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Wednesday 27 September, 2017
Reflecting on the Anzacs takes my mind to those who fought past wars, and to those currently serving in our defence force, including my younger brother, Andrew – a Lieutenant with the Royal Australian Navy who was honoured to have an official role at this years’ service at Gallipoli. He told me it was one of the most spiritual, thought-provoking experiences he’s ever had.
Andrew and I have always taken an interest in Australia’s military – born out of my father’s passion for all things transportation. Dad was a Radar Technician at Adelaide Airport and we often spent time with him watching the planes land and take-off, just a hundred metres from the runway. Weekends were often spent visiting the ships in port or chasing the trains that traversed the countryside.
Dad also volunteered with the local Country Fire Service (CFS), which in itself can trace its roots to our wartime past. After the Second World War, ex-civil defence equipment – including fire pumps, hose trailers and even air-raid sirens – were handed over to district councils to use in response to local emergencies. Private farm firefighting groups were invited to join the local brigades heralding the start of a unified volunteer firefighting body, known today as the CFS.
I followed in my father’s footsteps to become a volunteer with the Eden Hills Brigade, which opened the door to a full-time position as CFS media spokesperson, and later, my current role as a presenter with Adelaide’s Nine News. It’s been a privilege to have hosted many defence events over the years and to have covered the local Anzac commemorations. However, I have to say my own most spiritual and thought-provoking experience has been far from the lights and cameras that my profession would have me.
In the quiet, picturesque and unassuming town of Quorn in the Southern Flinders Ranges, volunteers of the Pichi Richi Railway (PRR) have made a unique discovery during one of their restoration projects – stumbling across the names and service numbers of soldiers carved into the timber train carriages that took them to war.
Central to all Australian states, Quorn served as a major out-post for troops during World War Two, as thousands of service men and women made the epic journey north on the original ‘Ghan’ railway, before being deployed overseas. Making sure the troops didn’t leave hungry, more than 300,000 meals were served up by volunteers from the Country Women’s Association at Quorn Station.
Covered by Masonite in the 1950’s, the etchings were only discovered when the carriage was recently restored to its former glory, more than seven decades after the soldiers left their ‘signature’ behind.
The Pichi Richi Railway is no stranger to re-living Australia’s military past, with their trains featuring in Russell Crowe’s movie – ‘The Water Diviner’ – about an Australian farmer’s attempt to find his three missing sons in Turkey following the Gallipoli campaign.
As custodians of this significant chapter of Australia’s railway and wartime heritage, PRR volunteers have taken pride in hosting their own Anzac commemorations, occasionally re-enacting the ‘troop trains’ with historic military vehicles tied down on original flat-bed wagons, travelling on the last remaining portion of the original ‘Ghan’ railway line between Port Augusta and Quorn.
It would have to be one of the most authentic ‘time-travel’ experiences you can have – a momentary pause from our impulsive, modern era.
Riding behind steam is slow and graceful as the train climbs the ranges, winding its way across deep rock cuttings, superb stonewall embankments and spectacular iron bridges – gifting you with time to digest the journey our soldiers made more than half a century ago.
Tragically, for many service men and women, it would be a one way trip – their names instead etched into the war memorials that stand in their honour across the country.
For more on Pichi Richi Railway’s wartime history, visit their website: https://www.pichirichirailway.org.au/history/ww2.html