them actually have to travel [...] two, three, four hundred kilometres just to get to the track, and they do that, they leave early in the morning, get to us when they get to us, and then we [...] move on."

Kurtys on encountering a venomous snake

"We got to a place called Cook, which is in the absolute middle of nowhere, there used to be this thriving mining town and now it's nothing.

"There's four people that live there that run the town, [and] they look after the trains that go through. This old lady was sitting at her table, about to sell Cook souvenirs that she does every time that the train goes through, and this six foot brown snake just slithered along to her. I'm standing on the train and saw it, saw these other guests getting off, getting scared by it, and she started to hit it with a broom. Which, if you ever see a massive six foot brown snake and you hit it with a broom, you're probably going to die!

"So I raced down, grabbed my keys, opened the door, jumped off the train, ran over to it, grabbed the broom out of her hand, yelled at her for being stupid... There's all these other guests around, wondering what I was going to do, and I had no choice but to put the broom on the snake's head, pick it up and hold it. They had to call one of the engineers who was there to come over and we put it into a pillowcase, tied the pillowcase up and we had to take it onboard and take it through to Perth."

Kurtys Interview-2

Johnny Bliss, 2015

Kurtys on nearly encountering a crocodile

"So when you get to Katherine [near Darwin], we get about a four hour break, and there are hot springs quite close to the station. [It is] a beautiful area, all water, and for most of the year it's okay to swim in. A mate of mine and myself just went down, thought we would go for a swim, got there, and there was a sign up, and the sign said, 'Crocodile Sighted in the past 12 days', and you know if you see that sign, that it's probably still there.

"I am stupid when it comes to things like that, [...] and even your saying do not go in the water, my stubbornness kicks in, [so] I'm going in the water.

"So, I stripped off, jumped in the water, swam around [about] half an hour... [when I] got out of the water, we looked over and saw this [big] crocodile just stick its head up out of the water right where I'd been swimming.

"I'm not going to lie, I absolutely shat myself! I mean, [freshwater] crocs is ok, you can swim with them as long as you don't get in their area, but with [saltwater] crocs, if you're in their area, and they want to, they will kill you."

A FM4 Reality Check Saturday Special on Saturday, September 12th

These are only a few of Kurtys' stories. Tune in to the program to hear the full extended version, with hilarious bonus anecdotes!

If you miss the program, you can still stream it via the Reality Check podcast or at