Alone in the modern ghost town of Cook, Australia

[This story is based on my very brief visit to Cook, Australia in December 2004.]

For a moment, I am utterly alone in Cook, Australia and it’s a little eerie. Effectively a modern ghost town, Cook looks like it was very recently wiped out in a post-apocalyptic bandit raid. Like when an inexplicably well-armed gang, led by a guy with a name like “Skull Fucker,” detonates a bomb that only vaporizes living tissue, leaving everything else in pristine condition, so his henchmen can loot supplies and pick up all the gold teeth littering the ground.

The buildings in Cook have been neglected, but are still standing and in decent condition. With a few nights and weekends of work they could be habitable again. In addition to rows of single-story dwellings, there is a two-story school house, a pool that has been filled in with dirt and even a nine hole golf course without a single blade of grass.

While Cook’s former residents probably moved out in an orderly, unhurried fashion, the unsettling scene suggests a panicky evacuation just before a volcano eruption. The town is littered with trash, old train parts, abandoned vehicles and gutted kitchen appliances, all strewn across yards, streets, and even deep into the outback behind the town like they’d fallen out the backs of rapidly departing truck beds.

That I also happen to be in one of the harshest environments on Earth is not helping my nerves. Australia is home to the deadliest… everything. There are more agonizing and extravagant ways to die in Australia than at an Iron Chef competition with Itchy and Scratchy. Nine of the top 10 most venomous snakes in the world are here. And there are spiders that eat those snakes. Crocodiles, sharks, lizards, frogs, pandas, butterflies… You name it and Australia has the deadliest version of it.

Like much of the outback, it also happens to be unremittingly hot in Cook. A dry heat, so intense that you don’t sweat, because the sweat evaporates before it has a chance to bead up. And, of course, it is quiet. So quiet that the quiet makes your ears ring. Perfectly self-possessed people routinely go insane in this kind of quiet.

And if you find yourself succumbing to the cuckoo-inducing quiet, hair-melting heat or an encounter with the world’s most poisonous ladybug while you’re in Cook, you’re categorically screwed because you are 2,193,765 miles from a reasonable medical facility. I made that number up, of course. This is the part of the story where I would drop one or two head-spinning statistics to illustrate how un-fucking-believably far Cook is from everything, but I can’t give you an exact distance. Cook is so far from Sydney and Perth by road that even Google refuses to compute it. I tried. So, under the circumstances “2,193,765 miles” seems like a fair estimate.

Thankfully I’m not really alone, because that would be idiotic. On the contrary, on the opposite side of these empty homes are a dozen or so Indian Pacific railway cars. This includes the car with the finely appointed, air conditioned, first class cabin with en suite bathroom that I’ve been occupying for the past 24 hours as well as the dining car where, in a short while, I will be devouring ostrich steak or kangaroo tartare or something similarly extravagant.

Unbelievably, I’m traveling from Perth to Sydney in this four star hotel on wheels for work. In what was easily the greatest triumph of my travel writing career thus far, I somehow managed to convince both a US travel magazine and the Indian Pacific marketing people that three days of me being lavishly pampered was in everyone’s best interest.

A number of my fellow passengers – those who did not immediately turn around and re-board the train when the searing heat punched them in the face – are not even 100 meters away, mingling around the Cook souvenir shop. I peeled away from the group to walk into Cook’s residential area, so I could peek into a few of the abandoned homes and indulge in the above reverie of being alone in this mind-screw of a place.

Cook was created in 1917 to support the passing trains on Australia’s brand new 4,352 kilometer (2,698 mile) transcontinental railway. The town happens to be located along the longest stretch of perfectly straight railway in the world, 478 kilometers (297 miles) without the slightest wiggle. Before the Australian railways were privatized in 1997, Cook had a permanent population of about 300 people. Since supporting the trains was really the only reason to be in Cook, when privatization happened, the town was quickly abandoned.

Cook now has a population of two, who, in addition to running the souvenir shop, maintain the still used diesel refueling facilities as well as sometimes hosting train drivers overnight.

Having thoroughly creeped myself out, I doubled back and completed my tour of Cook, sucking in the seemingly oxygen-starved, fantastically hot air, and taking pictures of some of the good humored graffiti left behind by departing residents.

Our stop in Cook was for only 30 minutes. Most of us were back on train in 20. Cook is not the type of place where you want to get left behind because you dawdled.