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Trip 35 -- Kangaroo Island and Singapore Walks

Singapore day 1: Airport to Punggol
Friday, March 10, 2023

Today: 44062 steps/36.43 km/22.64 mi/6h 21m

The Indian Pacific, which I rode from Adelaide to Sydney, is marketed as a luxury train. In some aspects it delivers: pastries and sparkling wine at check-in, off-train excursions, beauty products in the private rooms. Most of the experience resembles Amtrak sleeper service: meals at shared tables in the dining car, seats that the attendant converts into beds, a rickety ride, delays on the line due to freight trains' having priority.

The overall look and feel of the Indian Pacific (and Journey Beyond Rail's other routes around Australia) is a lot nicer than Amtrak's, however. The flowery restaurant paneling, the in-room music channels (including a lovely classical option), and the drinks and entertainment in the lounge (such as bingo hosted by a drag queen) make it feel more like a premium experience.

For a comparable distance, the Indian Pacific wasn't any more expensive than Amtrak. When I booked it in November, the price for the overnight trip from Adelaide to Sydney was $622. The price for a roomette for one person on Amtrak's Silver Meteor from New York to Miami, about the same timing, was $557 -- and the Indian Pacific's price included a tour of the Blue Mountains. It also included all beverages, even alcoholic ones.

The Indian Pacific runs between Perth and Sydney, stopping in Adelaide. My scheduled departure time was 10:15 a.m., but they originally wanted me at the station a frustrating two hours early. The night before my departure, when I arrived in Adelaide, I had an e-mail from the operator saying there had been delays in Perth and there was no need to arrive before noon. However, to compensate for the delay, I was invited to join them on a complimentary coach tour of Adelaide if I presented myself between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m.

Well, maybe. I probably wasn't even going to have digested my AB by then, if I was going to digest it at all. I figured I'd see when I woke up, and if it was early enough, I'd go.

I woke up in what should have been plenty of time, at 7:45; only now there was an update: The train had made up time and the coach tour would leave at 8:30. No way was I going to make it by then. I lingered and presented myself at about 10:30...only to be told they wouldn't board until around noon, and they were trying to arrange for those of us not on the coach tour (where lunch was being provided) to have lunch on the train.

With this new information, I went back into town and browsed the Adelaide Central Market for a while. If lunch wasn't guaranteed, I might as well do something I love doing anyway: stock up for a train ride. And there was an enormous amount to choose from: the Smelly Cheese Shop, a giant pan of paella, cooked and uncooked meats, rows of fresh produce, foods from all over Asia (including "dim sims," an Australian kind of giant dumplings that have their roots in dim sum). I took a couple of those, plus kangaroo-garlic sausage and mozzarella balls.

The Indian Pacific had put together a lunch after all, and they were just about to serve it when I returned to the station. We were under way around 1 p.m. This was a very long train -- 35 carriages in all, spanning 830 meters total, the conductor announced. We had two locomotives. There were 45 crew and 237 guests.

He also mentioned that because of the delay, the train wouldn't be going all the way to Sydney. It would stop about three hours short, in Rydal. I had planned to get off there anyway for the included tour of the Blue Mountains, but I'd been on the fence about it, thinking it would be nice to arrive in Sydney by train. With that possibility gone, I was especially glad to have joined the tour.

There were some other serious walkers on the train. One was an Englishwoman who led walks in her home country and was happy not to have to plan everything on this trip. Another had walked between Kingscote and Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island; he had camped overnight, and his tent had been disturbed by penguins.

Most were on the train for fun rather than for serious transportation; we agreed it wasn't the train you took if you needed to be in Sydney at a certain time for a meeting. One couple had had the trip in the works for three years, it having been postponed due to the pandemic by as thin a margin as could be: In March 2020, he had called to make sure their train was still going to run the following day. Still on, they told him. A couple of hours later they canceled it.

This journey actually was the one to get me into Sydney when I needed to, and most efficiently, rather than the usual longer route through Melbourne. Seeing the Blue Mountains, even with the attendant waits that accompany large-group travel (the 70-meter platform at Rydal meant we disembarked in groups and they moved the train forward between them), was a bonus.

The Blue Mountains got their name from the bluish haze that results from the presence of eucalyptus gum trees. The oil turns into mist when heated by the sun, and the refraction of light through the mist combined with water vapor and dust particles creates the bluish hue.

The mines of the town of Katoomba once provided 20,000 tons of coal per year for train operation. A hundred kilometers of tunnels remain deep in the rocks of the rainforest. When the mines were operating, children as young as 16 performed the dangerous work in the tunnels, burning whale fat and kerosene to light their way. The resultant stench earned these lamps the moniker "stink pipes." The horses ("pit ponies") did not enjoy such light and frequently went blind.

Younger children had the far more enjoyable job of stoking the fires outside the mines' entrances, which sucked oxygen through the tunnels, providing the workers and their animals with air.

Miners used to descend into the mines and return to the surface via an extremely steep train line. It has been refurbished, and the descent gives the effect of an in-control roller coaster. Its slope gets as steep as 52 degrees, making it the steepest passenger railway in the world.

I had half a mind to abandon the coach transfer back to Sydney and take a regional train anyway, and it's a good thing I didn't: Sydney's trains suffered a communications failure that afternoon and no trains were moving for a couple of hours. Then our coach got to within three blocks of our destination and took 40 minutes to finish the trip due to our being part of Sydney's peak-hour commute, and I wished I'd been on a train after all.

