Christmas train takes gifts and Seventies hits to the outback

For one small Aboriginal girl, the excitement was too much. As the strains of Jingle Bell Rock echoed across the red desert plains, she buried her head in her father's shoulder and burst into tears.

It was a momentous occasion for the children of Oak Valley Aboriginal community, who had travelled across dirt tracks for two hours to meet the Indian Pacific train at an unmarked spot in Australia's Great Victoria Desert. The transcontinental train usually whisks through this unforgiving landscape, but once a year it makes a series of stops in the outback to dispense Christmas gifts and provide entertainment.

This year, the entertainment took the form of John Paul Young, the Scottish-born Australian singer best known for his 1970s hit, "Love is in the Air". The Oak Valley pupils had never heard of him, but that did not matter. "They've been counting every sleep for weeks," said the school principal, Noelene Cox. "This is their most thrilling day of the year."

The children see few visitors at their isolated settlement, which is 550 miles north-west of Adelaide on the Maralinga Tjarutja lands - an area used for British atomic tests in the 1950s, but since largely cleaned up. They had risen at dawn to reach Watson, an uninhabited speck in a terrain of saltbush and spinifex. The train was late, so they passed the time hunting lizards and birds.

At Watson, a surreal vision greeted them as Young set up his electric keyboard in the red dust and gave an unamplified rendition of another 1970s song, "It's a Long Way to Pasadena". The girls responded with "Silent Night'' - the first verse in English, the second in the Aboriginal language Pitjantjara - before mobbing Father Christmas.

The Indian Pacific travels from Sydney to Perth twice a week, crossing the vast Nullarbor Plain on a 70-hour trip, one of the world's great rail journeys. Kangaroos, dingoes and wild camels are glimpsed as it traverses the desert, stopping at outback mining towns such as Broken Hill and Kalgoorlie. The far-flung communities of the Nullbarbor depend on the train, which slows down periodically to allow mail and newspapers to be tossed out of the window. At Watson, near the track, stands a piece of corrugated iron on which the words "Papers here please" have been neatly painted.

Steve Shepherd, who lives at Maralinga with his wife and three children, has the job of looking after the 1,200 square mile former test site until the land is handed back to its traditional Aboriginal owners. The family comes from the "big smoke", Adelaide. "It's a bit different out here," said Mr Shepherd. "We live in total remoteness and are our own best guests."

About 100 miles west is Cook, once a thriving service centre for the railway, now a ghost town with scores of empty houses, a disused swimming pool, a jail and a nine-hole golf course without a single blade of grass. Cook, depopulated after the railway was privatised, is home to one couple: Ivor and Jan Holberton, who maintain the buildings and a guesthouse where rail crews spend the night. It was here, according to a possibly apocryphal tale, that dozens of thirsty camels were hit by trains while licking dew off the tracks during last year's severe drought.

If the Holbertons fancy a jaunt into town, they have the choice of Kalgoorlie, a 14-hour drive to the west, and Port Augusta, nine hours east. "It gets a bit lonely," said Mrs Holberton. "It's hard if Ivor and I have an argument. Then there's no one to talk to and nothing to do." Further west, at Rawlinna, another dot in the landscape, workers from surrounding cattle ranches had gathered to welcome the Indian Pacific. They looked bemused as Young stepped out, plugged his keyboard into the train and once again burst into song. "This is weird," said a heavily tattooed ringer [station hand], batting away flies in the shade.

"All together now," said Young. A cattle dog howled.

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