DAY 88: Working on a chain gang

27 Nov


IT’S my first day volunteering with the local steam railway and I’ve asked for something physical to do, so I’m sent out to work on the tracks in torrential rain.

Turns out it’s just me and the chief ganger, Keith – a hyper, wiry chap who leaps around hitting things and explaining what’s what. For the first hour we can hardly understand a word the other’s saying, but roughly speaking we’re having fun comparing notes on what we think a bloke from Mount Isa and a journalist from England should be like. Keith expresses astonishment that I am not haughty, frail or pale.

“I’ve never seen anyone turn up to work on the railway in lipstick and nail polish though,” he says as we trundle off to Muckleford in his high-rail Mitsubishi that travels along the train tracks.

“The general consensus was that you were going to be a truck,” he continues. I pose for a photo for his phone, splattered in mud and wielding a pickaxe, so he can show the fellas. What can I say – I’m a good sport.

I’d been hoping to impress Keith with my newly learned railway slang (a track worker, like me, is a hairy-leg), but it turns out he’s far more interested in tracks than trains. “They’re all mad,” he scoffs of train workers. “When they’re not working on trains they watch videos about trains and listen to tapes of train noises.”

Our task today is to replace old sleepers with new ones. We jack up the rails, pickaxe the shit out of the rotten sleepers, then dig the trough clear before sliding a new sleeper in with giant tongs and securing it with four dog spikes, which I’ve heard as “dog’s bollocks” for the first hour Keith’s been saying it. Out here, that seems completely reasonable.

Quite regularly, Keith’ll hoist a sleeper off the back of the truck straight into my path, sending a tsunami of mud over me from head to already-saturated buttcrack, but I get my revenge when he skids on a rail and falls flat on his arse.

I admire Keith greatly. Every obstacle we face – trying to jack the rail by hand having forgotten the man-sized spanner; having the sleepers suckered firmly by the mud – I’d have wanted to put in the Too Hard box, but he sees it as an interesting conundrum.

Keith shares his tomatoes and tells me his life story on cigarette breaks, which are for my benefit, as he can quite capably smoke and swing a sledgehammer at the same time. For my part, I’ve assured him I’ll practise swinging one at home, to avoid bringing it down into sludgy puddles in front of our faces.

“Next time you can race me on the pump bike,” he promises mysteriously as we squidge back to the truck. “Race the ganger. No one’s ever beaten me yet.”

My rattle gun's most likely bigger than yours.

Keeper? Yargh! Great fun, and Keith’s a trooper. Will have to track down suitable clothing and new back muscles first.

One Response to “DAY 88: Working on a chain gang”


  1. DAY 111: Having terrible things done to my head, then getting some badass tools « Hey man, now you're really living - December 21, 2010

    […] By the time I’ve handed over my twenty-five bucks I’m even tenser, but I get the inspired idea of buying some badass tools to add to my arsenal at home. Tools are great – they get stuff done in the country, and at times like this you can bash the crap out of stuff. Plus I’ve been meaning to practise my axe/pickaxe/sledgehammer swing so that I can help Keith properly on the railroads. […]

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