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To Western Australia on the Indian Pacific with my wheelchair!

by Robyn Perham

Six months before the planned big day of departure on 19th October, 2006, we got onto the net and booked our fare on the Indian Pacific. This train runs to Perth, departing Sydney and Adelaide, a couple of times a week.

As we live in Ballarat, an hour and a half west of Melbourne, we decided to fly to Adelaide and catch the train from there.

About six weeks before our departure date, I received a call from Lyn at Indian Pacific.

Robyn at home in wheelchair

She wanted to know how mobile I was.

Lyn then decided to send me our tickets in the mail. This, apparently, is not usual practice for all passengers, as one usually has their seat allocated upon arrival at the train terminal. But in order to reserve the Pullman's cabin - their name for the disability cabin - my tickets would be allocated now.

This was reassuring, especially after boarding the train and learning that another couple - the wife of whom had some mobility and vision impairment - also believed they had been designated the Pulman's carriage. They were told that someone with higher support needs had been placed in this cabin and that they would be given an ordinary Gold Kangaroo Class cabin for their use, instead of the more spacious accessible cabin.

Apparently the accessible cabin is called Pulman's carriage as it used to be the guard's sleeping quarters and had been adapted to suit the needs of people with disabilities. There was ample information on this cabin on the Indian Pacific web site, with pictures and quoted dimensions. I felt sure that it'd take my chair, which folds and is on the larger side as chairs go, but I wouldn't like to try to take a large scooter onboard. That'd have to go in with the bulk of the luggage.

The first part of our journey was a breeze. Flying Qantas has never presented us with any problems re the wheelchair in the past. The only thing that was different this time was that I had to give the dimensions and weight of the chair when I booked our tickets.

There was only one minor kafuffle that popped up, thankfully. The lady doing the checking-in of our luggage at the terminal, having counted two pieces of luggage each and one item of hand luggage each, tried to charge me "extra luggage rates" for my wheelchair. She was most insistent. That is, until I was even more insistent about my rights, suggesting we might like to take this up as a human rights issue, bearing in mind that my chair was considered to be a part of my body and would therefore not qualify as luggage.

A quick telephone call to her superior soon sorted that out and there were no hassles at all after that.

The taxi driver was pleasant and helpful, and the train terminal in Adelaide was comfortable while we awaited our departure. The staff of the café was friendly and helpful and we idled away a couple of hours relaxing over coffee while waiting to board.

Eventually it arrived and there was a great feeling of expectation. Alarmingly, even though the platform was level with the train, we noticed that there was a good 30cm gap between the platform and the train doorway. No one placed a ramp down for me to board the train, even though they were well aware of my using a wheelchair. In the end we just got on the best way we could, ahead of the push, but with the bulk of the passengers being made up of the older generation, I was surprised that the hazard of this gap was not considered as the source of a risk of injury. Had one slipped down into the great beyond between platform and train, one would have been nursing bruised and skinned legs, at the least.

The train staff were just a pleasure. They were relaxed, helpful and ready to add to our fun.

On board at last, we were pleased to see that there was a complementary tea and coffee station in the form of a mini kitchenette at the end of each carriage, and this was open for use day and night.

The doorway into the accessible cabin was well and truly wide enough, and with two large windows in there, a couch that folded down into two single beds (one above the other) and a table and chair, we were very comfy. Added to this was a cupboard up one end and a bathroom down the other end that was about twice as big as everyone else's.

It contained a shower with a sturdy seat, a towel cupboard, two toiletries bags, a pull-down hand basin and a pull-down flush toilet. Very compact indeed. One could only use one facility at a time … I don't know how accessible it would have been had I been a person with high support needs, that is, someone who needed toileting and showering assistance. I think everything would have become well and truly WET, but still, it was most suitable for our needs, with adequate hot water day and night and a good exhaust fan.

Our beds were passably comfortable. There was enough head room and the bed was high enough off the floor. Having travelled by train before, I'd brought a 10cm thick, single bed rubber mattress with me. This fitted nicely into the designated space on top of the existing mattress and it saved me a lot of backache. My husband, Michael, who had questioned my ideas about lugging this with us (albeit rolled up tightly into a swag) soon decided he should take his turn on my more comfortable bed for a snooze or two during the day while I sat and read.

While we did hear others complaining about their bed - especially those who'd come from Sydney and had endured a rough and reportedly uncomfortable night's sleep on the previous evening - we found no real problem. We think this might largely be due to the fact that while everyone else's bunk went from side to side across the train, ours ran length-wise in the carriage. This meant that the motion of the train rocked us, while for others it sort of "shook them up and down".

Our cabin was also larger by approximately twice and a half, which made for a variety of sitting and relaxing positions and was less claustrophobic … if one was prone to such things.

The staff came around at daylight and delivered a cup of tea to one's door. We'd previously warned them that we were not early risers and so we were, mercifully and as requested, left to our own devices.

One small problem was that while one could lock the door once inside the room, we regretted that there was no lock on the door upon leaving the cabin, nor was there a "privacy please" tag for the doorknob. So each time we went out someone, who no doubt thought they were doing the right thing, would slip in, make the bed and tidy up. We felt invaded and we didn't like this, or need it, but there you go.

The only other thing we found to annoy us were the constant, loud, incabin announcements. Sometimes it was tourist-style information and sometimes it was incessant calls for a meal, but we'd have appreciated an off button on that one. We supposed it wasn't available in case of a necessary safety announcement in an emergency, so we sat a pillow up against the speaker and made do with that.

