Some 10,000 Aussies eagerly lined the East Perth Terminal in 1970 to glimpse the Indian Pacific for the first time, her gleaming silver carriages ready for the inaugural unbroken rail journey across Australia – a mammoth 4,352-km connection between the west-coast Indian (Perth) and east-coast Pacific (Sydney) oceans, via Adelaide.
Fewer onlookers watch as I prepare to embark, although I sense the buzz of anticipation among my fellow guests is just as heightened as it was five decades ago. This is, after all, one of the longest rail journeys on the planet, with the lengthiest single stretch of straight track; it’s also among only a handful of transcontinental routes globally. The train itself is perhaps the biggest I’ve seen – some 30 carriages, stretching almost 800m, if you include the two locomotives.
But the Indian Pacific’s true bragging rights aren’t those captured in the Guinness World Records. This is a train journey for the soul, not the salutations. One that lulls you into a meditative state as you clickclack through vast stretches of nothingness; one that reminds you what untrammelled wilderness actually looks like; one that encourages you to slow down.
The Indian Pacific is not a journey for those in a hurry. And that’s exactly why I’m here.
ROMANCING THE RAILS
While no-one has ever described Perth as noisy, the Western Australian capital’s hum suddenly becomes noticeable when it is absent. Sealed in my cabin, the only sounds are the groaning of the train easing east,plus the occasional ding-ding of railway crossings. Kids wave at us on their way to school, dogs run alongside panting, urban life fades into the dusty greens and parched yellows of the state’s pancake-flat wheatbelt.
The towns around us bear names plucked from a Roald Dahl novel. I imagine the BFG proclaiming in deep baritone: “I’ll have a Doodlakine of Walgoolans and Dulyalbins and make it Burracoppin.” Aside from the wheatbelt, over the course of the journey – all four days of it – we’ll also traverse mountain ranges, pass across arid deserts, chug through rocky valleys, and stretch our legs in temperate savannahs. We’ll cross three states and as many time zones, with fleeting stops at destinations framing Australia’s history: remote Rawlinna, which borders the largest sheep station in the Southern Hemisphere (it takes eight hours to muster one paddock of sheep by plane); Cook, the ghost town of the Nullarbor Plain; Adelaide, with its pretty sandstone churches and booming food scene; the Blue Mountains, where waterfalls appear to tumble from every cliff-face. But first Kalgoorlie, the pioneering goldfields town and our initial stop, 600km from Perth.
We arrive late, but that doesn’t dissuade guests disembarking to dig deeply into the gold rush that began here in the late 1800s and to visit one of the world’s biggest open-cut mines by starlight.
Back on the train, it’s easy to fall asleep. That’s thanks to the hypnotic combination of effortless motion and a couple of glasses of excellent chardonnay over dinner (the experience is all-inclusive).
The space evokes the romantic days of early train travel, from its Art Deco lights to its wood-panelled walls and polished brass fittings. The high-threadcount linens prove soporific, as does the snifter of whiskey delivered to my door at the press of a button. Most nights I don’t even need to ask – my bedtime beverage is waiting for me at turndown. Last drop consumed, I pull up the blinds. Nothing beats dozing off to a bedazzlement of outback stars.
I’m travelling Platinum Service, one step up from Gold Service – which is still all-inclusive with an ensuite but comes with an upper and lower berth. Whichever carriage, your beds can be transformed into seating banquettes by day, so you can watch upright the movie-reel of countryside unfold outside.
Most guests, however, converge in one of the lounges. We are strangers when we embark. But after a few free-flowing cocktails and elaborate multi-course meals – think grilled barramundi, perfectly prepared kangaroo, lamb tagine – we’re handing over phone numbers and promises of, “I’ll come visit you soon!”
THE BIG EMPTY
Waking on day two, we’re approaching Rawlinna, on the western edge of the Nullarbor. Fittingly, Nullarbor means ‘no trees’ in Latin. This seemingly endless ochre swathe of desert through Western and South Australia is flat, dry and – mostly empty.
It’s a place where any familiar sense of perspective quickly evaporates. Some places that pop up are but a blip on the map. Like Cook: population four. The landscape around the town’s abandoned buildings, empty swimming pools and fields of spinifex seems to glow in the heat – perhaps partly due to the tektites (small meteorite fragments) that regularly fall to Earth across the Nullarbor.
After so much emptiness, arriving in Adelaide is almost a shock to the system. On the Indian Pacific’s route east, touring options in the South Australian capital revolve around the heart of the city: a walking tour along the riverfront precinct, perhaps, or a progressive breakfast at the Central Market. Choose to travel instead from Sydney to Perth, and you have the chance to explore further afield, with Off Train Experiences in surrounding wine regions.
Our final stop before Sydney is the gorgeous Blue Mountains, an epic 11,400 sq km of World Heritagelisted wilderness that thrills with its precipitous escarpments and striking rock formations. From the world’s steepest passenger train at Scenic World, I glimpse the soaring sandstone turrets of the Three Sisters, a heart-stopping vista that stays with me all the way to Australia’s largest city.
Pulling into Sydney’s Central Station, guests alighting are already plotting their next premium rail journey together: a 2,979km Adelaide to Darwin experience on The Ghan. See you there. A Platinum Service cabin.