17 hours on a train, again: SBS’s 'slow TV' summer lethargically ups the ante

Two new Australian shows, at 17 and 14 hours each, join a month-long program dedicated to watching time pass

This time last year I watched a 17-hour broadcast of a train crossing Australia.

The Ghan, Australia’s first foray into the Norwegian genre of “slow TV”, wound its way from Adelaide to Port Pirie to Alice Springs to Darwin and into my heart.

In fact, the program averaged more than 400,000 viewers – and building from its success, this year two new documentaries join a “slow summer” of extremely extensive programming on SBS. The Indian Pacific shows us the nation’s longest train journey, from Perth to Sydney; and the Kimberley Cruise follows 10 days of bay-hopping from Broome to Darwin.

I watched only the three-hour versions this time, but extended 17-hour and 14-hour cuts of both shows will be shown on SBS Viceland in a series of all-day extravaganzas.

It may sound boring. In many ways, it is. But slow TV is designed to be calming: a cocktail of beautiful scenery, historical facts and the slow, nudging propulsion of constant movement.

The Indian Pacific features the world’s longest stretch of completely straight rail – 477km with nothing so disruptive as a corner. The BBC has previously broadcast the making of a glass jug.

But the thing about slow TV – specifically, as it is done by Australia’s own Mint Pictures – is that it is actually a genius, and quite powerful, act of historical revisionism.

Through informative text, these journeys show you the history of Indigenous nations that colonists tried to wipe out, and the migrant history that, without fail, stretches back further than you’d think.

A fact about the Barkandji people of New South Wales as part of The Indian Pacific.
A fact about the Barkandji people of New South Wales as part of The Indian Pacific. Photograph: SBS

This is not just 12 hours of a sweater being knitted. It has a point.

For viewers of The Ghan, The Indian Pacific will be the most familiar of the two, as it too is a train. The four-day trip crosses 133 towns, three states and more than a dozen Indigenous boundaries.

The cinematography is phenomenal – there has been a noticeable step-up in budget since The Ghan. Drone shots follow the train from outside; helicopters whirl above.

It is a beautiful, slow-moving portrait of Australia where, thankfully, lack of attention is actually rewarded. You can go off, do something else and come back to a stunning contrast. Perth is shot in greens and blues, all pooled water and the Swan River. The Goldfields look like an abstract painting: yellow ground, blue sky, the train in the middle. By New South Wales, a heavy grey fog descends.

Of course, it does take forever. From Perth, the program tells us, Singapore and Indonesia are closer than Sydney. The shock of that is a neat summary for the whole experience. Our country always shrinks in the imagination – becoming just the cities or just the coast. Sitting through the space in between is the whole point. Marking out, over and over again, the First Nations languages and nation borders which always covered the country. Sometimes scale can only be communicated by scale.

The Indian Pacific as it crosses the Goldfields of Western Australia.
The Indian Pacific as it crosses the Goldfields of Western Australia. Photograph: SBS / Mint Pictures

Across that 477km straight stretch, we see where the British tested nuclear bombs and sprayed the fallout over the Tjarutja people, and where anthropologist Daisy Bates predicted Indigenous people would become extinct. Every step of the way, the train’s journey proves her wrong.

While The Ghan explored the oft-neglected centre and north of Australia, The Indian Pacific does the same for the west. “Prior to 1917,” it says, “all eastern capitals were linked by rail … except Western Australia. The only way to travel west was via the dangerous waters of the Great Australian Bight.” Trundling out of East Perth station, it gives the whole journey a surprising sense of poetic justice.

In contrast, The Kimberley Cruise takes us on a well-worn journey. We follow cruise ship Coral Discoverer from Broome to Darwin across 10 days, spanning 40,000 years of Indigenous history, and the routes of “Muslim traders, European explorers, pirates and refugees” – which is really Australia in a sentence.

If The Ghan and The Indian Pacific are programs of forward movement, the Kimberley Cruise has more of a circular feel – more swinging, rotating aerial sweeps; currents and eddies; literal whirlpools.

Like any journey into the Top End, The Kimberley Cruise is also a reminder of Australia’s long history with Asia. It takes us past tamarind trees planted by Indonesian traders who visited Indigenous people in the mid-1700s, and the ports that took in Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s.

Still from The Kimberley Cruise.
‘Sometimes scale can only be communicated by scale.’ Photograph: SBS

At Horizontal Falls, once described by David Attenborough as Australia’s “most unusual natural wonder”, we are treated to a shockingly high-octane sequence, shot by a Go-Pro stuck on the gunwhale of a speedboat in a whirlpool. On a trip into the Hunter River, a crocodile starts stalking the boat. You see it catch and eat a turtle.

The highs of The Kimberley Cruise are high – the lulls, a bit boring. But of course your mileage may vary. Most of the time, five minutes dipping in and out is enough. It’s the kind of show they should really play on a loop. You see incredibly interesting things in a very short amount of time.

At the end of the day, slow TV is an experience that you yourself shape. It’s undemanding and forgiving. You get what you put in. It’s a serene, stunning journey into parts of the country we neglect, and the history we mostly never learned. If you’re interested, then it’s interesting.

  • The Indian Pacific (three hours) is available on SBS On Demand; the 17-hour version will air on Saturday 12 January on SBS Viceland. The Kimberley Cruise (three hours) will air on Sunday 13 January on SBS at 7.30pm; the 14-hour version will air on Saturday 19 January on SBS Viceland.


Naaman Zhou

The GuardianTramp

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