Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Lees Shorthouse - part 7: a derailment, and a triumphant arrival

On the 8th September, 1915, six months after the sacrifice of thousands of Australian troops on the cliffs and beaches of Gallipoli, Ethel embarked on a three day train journey through ugly scenery, furious dust storms and shifting sands. Her Journal contained no exaggerated account by a naïve outsider, since the trip did indeed become momentous. The shifting sand caused a derailment that was documented in The Adelaide Advertiser of Tuesday 14th September thus:

The ordinary mixed train from Quorn to Oodnadatta met with an accident 42 miles south of Oodnadatta on Friday at 9.30 pm. The accident was caused through the train running into a cutting on the line, which was partly filled with drift sand. The engine, a couple of water tanks, and a goods truck were considerably damaged. All the passengers escaped injury, but the engine driver (Mr George Moran) was slightly injured. An “accident” train left Quorn on Saturday morning to remove the derailed engine and trucks and repair the line.

Although the above confirms the accident that Ethel recorded in her Journal, I prefer her more subjective narration with its confused passengers, both white and aboriginal; the concussed engine driver, Mr Moran; the resourceful guard who fixed up a telegraph link; and the dawn brew-up in billy cans. They were stranded in a red stony desert dotted with intermittent mulga bushes and tussocks of spinifex grass. Temperatures could approach 50°C. Rainfall here was measured in drops, and any creek water was saline. And, since the accident occurred at 9.30 pm, they would have found themselves in utter darkness. A Wikipedia article tells us that:

The Ghan service was notorious for washouts of the track and other delays, and a flatcar immediately behind the locomotive carried spare sleepers and railway tools, so that if a washout was encountered the passengers and crew could work as a railway gang to repair the line and permit the train to continue.

All in all, if Ethel had been seeking a distraction from her guilt about the war, she had certainly found it in the South Australian desert. The Advertiser continues its accident report:

The Secretary to the Railways Commissioner (Mr A.N. Day) stated on Monday afternoon that the passengers were taken by the repairing section car to Oodnadatta, where they arrived on Saturday evening instead of late on Friday night. In order to get a train to Oodnadatta it was necessary to send a relief engine from William Creek to the scene of the accident and construct a deviation round the derailed engine and trucks.

Again, Ethel’s account is more vivid as she enthusiastically describes their eventual arrival in Oodnadatta “without hat or anything for ones use” on Saturday, 11th September. Furthermore, “as we were pulled into the station of Oodnadatta, the dwellers there greeted us with ‘Cheers’”! The following image actually shows the Ghan steaming in to Oodnadatta in about 1910.



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