Most of the time onboard we slept and read, winding down from a busy few days getting away. Having brought our binoculars and the bird book, we enjoyed identifying all of the different birds we could spot from the windows.

We also played cards in the bar, which was in the next carriage, and thoroughly enjoyed the five-star meals in the dining car, which was housed in the carriage after that.

However, I was pleased that I hadn't requested a train-wheelchair (like those skinny jobs one gets at the airport) as it would have been a comedy of errors getting all of me onto the chair and then both of us manoeuvred through the awkwardness of train doorways and so on. It was quite a walk getting to the dining car, through two carriages, around corners and through a couple of sets of doors that wanted to close upon one on a moving train. We actually wondered why the disability cabin wasn't situated right next to the dining carriage, or meals be made available for pre-order and delivery to the cabin. Some kind of an intercom to staff would have been appreciated.

With white napkins and silver service, there was just enough beautifully presented, tasty and interesting food on ones plate to make one feel as if one had dined out, but we were, happily, not left uncomfortably full after three courses. It was just right. Although meals were pre-paid, we decided to forgo breakfast or dinner on each day as we were too full.

Almost all of our dinner companions - one took pot luck on whom one was seated with at each meal - were interesting and some were great fun.

On the second evening, the stunted, flowering mallee was eventually replaced by low tussock vegetation as we entered the Nullarbor. It was a surprise as I had only expected to see sand and flat nothingness. Most of the journey across the more arid region of the desert was undertaken during the night, however, and it was fun looking back at the length of lighted train both ahead of us and behind us.

At sunup we were amazed at how many huge eagles we'd spotted - even one that caught a rabbit as we watched! In the absence of big trees, they'd made their stick nests in the infrastructure of the steel poles carrying the cables, not far from our tracks.

Cook was our first stop. Had I been any less mobile I doubt I'd have made it off the train as there was only a 5 steep-step stairs arrangement provided, unfortunately. Not that there was much to see - a couple of locals and a collection of ten or so houses and some demountables, but it was nice to stretch ones legs and breath some Nullarbor air while the train was being watered. Many strode off for a good walk and I wished I could have joined them.

That night, we chuffed, somewhat late due to having to go slowly over an area of line on which there'd recently been some derailments, into Kalgoorlie. This time the access off the train was the same as in Adelaide. Although the announcement let us know that we could request more assistance if needed, there didn't seem to be anyone around in our immediate vicinity to request assistance of. So I made the leap of faith on wobbly knees.

We'd paid for a bus trip in Kalgoorlie, to go looking at the sights, and we were so glad we had as it was well worth it. While the bus was not wheelchair accessible, it was one of the low buses (i.e. it was lowered down on air jacks when they stopped and accessing the bus was a lot less strenuous than those which one has to step right up into). We were shown around town, with a lively commentary about the history of the place, and we were driven up to the lookout and historic display area and saw the mine working. It is an open cut gold mine and the mammoth machinery, working over a kilometre down in the pits, looked like little lit Tonka toys. The mine operates 24 hours a day and it's all well set up for visitors. The winds at the top of the pit, however, were legendary and we squinted against the fine sand, rugged up against the cold and hung onto anything that might fly away in the tormented-blast.

Further around the town we were taken to Hay Street where our tour became a little livelier. While passing a pub, the local bikies came out and, ummm, happily showed us their "brown eyes", and the topless barmaids raced out to join them and shake their wares at us. This, apparently, is traditional. Further around still we drove slowly past the red light district and looked into the brothels, all working at a lively pace and doing a brisk trade in the isolation of this township of single men with a lot of money. These establishments are apparently celebrated as they even had a postcard dedicated to them.

The following morning around 9.30 we chuffed into the railway station in Perth. We were cheerily met by one of a number of volunteers who were game for just about anything in the "being helpful" stakes. We soon found that in Perth, seniors in uniforms are wandering around as tourist ambassadors all over the place and they always made us feel welcome.

Robyn in pink hat as Queen Pip in the Perth Parade.

Funnily enough, although Perth must know by now when the train arrives, those of us who didn't catch the city sight-seeing bus that would deliver one to ones accommodations after the tour, were left sitting for over an hour at a sterile and silent station, waiting for a taxi.

Finally, an accessible mini-bus did arrive, and we were bundled in with everyone else as we couldn't bear waiting any longer for another accessible taxi. Eight of us made our way into town - some in search of a hire-car and others who were stressed and waiting to catch other buses and so on.

Within another half an hour we'd hired a car that suited our needs, and at very reasonable rates, and we made our way toward a relaxed lunch at a nearby waterside café. We were soon to discover that a great many businesses display encouraging signs about applying for a job as there is a service deficit over there - not enough available workers! So one might be paying top dollar in lovely surrounds, but we soon found that there was no guarantee that the people doing the serving had been trained in the art of five star table service.

Spotting a dolphin that was playing in the Swan River not 5 metres away from our table made up for the shock of having a requested jug of salad dressing banged down on the table with a strident directive on where to go to pay for this added service … immediately! However, we learned that this attitude was often to be the rule rather than the exception and as we drove out of town, going south, we pondered with interest on what our next "are you being served?" adventure might be. The further south we went, the more "interesting" it became.

Continued: Next we travel down south and back again over three weeks holidaying in Western Australia.

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