Adam Gibson goes coast-to-coast in style on an iconic Australian journey. [First published in TNT Magazine, London]
LET ME get this straight. I’m no trainspotter. No rail buff. The longest train trip I’ve been on was when I fell asleep on the Hammersmith line one night and woke up at Bromley-by-Bow.
So the thought of spending three days and three nights in a train carriage (and covering 4352km) on the trans-Australia Indian-Pacific didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm. It filled me with … well, just let’s say uncertainty.
The Indian-Pacific journey is truly an incredible trip. It’s the only true trans-continental train ride in the world, literally going from coast to coast. You can have a dip at Bondi Beach in Sydney on a Monday and then take the plunge at Scarborough Beach in Perth on a Thursday — with every centimetre of land in between having rattled beneath your feet.
After leaving Sydney’s Central Station on a September afternoon, we headed straight west out of town, through graffiti-emblazoned suburbia and then began to ascend the foothills of the Blue Mountains. From the wide windows of one of the bar cars I watched as the sun went down and the escarpments of the mountains proper passed by. And then, with the last glimpse of sunlight, we rolled into Lithgow, nestling snugly in the hills like a scene from the movie Babe. Then night fell and around that time the thought struck me … I would be on this train all the way across the country.
There’s something about travelling by train which the rarified atmosphere of plane travel or the eye-wearying rigmarole of driving on Aussie roads cannot hope to match. Train travel gives the best of both worlds. You get the cushioned comfort of flight combined with the real sense of travel that driving can bring. And, basically, you get none of the bad bits.
Waking the first morning, after a night spent largely trying to not fall out of the top bunk, I was hit by the sight of a blindingly orange sunrise across the scrubby plain en-route to Broken Hill. After eating breakfast while spotting kangaroos, emus and the odd wild horse darting away in the distance, signs of mining operations appeared and then, without fanfare, we rolled into Broken Hill station for our first stop.
Operated by Great Southern Railways (GSR), the Indian Pacific has four scheduled stops on its journey: Broken Hill, Adelaide, Cook (on the Nullarbor Plain) and Kalgoorlie. Organised tours are available at each stop except Cook.
The Broken Hill stop was the first chance we had to see passengers from other sections of the train. They represented a fair cross section of the community. There were elderly couples, hip young groovers in dark sunnies, daggy middle-aged couples and everything in between. The “IP” caters for all these types, offering three classes of travel.
There’s First Class, where mostly elderly passengers share twin rooms with fold-down beds and a shower and toilet, plus lavish meals from the dining car included in the fare price. There’s Holiday Class, where less extravagant passengers have single or double rooms with shared bathroom and shower facilities in each carriage and meals available from the on-board cafeteria. Then there’s Coach Class, the more budget option which Train Manager Robert Knight described to me as “a bit wild but good fun”. You’d probably go a bit wild too with just an upright seat as your accommodation for several days. Throw in the fact that you have to share toilet facilities with passengers who are often “tired and emotional” from a day spent in one of the bars and you have a recipe for … well, an interesting trip. But it’s worth it.
The price of these classes (Sydney to Perth) varies steeply, with Coach Class adult fares starting around $450 and First Class reaching up to $1500. If you’re strapped for cash or if your idea of a good time is sitting in a seat for 65 hours, then take the Coach Class option. Alternatively you could go the pampered near-opulence of First Class — but pay accordingly.
For mine, the best option is Holiday Class, costing around $900 from Sydney to Perth (or vice-versa). There you at least get to sleep in comfort, something you’ll be heartily glad of because the rock and roll of the train is akin to a giant mother’s hand rocking the cradle — I could hardly keep awake to enjoy the spectacular scenery flashing constantly by.
After a walk around Broken Hill in the icy early morning wind, it was back on the train for our journey to Adelaide, which we reached in the late afternoon. There was just enough time to catch a cab into Rundle St East and grab a sterling pint of Coopers Pale Ale in one of Adelaide’s great pubs.
After Adelaide it was onward towards the undisputed drawcard of the Indian Pacific journey — the Nullarbor. This vast 5,900sq. km “treeless plain” holds a special place in the Australian psyche. Regarded as a near-insurmountable barrier by the early explorers, these days there is still an undoubted mystique about it.
Unlike the Eyre Highway, which runs along the fringe of the plain along the Great Australian Bight, the Trans-Australia Railway line runs smack-bang through the middle of it. Indian Pacific staff regularly say “the only way to see the plain is by train” and, rough-hewn poetry aside, they’re pretty well spot on.
But with the prospect of the Nullarbor consuming one’s thoughts, it’s easy to miss some of the wonderful country leading towards it. There’s the township of Pimba, for instance. Just north of here is Woomera, once a rocket testing site for the British Army and home to the infamous Immigrant Detention Centre. Further north of that is Roxby Downs, the equally infamous uranium mining site. And somewhere nearabouts too, shrouded in secrecy, is the US military installation called Nurrungar.
A few hundred kilometres west on the train line is the township of Tarcoola. This is the spot where the legendary Ghan, also operated by GSR, leaves the Trans-Australian track and shoots off north to Alice Springs. But the interesting bit for me about the place is the fact that it must surely be the only town in the world named after a racehorse. Yep, that’s right: it took its name from the 1893 winner of the Melbourne Cup. Only in Australia…
The Indian Pacific was formerly operated by the state-run Australian National railways (AN). However in 1997 it was sold to private interests and GSR was born. The change has had a significant impact on a number of the railway siding towns along the Trans-Australia route. Perhaps the most noticeable has been at Cook, our next scheduled stop, in the middle of the Nullarbor.
Cook was formerly a bustling town with a population of around 100 people, all employed or connected with AN. With privatisation and a subsequent decision to move most of the railways operations to Adelaide and Port Augusta, Cook was virtually shut down overnight. Now the only people there are the station master, his wife and their small delightfully mischievous-looking child. But the evidence of the former life there is compelling. Arriving in the early morning, you see the gravel-filled swimming pool, the deserted school and hospital plus a number of desolate empty houses baking in the heat.
Re-boarding the train and heading towards Kalgoorlie, the true vastness of the Nullarbor can be appreciated. For at least eight hours the landscape doesn’t change a jot … kilometre after kilometre of dry scrubby land. No sign of human or animal life whatsoever.
By the time we reach the gold mining city of Kalgoorlie in the evening it’s well and truly time to disembark for another breather. The train is resolutely comfortable and enjoyable but the long stretches on the tracks are surprisingly tiring. One or two more stops along the way would prevent that and provide for a more languid journey. But then, I’m not the boss, am I?
After an insightful night-time bus tour of Kalgoolie (costing $16), it was back on the “IP” for the final run through the night to Perth.
Waking as the train wound through the lush Avon River valley there was a noticeable spring in the step of all passengers. And, as Perth’s outer suburbs came into view, a strong sense of achievement hit me. Sure, it wasn’t exactly hard work, but the feeling of having crossed the entire continent on land was an incredibly exciting one.
And, alighting at East Perth station, another pleasant thought hit me … I’d be going back the other way in a few days. Maybe I’d become a train buff, after all…