When nanna’s in Eliza Street replaced Edith Street and the Dandenong Market during school holidays my cousin Peter and I would invest several days in designing and constructing complex train layouts on one side of the Peel Street backyard. My brother and I each had a Hornby O Gauge goods train set and we shared a passenger train. My brother is about eighteen months older than me and in the last years of building had lost interest in constructing convoluted railways so my cousin and I combined all that made up the Great Northern Railway, Midland Railway, and the passenger train. My set was green which represented the Great Northern Railway and my brothers were red for the Midland Railway. Each of our train sets had at least four different types of goods carriages and a guards van. Each of the train sets, and the passenger train, were kept in a massive wooden box in the backyard shed; the box also housed two railway stations, level crossings, points, some wooden bridges and a collection of curved, straight and cross over metal railway lines. When the train sets were combined there were enough rails to cover one side of the backyard. The side of the yard that we built our railways on was mostly dirt and a lemon tree was in front of the shed.
The other side of the yard was a grassed area that was home to the Hill’s rotary clothesline for mums washing; she washed clothes twice a week and hung them out to dry. On mums washing side the grass was boarded with flowers and a passion fruit vine on one of the fences. In front of the back fence was a large drum that was used to burn different types of rubbish; we called it the incinerator.
Peter and I would start the railway in the morning by digging valleys and gullies, heaping dirt for mounds, ridges and terraces and smoothing out spaces for different landforms. After lunch, we would assemble the rails; create cross overs, using points for station sidings, and invent long meandering ribbons of rail. We would finish the construction late afternoon and only had enough time to disentangle the rails and to pack everything in the box in the shed before Peter went back to nannas for tea. The next day we would start a new layout and start the building again, and the next day until the going to the pictures day. I don’t remember ever running a train with carriages around one of our constructions; we sometimes pushed carriages and released a wind-up engine on half done unfinished sections.
The barren landscape of Iran and Afghanistan reminded me of the dirt we moulded and shaped into barren, battered, and eroded plateaus in the back yard of Peel Street. Local buses and trucks transported me from Kabul, through the Khyber Pass, into Pakistan. I had eaten street food through Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan and since Kabul, I was getting more feverish and nauseated. I don’t remember if I ended up in Islamabad or Rawalpindi but I decided to return to Oz and brought a third-class railway ticket to New Delhi to start the overland trek to Australia. The British left the Indian subcontinent with trains that run on time and third-class non-sleeper travel. It may have changed over the years since my first journey but the third class compartments had wooden plank seats facing each other with a second row above; five people squeezed onto each plank and you looked through legs if you were sitting on the lower plank. There were no cooling fans, you slept sitting, and in most cases, there were no toilet facilities; some carriages had a hole in the floor in a cubicle at one end.
I was starting to suffer fever and chills and diarrhea. I drifted into and out of limited sleep and remember being woken by the syncopated thunk of something hitting the carriage floor. It was the heel of boots caused by double marching, combat dressed and armed, soldiers crowding the carriage corridors. The Pakistan Army was moving troops in urgency to the Indian border; it was the posturing before another major conflict between Pakistan and India.
The Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 was a military confrontation between India and Pakistan during the Bangladesh Liberation War. I don’t remember the border crossing but I do remember the air raid sirens in New Delhi; I spent most of the time in New Delhi huddled in the corner of a dark dank room with stomach pain, nausea, extremely watery diarrhea, and fatigue.
Long before it became a tourist attraction and a World Heritage Site I undertook a wondrous train journey in India on The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Toy Train. I never imagined when connecting the rails in the backyard of Peel Street that a railway line could have multiple loops, reverses, and double circles. Today the four miles from Ghoom Station to Darjeeling Station is a tourist attraction; you can leave your review of the experience on TripAdvisor and even book online. Darjeeling was constructed as a summer resort for the British Raj elite to avoid the simmering, sweltering, heat of Indian summers. Today it is famous for the tea grown on the surrounding plantations. I used the toy train to reach Darjeeling; the trip from Siliguri took about eight hours. As the engine slowly heaved and steamed through a market or a town it was common to get out and walk alongside, or ahead of, the train and look back at the looping, snaking, belching, narrow-gauge toy train, or stop at a market stall to buy fruit and other foods.
At times the train would stop in a town for another engine to be hitched onto the back of the carriages to give an extra push up, and around, the loop ahead. There were few Europeans on the local train and the villagers used the trains just as trams and buses are used today. The loud shrill train whistle warned the swarm of 1960 Land Rovers that the little train that could was about to cross the mountain road ahead. The longer the train chugged and the more loops looped the higher you went and the colder it got.
We stayed for a week or more in Darjeeling; getting lost in the interconnecting roads, steep flights of steps and bustling streets winding through town, trying to find a space in the kite filled sky to fly a kite with the same skill as a Himalayan, sipping tea in the tea rooms, and admiring the Darjeeling Zoo. I still contemplate the sign on the fence of the llama enclosure: Beware of Llama spit.
Newport station is at the convergence of the Altona, Williamstown, and the Werribee-Geelong lines; it was a young boys utopia for train watching. Most goods trains would stop at Newport station and as a young boy, I would always ensure that I would get to look through the open door into the guard’s van. I was never sure what the guard did in the guard’s van but I watched him wave a green flag from the door when it was acceptable for the goods train to leave the station. And there was a raised seat inside and at the back of the van that perched the guard above the top of the carriages that allowed him to look down the length of the train. I wanted to be a guard on a goods train.
I was one of the tourists that began to trickle into Burma in the late seventies. The military dictatorship only issued one-week visas, you had to show confirmed onward travel from Burma, and on arriving you had to declare all the foreign currency you were taking into the country and obtain a voucher showing that amount. You were warned to always get a receipt from the bank when you changed money because the receipts and the voucher had to match went you left the country a week later. Burma was not yet a stop on the hippie trail but you knew to take into the country duty-free Johnnie Walker and Marlboro cigarettes as well as to hide US dollars somewhere on you and not to declare them; all to be sold and exchanged on the black market. The luxury hotels and transportation catering to tourists were yet to spring up because for decades the country only had limited contact with the outside world. The second day in Burma we boarded a local riverboat on the banks of the Irrawaddy River in Rangoon for a fifteen-hour river trip and then on to the site of the remnants of thousands of Buddhist temples. We shared the wooden deck with other passengers, baskets of live chickens, a few pigs, and huge cloth bundles. The remains of the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan is indescribable. And now we had two days before we had to leave Burma.
I don’t remember the town or railway station that we hitched a ride to but the vintage bus driver assured us we could buy a ticket to Rangoon at the station when the train arrived. We waited on the platform with other would-be passengers; similar to when we shared the wooden deck of the Irrawaddy riverboat. When the train appeared in the distance we stood waiting at the ticket sellers window; the train stopped at the station and still no ticket seller; people started to get on the train and still no ticket seller. A passenger on the platform told us we could not buy tickets at this station for this train. In a panic, I went to the guard’s van. It was just like Newport station; there was a guard inside. Somehow he understood our dilemma of no ticket; I think the smuggled into the country undeclared American dollars helped his understanding. He beckoned us into the van and onto a pile of bundles at one end. I remember being lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the guard’s van and waking up and watching through the open guard’s van door the sun rising on the Burmese countryside: rice paddies magically appearing and the sun glistening on what must be steeples of gold-leafed pagodas in distant villages.
We ate heartily in Rangoon that evening because we had not spent sufficient declared dollars to match the receipts for the seven days we were in Burma. We flew out of Burma the next day; the last day our visa was valid. I thought of the railway guards van that got us to the airport on time.