Riding the Rails on the Indian Pacific

I know that there are people who can’t abide rail travel, but I am not one of those.  When I was a boy there were some trains that were still pulled by steam engines, and I just found those trains to be a lot of fun on which to travel.  Sitting in a carriage with my head out the window watching the engine belch its way across the countryside, leaving a trail of smoke behind it, and hearing the grunts and groans of those powerful engines reminded me that steam trains are machines which come the closest to being alive.

Since those days of riding the rails, I still enjoy travelling by train, although I do find diesels and electric trains less romantic than steam.  Still, there’s nothing wrong with sitting in a comfortable carriage watching the world as you pass by.

One of my favourite rail journeys is the Indian Pacific, Australia’s longest uninterrupted rail journey which begins in Sydney and Terminates in Perth, or vice versa, depending on your direction of travel.  The train is so named begins it links the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean, and it rolls a continent which, although seemingly empty, is actually full of interest.

Travelling on the Indian Pacific will not save you any money as airfares between Sydney and Perth are much cheaper than the even the budget seats on the train; you will certainly not save any time, as it takes three days to cover the 4532 kilometres, when a plane will complete the trip in just over four hours.

The real reason to ride the Indian Pacific is because of the experience, and to realise just how big a country Australia really is.

The Indian Pacific has three classes: Red Class, which guarantees you a reclining seat, shared showers and toilets, and pay-as-you eat dining.  Gold Class is more upmarket, getting you a private cabin (which you may have to share if travelling alone, with private toilet and shower and pre-paid meals in the dining room.  Platinum Class gives you larger cabins and facilities than Gold Class.

For Gold and Platinum Class passengers there is a lounge car equipped with bar where passengers are encouraged to socialise.

The train leaves Sydney Central to head west, and as the suburbs of Sydney flash by you realise what a huge place it really is.  The Blue Mountains once formed an impenetrable barrier, but now they offer passengers some spectacular views over valleys and forests, before the train heads out over the central plains towards the far western mining town of Broken Hill.  The Indian Pacific pauses here to give passengers a chance to walk around or catch an organised tour of the town.  It is out near Broken Hill that you get the first inklings of what the true Australian outback looks like.

Next stop is Adelaide, capital of South Australia.  Here, you can do another tour, or just wander around on your own for a short while.  Adelaide is a well-planned city and so different from the hodge podge of a metropolis that is Sydney.

Although the trip has taken over 24 hours, you are only about a third of the way through your journey.  From Adelaide the train heads north to Port Augusta, then swings west again.  After the second night, the train begins its journey over the Nullabor Plain, taken from the Latin words which mean “no trees”.  The Nullabor is aptly named, because for kilometre after kilometre all you see is spare open plain with no trees, not even on the horizon.  By now you are also riding the longest piece of straight track in the world.  With no trees, or farms, or hills, curves, or anything to distract you, it would appear that the Nullabor could resemble its name and be boring in the extreme.  I found it to be the exact opposite.  There is something mesmerising about a place that is seemingly so devoid of life.  So that you can get the feel of the Nullabor, the Indian Pacific stops at the tiny town of Cook, population: four; thriving industry: one souvenir shop and nothing else.  Still, it is a great experience to visit Cook to understand extreme remoteness.     

The penultimate stop on the trip is Kalgoorlie, like Broken Hill a mining town, and home to one of the world’s biggest holes in the ground, the Super pit an open cut mine so big it dwarfs one of Australia’s major inland towns.  Kalgoorlie is also a place you can stop to do the tour.  There is one place in Kal the tour must visit to avoid disappointed the passengers: Hay Street, location of Kalgoorlie’s infamous brothels.  Besides its gold, Kalgoorlie was famous for its brothels and two-up school, a unique Australian form of gambling in which punters would bet on how two pennies would fall.  The brothels and two-up school are legal now, and somewhat more respectable, but both are still eye openers for curious tourists.

The last part of the trip ends almost as it started: a journey through the Darling Ranges, a range of hills which forms a barrier between the inland and the coast.  As you descend the last of the hills Perth terminal is a mere 20 minutes away on the Midland line.

The Indian Pacific is one of the world’s great rail journeys.  Not only have you crossed a continent, but you’ve crossed a single country with no borders or immigration to stall your trip.  One of the great joys of doing this trip is that, for most of it, you see countryside that has not been altered by human endeavour; you see the land as it has always been so it is a contemporary trip back to the beginnings of time.

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