Seeing the vast beauty of Down Under by rail is an experience not to be missed, especially when it’s from the luxurious carriages of the famous Indian Pacific…
The massive diesel electric GE 7FDL-16 locomotive was like a race horse in the starting gates, champing to be released on the track and begin its four-day, three-night journey from Perth to Sydney. The sleek silver Indian Pacific took up the entire platform at East Perth train station and the sheer size and length of the 700m, 28-carriage, 1300 tonne train setting my heart pounding. By the time we pulled away from the station, the level of excitement was palpable, the sound of champagne corks confirming the feeling that we were indeed embarking on one of the world’s greatest train journeys… in serious style.
Cuisine, cocktails and camels
But first: a warning. I strongly advise would-be passengers to go on a diet before embarking on the Indian Pacific train journey, because you’re not going to be able to resist the cuisine on board. From the time I arrived at East Perth train station until I disembarked four days later at Sydney Central station, I wined and dined like royalty.
“It’s only four days,” I rationalised as I tucked into succulent jewfish and a dessert of cherry clafoutis for lunch shortly after our departure from Perth . . . and not long after our lavish morning tea at the train station. Along the journey, I became quite adventurous in my selections from the extensive, ever-changing menus and somewhere on the Nullarbor Plain I even tried camel tagine – in keeping with the desert setting – to discover it was incredibly tasty and tender.
And then there’s the cocktails, mixed by the fabulous barman who made the best Bloody Marys I’ve ever tasted, festooned with so many green vegetables I managed to convince myself the drinks were healthy.
On boarding I discovered that the Indian Pacific doesn’t have any WiFi and only limited internet access during stops at various settlements along the way. After registering mild panic at the prospect of zero communication for a few days, I switched my phone and iPad off – something that would have been unheard of at home – and ended up spending most of the time gazing out the window, absorbed in the ever-changing landscape as we traversed the continent from west to east at a leisurely 85kmh.
To my surprise, I found the nothing-to-do-ness deeply restful and restorative, and a welcome escape from a hectic life. The rocking motion of the Indian Pacific chugging along on its journey lulled me into a state of reverie and relaxation I have rarely experienced in my adult life. It seemed to lower my heart rate, quieten the activity in my brain and allow me to drift.
Watching the world go by
I never once picked up the book I brought on the journey in case of boredom, finding more than enough entertainment in the undulating hills of the green Avon Valley, the vast Western Australian wheat lands, lakes tinged with a pinky hue, and the sun flickering behind the gum trees like frames from an old-fashioned silent movie. Then there was the immense, flat Nullarbor Plain, the strange rock formations of the South Australian desert, and the staggeringly-high sandstone escarpments, cliffs and waterfalls of the Blue Mountains, which all kept me consumed for hours on end.
I relished every moment of the journey but the Nullarbor was a highlight for me. There isn’t a single tree in sight and the horizon is dead flat in every direction, but the scenery was anything but featureless to me. I was mesmerised by the reflection of the train on the terracotta earth, the stubbly, low vegetation the colour of dried sage leaves, the occasional kangaroo, emu or camel startled by the long, silver snake of a train, eagles soaring high above the desert, and dazzling sunsets that lit the flat horizon with fire. All the while, a wisp of dust or the glint of sun on a ute window was the only suggestion of human habitation.
While the Perth to Sydney and Sydney to Perth journeys cover exactly the same track, they pass through settlements and cities at different times, so the Indian Pacific’s excellent off-train excursions differ according to the direction you’re travelling. On my Sydney-bound journey we stopped near the homestead of the largest sheep station in Australia, the 2.5m-acre Rawlinna Station with 70,000 sheep, for a stunning sunrise breakfast. For Perth-bound passengers, you’ll get dinner there under the starry Nullarbor sky.
Along the way we visited The Golden Mile at Kalgoorlie-Boulder on the western fringe of the Nullarbor – the site of one of the biggest gold rushes in Australian history and among the richest gold deposits in the world – and stopped at the massive 3.6km wide, 512m deep Super Pit gold mine, the world’s largest single open-cut mining operation.
Somewhere during the longest stretch of straight train track in the world, where there are no corners for a mind-boggling 478km, we stopped to take on water and fuel at the ghost town of Cook: population four. Once a thriving settlement of 200 residents, Cook’s school, hospital, tennis courts, swimming pool, golf course, shops and houses now all lie eerily empty.
Adelaide is the only major city the Indian Pacific stops at on its journey, and passengers on the Sydney to Perth trip get to take a tour of the region’s world-class boutique wineries and dine at a vineyard in the Barossa Valley. Other pit-stops include Broken Hill, Australia’s oldest mining city, and New South Wales’ magnificent Blue Mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage site. There I opted to do the Prince Henry Cliff track, a two-hour guided hike from Katoomba to Echo Point, taking in spectacular views of the Katoomba Cascades, Wentworth Falls, sheer cliffs and sandstone escarpments hundreds of metres high, the beautiful forested Jamison Valley and the famous Three Sisters rock formation.
Cruising terra firma
Long-haul train travel is akin to cruising, sans water. Like shipboard cruising, you unpack and pack-up only once and your luxurious bedroom, bathroom, restaurant, lounge, bar and means of transport travel with you. There’s no pressure to be up and away early in the morning to board a coach or catch a plane to get to the next destination, eliminating one of the most stressful, tiring aspects of travel. The excursions on the Indian Pacific are entirely optional so you can sleep in, read, day-dream, socialise or relax in your cabin or lounge all day if you so desire. Travelling by train is deliciously stress-free, and the perfect alternative for those who suffer sea-sickness or have a fear of open-ocean cruising.
So if you want my advice, gather together your better half or even a group of good friends or family and have a party on rails on board the Indian Pacific. There’s gourmet food and drinks, luxurious accommodation, superb service, fine entertainment, and moment after memorable moment.