World travellers and Australians alike utter envious sighs upon mention of the epic transcontinental train journey from Sydney to Perth aboard the Great Southern Rail's Indian Pacific. Four days, 4,352 kilometres and some of the most isolated and unforgiving territory on the planet are the stuff of sweeping vagabond novels and travel writers' bucket lists. It's a journey that encourages reflection, and upon witnessing some of the world's most ancient land - an opportunity to marvel at our places upon this Earth. It is with much anticipation that I embark on this remarkable journey.
Remarkable journeys are something Australian Idol runner-up turned international pop star Jessica Mauboy knows well; the Indigenous Australian from the remote Northern Territory of Darwin went from belting out country tunes in the bush at the age of 11 to becoming an Antipodal national treasure with top 10 hits, a Sony label, an acting career and a fashion line, all at the age of 22. A worldclass career is inevitable as Mauboy has made the all-important crossover to Los Angeles for collaborations with famous American rappers such as Snoop Dogg and Ludacris.
She's been the opening act for Beyoncé and Chris Brown, and most recently has nabbed an intense lead role in the much-anticipated Australian film The Sapphires, now receiving international film festival buzz and set to be released in 2012.
It's with the spirit of giving and genuine appreciation that Mauboy, armed with two guitarists and a backup singer, joins Santa Claus in boarding the Indian Pacific departing from New South Wales to perform free concerts to communities that many urban and rural Australians have never themselves visited. The Outback Christmas tour is put on by Great Southern Rail as a fundraiser for the lifesaving Royal Flying Doctors Service, a non-profit organization that provides aeromedical emergency and essential health services via PC-12 aircraft to a stunning 275,000 Australians per year who have no direct access to medical care.
Kicking off the first of eight concerts across the country, Mauboy arrives amid tight security and screaming Sydney schoolchildren who are selected to sing along to a Christmas tune after treating them with her hits Burn, Been Waiting and Running Back. "I've never been on the train!" she announces to the crowd.
She's at ease and excited to start the trek that will chug its way deep into the Nullarbor Plain.
After winding through the jawdropping vistas of the Blue Mountains it becomes evident that the further out of Sydney, the more emotional the audience. By the time we reach Bathurst, a frizzy ponytailed girl is pulled out of the crowd, sobbing and hyperventilating. Overwhelmed by the sight of Mauboy and the long wait to sing with the superstar, she has caused her friends to panic and hug each other in empathy, hoping the young fan will rejoin them come time to sing a Mariah Carey Christmas song with their idol.
Mauboy's choice to honour uber-diva Mariah Carey is both fitting and eerie: back in the train's roomy Outback Explorer Lounge, we speak of her dream to one day sing with the artist, her ultimate idol. As she explains how Carey's '90s hit Hero has been the theme song to many pivotal moments in her life, her natural effervescence reveals a laugh that is almost identical to that of her American counterpart.
The 27 carriages that make up the half-kilometre long train make concert stops in the silver mining town of Broken Hill and the elegant festival city of Adelaide. After a gentle rocking night's sleep, both the land and the mood shifts in intensity as we approach the desolate Watson, where Aboriginals, some of which have travelled for hundreds of kilometres to meet the train, gather to see the once-shy girl that emerged from the Outback into superstardom.
The heat is unseasonably bearable as we carefully descend the steps of the train; there is no platform in what most would consider a no man's land. The unrelenting sun in these parts is evident, however, in the hair of the Indigenous people who quietly and politely wait for Mauboy to appear. Whimsical shocks of fluorescent yellow and crimson orange paint the raven locks of the people here; many of their feet bare, their clothes dustworn and tattered from the harsh conditions. It's a stark contrast to the rest of us in our closed-toe shoes - an effort to protect ourselves from some of the most dangerous snakes on the planet.
Mauboy herself emerges without her usual sky-high platform heels and steps down onto the grey earth wearing ballet flats and an old pair of jeans. Accompanying her wide smile are sudden tears at the sight of the small, cautious-eyed community; she collects herself as she strolls out to a patch of nowhere only steps away from the crowd she later calls my people. There is no security needed here. She speaks to them in broken English and sings an entire song in this unplugged performance while in a full embrace of a muted, teary child. Mauboy then takes to the dry and gravelly ground to finish the rest of her concert among the children who sit dewy and expressionless. By the time Santa arrives to give them all gifts, Mauboy is darting around signing her posters, teasing timid fans and surprising elders unable to leave their vehicles by hopping into their trucks and sharing a quick visit and a hug.
"That was very emotional for me," says Mauboy of her experience. "It reminds me of the reason I do music. I see their light, their eyes ... their movements. I speak broken English to them," she says, but waves off her own mention of language, referring to the music.