Riding The Rails To Cook

A cross country adventure to history Cook on the Transcontinental railway line

It’s been there since 1917, but for us it all started a couple of years ago when we stopped off at Cook for a brief 30-minute visit on our very enjoyable Indian Pacific Rail trip across the country between Sydney and Perth.

Once quite a bustling little town with a population of around 400 Cook, like all of these railway towns on the transcontinental railway line across the Nullarbor, quickly went into decline when modern diesel locomotives (which could travel long distances without refuelling) replaced steam and the rail line itself was upgraded with concrete sleepers. The need for quite large crews at each of these towns to maintain the aged infrastructure had now gone and Cook’s permanent population at the time of our visit had reduced to just a handful.

During our short stay we quickly walked around parts of the old town … and everywhere we looked this near ghost town had history and character everywhere. All too soon however, we were herded back onto the train to continue our journey.

As we looked back out the train window at this historic centre we just knew that one day we’d have to come back to take in more of this intriguing little place – as one of the local signs says, “in the middle of nowhere”!

Roll on a couple of years and with a quite extensive road trip underway (4WD and off-road caravan) our travel plan included our promised return to Cook.

After making enquiries on road conditions and topping up with fuel, etc. at Border Village and then briefly checking out a few of those lovely Bunda Cliff lookouts on the SA side of the SA/WA border, it was time to turn off the Eyre Highway (signposted 142 km east of Border Village) and head directly northwards to Cook 105 km away.

Overall this all-gravel outback track (only periodically maintained), was in quite fair condition with just a few corrugated sections, some minor washaways and a good deal of bulldust. With tyre pressures lowered in both the Landcruiser and caravan, we were however, able to maintain a steady pace (25-50 km per hour) for most of the trip.

Along the way there are several points of interest, including a crossing of the now unmaintained Old Eyre Highway, sections of the historic vermin fence, old mileage markers, rusty tanks and windmills, and 19 km south of Cook right beside the road (marked with an old tyre) is one of many limestone blowholes found across much of this flat treeless section of the Nullarbor Plain. As we rolled on further northwards with nothing but a flat salt/blue bush plain landscape all around, the outline of the little settlement of Cook can be seen from many kilometres away on the distant horizon.

On arrival in town, things looked very different from our previous visit – there were no people to be seen anywhere! This indeed, was a real contrast to last time when the whole place was crawling with 250 plus train passengers who were wandering everywhere around the small village. Yes, this time the wide main street and everywhere else was totally deserted.

As we began looking around and considering where we were going to set up the caravan for an overnight stay out here, we spotted a small ‘Manager’s Residence’ sign. Here we caught up with Allan Sunman and his partner, just two of the town’s four current residents who work on a rotation system to ensure someone is on duty here in the town at all times. This lovely couple made us feel very welcome and explained that apart from the crews from quite a few goods trains that come through and several hundred Indian Pacific train passengers who invade the place for 30 minutes twice a week, they normally don’t see many visitors at all.

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