Indian Pacific: Train of thought

Maureen Marriner takes a mindful journey on the Indian Pacific railway.

The flight time between Sydney and Perth is a little more than four hours. So why would you want the journey to take four days?

Easy, because you can and because the going is so easy.

For nearly 50 years the Indian Pacific railway has been running across Australia from Perth on Sundays and from Sydney on Wednesdays, just as its sister train, The Ghan, plies up and down the continent between Darwin and Adelaide.

Although add-on trips are available before and after the journey, with excursions along the way, I have been warned that unlike cruising by ship, my journey from Perth does not come with the freedom to pack three changes of clothes a day. For one thing, the cabins don’t have room under the beds for suitcases and, as a fellow passenger tells me on the first night, “If you wanted to dress for dinner, you’ve come to the wrong country”.

I have 214 fellow-travellers, most in double cabins and most retirees, looked after by 35 staff. Among the passengers are about 60 who started their holiday with a cruise from Sydney, over the Top End to Perth and are now heading back.

The diesel electric train is nearly 750m long and can reach 115 km/h but it trundles out of Perth until we enter the rolling countryside of the Avon Valley in WA’s wheat belt. We pass lines of giant concrete silos for the grain. Occasional sheep and lambs look dusty, thin and somehow disconsolate.

Other fleeting glimpses are the skeleton of a 1950s caravan, a red, shiny late-model car, empty, seemingly miles from anywhere, and a neat, tiny cemetery.

It is the time of year when waving wheat fields have been cut to stubble and I see my first small willy-willies, mini tornadoes whipped up in the dust, resembling random irrigation spouts.

Watching all of this from my double gold-class cabin I am sitting on what will become the bottom bunk with my feet resting on the facing wall. That wall contains storage for a cabin bag, a shallow wardrobe, a couple of small storage recesses and the bathroom door, with a shallow space above, largely for the night’s pillows.

The bathroom has toilet, basin and shower with a pull-around curtain so while you are getting wet, the rest of the room is not.

There are facilities for making tea and coffee in each carriage but hot or cold drinks can be ordered in the comfortable club lounge carriage, which leads into the Queen Adelaide restaurant car. All food — breakfast, two-course lunches and three-course, regionally inspired dinners — are included in the price of the ticket and the bar staff, possibly bored by orders for complimentary wine, are enthusiastic cocktail mixers and can whip up a tray of ouzo before you can shout “opa!”

Late into the first evening we have our first stop (excursions are also included in the ticket), at Kalgoorlie, where gold was found in 1883 and which is now home to the 3.6km wide open-cut gold mine known as the Super Pit. A big slip the previous week has cancelled our trip to the pit and instead, we get a guided tour of the town. At night. On a Sunday. Even the lights of McDonald’s golden arches are off. We do, however, stop beside giant yellow diggers for pics that will keep the grandson happy.

In our absence, stewards have been busy, the cabin now has two bunks and a sturdy ladder, little pods like a Japanese capsule hotel. It’s warm and comfortable and the irritation of the rattling cabin door is sorted with jammed face flannel.

Wake up call comes at 6am, we are in Rawlinna. The siding is on the edge of Rawlinna Station, Australia’s biggest sheep station, running 70,000 animals.

Dawn is clear and and sunrise is near. Fires have been lit in half drums to stave off the chill and there are bacon and egg sliders, or for the staunch, Vegemite scrolls. More photo ops as the sunrise hits gum trees and abandoned buildings.

We are then crossing the Nullarbor Plain with a 478km section that is the longest straight piece of rail line in the world. The plain’s name is not Aboriginal, it comes from the latin for “no trees” but it has also been referred to as “mamofa”. Nor is that an indigenous name, merely an acronym for “miles and miles of . . . “

A good book is a must as there is no Wi-Fi on the train and the connection on your phone drops out more often than in, but the endless sameness becomes relaxing, almost hypnotising. Then we are at Cook, which grew to service the railways and had about 200 residents. Privatisation of the railways in 1997 turned it into almost a ghost town and it’s now home to four and serves only as a refuelling stop for the Indian Pacific.

A journey planner has the route map with a brief description of main places of interest but in all the sameness I become obsessed with the timetables.

If it’s 17:51 on Monday we must be passing Bates. What’s at Bates? Nothing, just as there was nothing at Ooldea before it and probably will be at Mangala 46 minutes after it.

Then suddenly the countryside is changing, there are undulations, trees, more wheat fields, fields of solar panels.

Next morning we are in South Australia, in Adelaide, with excursions offered to the Central Markets, the Adelaide Oval and a walking tour of major sights.

Most passengers opt for the markets tour, where there is a progressive breakfast. Having been there before, I make a break from my group and stock up on some favourites.

That night we are in another mining town, this time Broken Hill in NSW, where excursions are to the acclaimed regional art gallery and The Main Drag, a show at the Palace Hotel, which dates from 1889 but is now famous as the central set for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

On our last morning we leave our luggage and the Indian Pacific at Mt Victoria as we head off for a day trip to the Blue Mountains. We are assured our bags will be waiting for us at Sydney Central Station, but the train cannot wait for us.

Timetables must be followed.

We bus to Katoomba and Scenic World, created to take the climbing out of a trip through the Jamison Valley.

First off is another rail journey, this one with a 52-degree incline, making it the steepest passenger train in the world. You travel down a slit in the rock, with a bit of Indiana Jones music for atmosphere, then there’s a guided tour of the rainforest and the entrances to former mine workings.

The journey back up is by cable car then there’s another across the valley. Much of the cable car underfoot is transparent and the statistics include that we are 3375 guinea pigs above the valley floor.

After lunch a chartered local train, with Indian Pacific minders, takes us into Sydney Central.

I come away rested, with a host of memories, a strange hankering for more tastes of lemon myrtle, and a thirst for more exploration by train.

FACT BOX

GETTING THERE

Air NZ

flies direct from Auckland to Perth and Auckland to Sydney, with one-way Seat fares from Sydney: $291 and Perth: $554.

DETAILS
Australia’s trans-continental trains, like New Zealand’s Northern Explorer, Transalpine and Coastal Pacific railways, are covered by Rail Plus, Australasia’s leading international rail specialist. The company provides the ability to quickly and efficiently book tickets on train journeys, rail passes and point-to-point tickets on major rail networks across Europe, the UK, Asia, North America, South America and South Africa as well as at home.

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