Postcard From Cook  

If the term "middle of nowhere" ever meant anything, it must certainly apply to the remote railway town of Cook, SA. One hundred kilometres north of the Great Australian Bight, Cook is smack in the middle of the featureless Nullarbor Plain. 

Home to a Bush Church Aid hospital, a store, a school, a dozen (or so) persistent families, a railway workshop and a diesel store, we came along this contrived little hamlet in our 4WD en route to Kingoonya. I say 'contrived', because the town was built in 1917 to serve the Transcontinental Railway and houses only railway workers, a nurse and a teacher.

Road To CookAs we'd shredded a tyre on the rocky road up from the Eyre Highway, we went looking for some help. We chatted with the blokes in the workshop who gave us the bad news: "Unless ya got a Toyota HiLux, mate, we got nothin' ".

Our bold, high-tech Ford Explorer with wide chunky tyres, looked like something out of NASA amid the chaos and mayhem of railway tools, diesel pipes, heavy machinery and corrugated iron sheds. Birds Eye View 

Sensing our disappointment, foreman Grant Schubert, took us on a guided tour of the town (in his well-worked HiLux), introducing us to some of the few remaining residents, and letting us climb the diesel tanks for a bird's eye view. 

The Coxes Of Cook 
First we met Henry and Gloria Cox, a stalwart railway couple retired in Cook. Henry gave twenty years to the steel rail highway and lives a blissful life hundreds of kilometres from care - and just about everything else! Son, Henry JR, 12, a young entrepreneur, hawks cordial at 20c a cup to train passengers to finance his school excursions.

Most Visitors See Only This: The StationThe Bishop Kirkby Memorial Hospital next door doubles as a community centre where locals are treated for anything ranging from sunstroke to snakebite. There, Bush Nurse Anneliese Cusack counsels and cures the dozen or so locals, and near-locals, in the spotless weatherboard cottage.

As we chatted in the shade of a fragrant pepper tree, the familiar blast of a diesel locomotive could be heard in the distance. The Nullarbor Plain is billiard-table flat, and on the far-western horizon a long, unwriggling caterpillar slowly edged closer to town. It was 3PS6, as we found out, a 1200 metre, 2700 tonne general goods train on its way east. 

Just 6,000 litres please. 
Grant beckoned us back on board the town's taxi so we could witness the awesome 'spectacle' of a mid-desert refueling operation. Drivers Peter and Bruce came down for a chin-wag and we soon found ourselves being shown the business end of a modern locomotive. Did you know that a big train uses 700 litres of diesel an hour and that its engines rev out to a maximum of 640 rpm? But hey! Put on the brakes and it can stop in its own length!

Our forward journey shattered by the loss of our only spare tyre, we had to backtrack to Ceduna (with fingers crossed), leaving behind the dusty outpost of Cook and its hardy little community. I still marvel at the resilience of these tough desert folk and will always remember with great fondness our accidental encounter with them.

The sad postscript to this story is that Cook is no more. Australian National Railways was sold in late 1997 and the new owners split up the organisation. Declaring the settlement of Cook redundant, they emptied the town of its people and buildings and, I fear, of its history.

On 5 Dec 2004, the author was grateful to receive the following update:

Hi, I read your postcard from Cook and just wanted to let you kwow that there is still a town, albeit much smaller than it used to be. It is the stop of point for rail crews from Kalgoorlie and has a population of 2 - Jan and Iva are the permanent residents that look after the train crews as well as refuelling the passenger and goods trains that frequent the place. I have been to Cook 3 times and stayed with Jan and Iva 2 of the 3 times. If travelling from civilisation and intending to visit, it is worth calling ahead to see if they would like anything - a bottle of wine, some beer, in the winter a fan heater. Great people :)

Cathy Tozer, NSW

See also: Across the Nullarbor for a detailed account of the entire crossing.

Story and Photographs by Roderick Eime

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