How to nearly tear your foot off (part 2). Outback Queensland, Australia 1974

This is part two in a two part chapter from my all the dumb things series. If you would like to read part 1 first, click here.

In the morning the railway staff came to work and in a very civilised way, completely without malice, woke us trespassers and suggested we move along. Although the roads west were closed due to flooding, the raised railways weren’t. Since there was no accommodation to be had in Charleville I bought a train ticket to Mount Isa (a mining town in the far west of Queensland). The rolling stock that was running in outback Queensland at the time was old and decrepit.

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 The carriages were known as “red rattlers” because of their colour and all the noise they made. It was very basic transport with only hard seating, no air conditioning, no sleepers or dining car. Although it had been raining for days, the weather was very hot and humid. The state of the tracks was so poor that we just crawled along barely faster in places than what a person could run. The landscape out in that part of the country is very flat with straw-coloured grass dappled with the odd shrub here and there, for as far at the eye can see in every direction. The big empty skies are inhabited with the occasional wedge tailed eagles wheeling around high up in the thermals. 

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 It was all so mind numbingly boring. The people I met on the train didn’t have much of interest to say. They were uncomplicated people mainly traveling to work on farms or in mines and let’s face it I stank. I did meet one character though; he was a 14-year-old school drop out who was on his way to a cattle station (ranch) to work as a jackaroo (cowboy). When I told him that I thought he was too young to drop out of school, he said that he wanted to be a jackaroo and that his parents didn’t mind. Then I asked him if he was worried about going through life with so little education (I was little better, but at the time I was too stupid to realise it). He retorted, “if think you’re so smart, spell Ornithorhynchus”. To which I admitted that I couldn’t and then he proceeded to spell it. He then then said, “there ya go, I’m smarter that you!”  He did have a point, but I wasn’t to be deterred so I asked him what Ornithorhynchus meant. He said he didn’t know but he could spell it and I couldn’t, so that was that! I later looked up the word Ornithorhynchus in a dictionary to find that it is half the Latin name for platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus).

The train had been crawling along for hours and all of a sudden there was a big jolt and crunching sound. One of the carriages had derailed a bogey. The bogey had just come off the rails but the carriage hadn’t toppled over, it’s a good thing that we weren’t traveling at a higher speed. So we sat in the heat for about five hours until another maintenance train with a crane turned up on a parallel track. Many people had gotten off the train and were standing around outside either watching or offering to help. They got the carriage back on the track by hooking the nearest under side of the derailed carriage with the crane and lifting it a little as the locomotive with derailed carriage pulled forward so the bogey would drop into place. It was easy to see that the railway staff were old hands at remounting derailed trains. It was an amazing thing to watch. In all, I’d say the derailment took about ten hours to sort out before we could continue and by then it was nighttime.

I spent another uncomfortable night trying to sleep in my seat with the addition of being hungry, thirsty and racidly filthy. After the derailment the train traveled even slower than before. People were jumping off the train then walking beside it for while and then climbing back on again out of shear boredom. It was so hot, that in the hope of catching a breeze, I sat myself down in one of the exit doors with my feet dangling out of the side of the train. I passed the time looking across at the horizon, up at the sky and occasionally extending my arm to brush my hand through the long grass that sometimes grew by the side of the tracks. This went on for hour after hypnotizing hour until; all of a sudden I felt that someone had belted a home run on my foot with a baseball bat. My attention was immediately snapped downward to my assaulted foot to be traumatized by what I could see. Gazing at the horizon had not been a very effective survival strategy as I’d neglected to notice the low “steel plate girder” bridge we were crossing. It was one of those bridges that is based on the “I beam” but it has extra vertical stiffeners reinforcing the sides.

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This is not the actual train I was on but this picture illustrates
what a “steel plate girder” bridge looks like.  

 The top of the “I beam” was level with the floor of the carriage I was sitting on and the gap between it and the train had an average of about 18cm (about 7”). I say average because the gap fluctuated due to the combination of casual engineering and carriage movement. I was convinced that my leg was going to be snipped off like a piece of play dough. There wasn’t enough of a gap to pull my leg free and as we passed the vertical stiffeners, my foot was hit for home run after home run. During my agonizing pummeling of thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, I watched in sickening horror as the gap between the train and bridge opened and nearly closed numerous times, threatening to separate me from my beloved and very useful legs, again and again. By the time the train passed over the bridge I’d been so thoroughly hammered by the gauntlet of steel stiffeners that I was sure that all that was left of my feet would be bloodied stumps. I had automatically pulled my legs up into the carriage as soon as I was free of the bridge and much to my relief my feet were still there.

It was a good thing that I’d been wearing thick lace up ankle high boots at the time. I was sure all the bones were broken in the foot that was on the leading edge of the battering. I undid my laces as fast as I could and had a look at my feet.  They were heavily bruised but there weren’t any broken bones and with the panic out of the way I had pause to notice the excruciating pain I was in. I was in so much pain that it was the first time in days that I didn’t notice how bad I smelled. I quickly put my boots back on and laced them up tight to reduce the swelling and waited for a few hours for the pain to diminish enough for me to hobble back to my seat again.

I won’t be sticking any part of my body out of a train again, that’s for sure.

Epilogue. Mt Isa had a Laundromat and proper motels with clean water!

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