But once we were released, there was much to love about Sydney. It shares many appealing things with New York -- a variety of restaurants everywhere, a sizable Chinatown, people walking around at all hours, pedestrians who don't concern themselves too much with following the often quizzical timing of the traffic signals -- among attractive architecture with friendly people.

It had some wonderful things that New York lacks: trams, a robust ferry system that connects to other transit types, proper car-free thoroughfares (it is bonkers that we haven't bothered to do that), good airport transport, and a culture of dining that doesn't rely on an arcane and increasingly frustrating system of tips and bogus fees (except for the credit-card surcharges, which are nowhere near what they are in the USA, and the obnoxious countrywide common practice of adding 10 or 12 or 15 percent to all bills on Sundays and holidays).

And, of course, it lacks some necessary things that New York also lacks, such as reliable trains and congestion charging. But by and large, Sydney is fantastic.

I dutifully walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but I didn't join those who don harnesses to climb up the arch to its summit. I attended a concert at the Sydney Opera House that started with a new work inspired by the sunlight's reflection on the building's famous roof. I had dim sum that included the largest chicken feet I'd ever eaten -- make your own joke about putting a foot in my mouth. The trains were running fine by the time I was ready to head to Sydney's airport, but the airport is so close to the city that I almost walked it.

I was committed to walking out of Singapore's, however. I suspected that I might have difficulty leaving such a busy airport on foot, and from terminal 1 it wasn't easy. First, I couldn't figure out which level had the roadway. I reached the back entrance of the Crowne Plaza hotel and thought there must be a way from there, but of course the shoulder disappeared, leaving me to backtrack and try another level. This brought me back into the building, up an elevator, down an escalator, past the metro station, and into another terminal. I had originally thought my "step 1" of the Singapore walk would be behind the Crowne Plaza, but by now I'd made so many turns I had no hope of finding my way back there on the last day, if there was even a recognized and legal way to get there without a vehicle.

I started seeing signs for something called "Hub & Spoke" with a picture of a bicycle, and that seemed encouraging. If there was a bike route out, surely I could walk it. Hub & Spoke turned out to be a cafe that catered to bikers, and there were bicycle lockers nearby.

Well, not only was there a bike route -- it was a full bike path, easy to follow with its red pavement and signage pointing the way to East Coast Park off the airport grounds. And because this is Singapore, the route was lined with models of dinosaurs and facts about them, to make a particularly long straightaway more colorful and enjoyable.

After a half-hour, I was finally off the airport grounds. East Coast Park is rather misnamed as it lies to the west of here; it'll be my approach to the airport on the last day. Today I turned east, onto Tanah Merah Coast Road. It continued to be easy walking along a wide paved path separated from cars by pretty landscaping.

East, and then straight north along for almost an hour. This end of the island had an abundance of construction: workers laying pipe or cable and tending to sewers and fixing the roads. Perhaps another transit line was going in. The workers were migrants from around southeast Asia; I'd passed a couple of their dormitories: large buildings or complexes without much transit access except a bus line or two. I'd seen them working in the heat with orange vests on or taking breaks in the shade. We often smiled at each other; there weren't many pedestrians at this end of the island.

At the far northeast, the road turned around to the west. Here the bike and pedestrian path broke away and followed the coast strictly, past Changi Bay Point and then Changi Beach Park. I'd been walking for three hours and almost entirely rounded the airport: There was the control tower, maybe a couple of kilometers away in front of me.

It was about time for lunch, and I was coming up on the Changi Village Hawker Centre. Changi (the village from which the airport gets its name) dates from the 1920s and originally supported the nearby British military bases. Those closed around 50 years ago, and it's now a lively market area.

The hawker centers -- large clusters of food stalls -- are all over Singapore, and just as I made a trip out of eating at New Jersey diners every day, I couldn't go wrong having something from a hawker center whenever I passed one. Here I had a Malaysian beef curry over rice cooked in coconut milk, with some fresh sugarcane juice. An hour later, after passing through an industrial area, it was a snack of popiah (a kind of Fujianese spring roll with bean sprouts, egg, carrots, peanuts, and other fillings) at the Pasir Ris Central Hawker Centre.

Today's final two hours took me along rural lanes, waterways through residential areas, and wetlands. The day was starting to wear on me; the coastal path had been more coastal -- and thus taken longer -- than I'd expected. The residential path was one of those needlessly curvy paths that look pretty on paper but punish everyone with extra distance. The waterway was straight; why wasn't the path? I tried to keep my trajectory straight, hitting the curves at tangent points to minimize superfluous steps -- easy to do alone, not so easy when everyone else is sticking to the path.

Finally I reached my lodging for the night, one of the stranger dwelling places I've had anywhere: a boat floating in a marina. And if that isn't strange enough, I picked up the key from a lockbox attached to a bicycle parked in a lot across the street. But the owners' instructions were clear, if persistent at the time of their arrival. They were sent to me in the form of 36 WhatsApp messages while I was walking back from Sunset Food & Wine, the restaurant near Baudin Beach on Kangaroo Island; I thought they were spam at first. They included 15 photos and videos totaling 173 megabytes, which my life so far seems OK without.

But the two most important attachments got me in. Among the boat's features is a full karaoke setup. I could have had quite the solo party tonight, but I was content to keep calm and eat mantis shrimp at the marina.

Go on to Singapore day 2