Laughing all the way

Santa's overdressed for the Nullarbor, but the show must go on, and on, writes Mal Chenu.

THE gig at the railway siding of Watson, near the old Maralinga nuclear test site, is one of the toughest of the tour and Santa waits nervously in his cubicle. When the warm-up act, singer Shannon Noll, finishes his set, it will be show time. Santa adjusts his beard and belt, double-checks the lolly bags and shuffles his shiny black boots. He stares out the window as endless red-brown desert and skinny baked trees fly past.

Bruce Dent, 68, has been playing Santa on the Indian Pacific's annual Outback Christmas Journey from Sydney to Perth each December since 2000, when his support act was Nikki Webster. One of his most prized possessions is a photo of himself in full Santa regalia kicking a footy with Jimmy Barnes on the Nullarbor Plain in 2004. Other acts who have opened for Bruce include John Williamson, Marcia Hines and Human Nature.

Leaving Sydney at 3pm, the trip starts with a tour of the city's graffiti hot spots but quickly turns into a bucolic treat as we wind our way up the Blue Mountains.

About 4½ hours after leaving Sydney Central, we reach Bathurst station, where about 100 people have turned out for the show. Kids in Santa hats, bubbling with pre-Christmas anticipation, sing a couple of carols and then Noll and his two-guitar accompaniment take the stage and perform a four-song show. The kids love it, joining in the chorus to his hit song What about Me with gusto.

Santa Bruce then de-trains (they really call it that) and struggles to make an impact as he is jostled by autograph-hunters crowding Noll; but he bravely pushes on - the lolly bags must be delivered.

In 25 minutes, it's all over. We re-train and head to Broken Hill for a 7.30am repeat performance. And then Adelaide, Watson, Cook, Rawlinna, Kalgoorlie and finally Perth - nine concerts, 67 hours and 4352 kilometres from Sydney. It's a gruelling road trip for any Santa, let alone one pushing 70.

Life on board is fun but the Indian Pacific's greatest gift is time, which seems to stretch out like the infinity of the track ahead. Relaxation is impossible to avoid and there's no better place to curl up with a good book. Time is relative, with regular clock changes as we head west. These are announced along with reminders about when dinner is ready if you can't keep up with all the watch-winding.

Time is spent between the lounge (bar) car and the restaurant car, where the bonhomie and the food are both excellent. There is no gym car in which to work off what they serve you in the restaurant car but the in-train magazine, Platform, offers some useful exercise tips, including: "Push your bottom back into the seat. Lift one buttock. Repeat three times each side."

Gold Service cabins are cosy and the design is clever. Two single beds fold down from the wall, the lower one becoming a three-seat sofa during the day. The en suite - a combination shower, basin and fold-down toilet - is your other room. Readers who have served time will feel right at home. There's a tiny table and a couple of anorexic cupboards but that's about it. Except for the many mirrors, possibly to give the impression of more space.

A plasma TV-size window offers just one channel - the majesty of inland Australia in all its striking variant rawness. Cow-friendly pastures give way to drought-hit areas, then shimmering salt lakes and sand dunes before the desiccated Nullarbor screens for what seems like days; then the red goldfields, parched wheat belt and then the pretty final run down the Avon Valley into Perth.

Santa Bruce wasn't around when the east-west track was first joined up in 1917, built with post-Federation fervour and sweat, pick and shovel, camel and carthorse. Standard gauge wasn't completed until 1969 and the first unbroken run of the Indian Pacific arrived in Perth in 1970 to a crowd of more than 10,000.

Mostly, the train bounces gently along the tracks, the recoiling rough enough to occasionally spill a cup of coffee but that's all. Tucked up in bed in the small cabin, the rocking motion gives a pleasant back-to-the-womb experience and is great for sleeping.

The show in Watson in South Australia is the highlight of the trip. More than 100 kids from the Oak Valley and Yalata Aboriginal schools have travelled for hours to get here before excitedly de-bussing.

Watson is the only gig where Santa is bigger than Shannon - and doesn't Bruce love it. Wearing an outfit that could not be more ill-adapted to the environment, Santa Bruce proves a huge hit.

Relaxing in the bar car after the gig, in a T-shirt and still wearing the bottom half of his Santa costume and boots, Bruce takes a pull of his VB, pleased with the gig.

"Good crowd today," he says to Noll.

"Not bad," replies the runner-up in the first series of Idol. "Great kids, that's for sure." And the big train moves off towards the next show, at Cook, population: five.

The writer was a guest of Great Southern Rail.

Trip notes

The Indian Pacific leaves Sydney for Perth on Saturday and Wednesday each week. The full trip to Perth is $2008 in Gold Service plus $99 to take your car along for the ride. Partial trips and other classes are available.

The 2010 Outback Christmas Journey will leave Sydney on December 1 and legendary Australian rockers James Reyne and Mark Seymour will accompany Santa Bruce. 132 147, for a full listing of fares and timetables.