A frisson of excitement ran through the station at the announcement of the imminent arrival of the Indian Pacific train. It is after all an intercontinental train that crosses Australia from Sydney to Perth and counts as one of the great railway journeys of the world. It’s not surprising people gathered on the platform to see the big locomotive pull into the platform. Here is my Indian Pacific story.
As the sun set over the city I stowed my bag in my cabin and headed to the lounge for a drink. The city lights couldn’t compete with the warm glow of the vintage-style Queen Adelaide dining car, or the delicious three course meal being served there.
I awoke early the next morning and opened my blinds to a rich apricot dawn along the horizon below a perfect, newly-minted moon and one star so bright and big it looked as if someone had punched a hole in the sky.
Without exaggerating in the slightest, that sunrise was one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever witnessed. It probably helped that I didn’t have to stir from my bed to see it. The light slowly increased until I could see shining rails alongside, then red dirt and pale gold tussock grass with the low trees of Australia’s Outback against a huge ball of golden sun.
At around twenty minutes to six I spotted a big red kangaroo hopping along through the desert. Then another, standing watching the train as the sun climbed higher in the sky.
Around 7am, just as the early breakfast sitting was called an Emu strode purposefully across the landscape and then the massive shape of a wedgetailed eagle sitting in a bare-branched tree.
Over a breakfast of tropical fruit tossed native currants, verde menthe and pistachio vinaigrette, followed by the full English, I looked at the map.
The Indian Pacific had been travelling steadily at over 100 kilometres per hour all night but we seemed to have made barely any progress across the vastness that is Australia. In fact the train was still not even half way to the border between the states of South Australia and Western Australia.
You can’t be in any rush travelling overland in Australia and when you think of the painfully slow progress of the teams of men and animals who built what would become the Indian Pacific line, travelling at 100-odd kilometres per hour is a real treat.
It gives you an opportunity to get your head around the mammoth distances and harsh environments of Australia. During the course of the morning a sense of Australia’s scale continued to emerge.
When the train line was completed during the First World War it was the end of the alternative route to Perth – an uncomfortable eight day sea voyage across the Great Australian Bight.
By mid-morning the train had plunged into the Red Sand Hills; a gentle undulating country where the contrast of rich red earth and olive green trees is indubitably Australian. At times the train line rises and I could see a great distance; at others a wall of red ochre obscured the view.
And sometimes the track curves and I could see the long silver Indian Pacific train, all 31 carriages of it, and the mighty blue and gold locomotive forging away up front.
Occasionally a straight red road would shoot off, going to nowhere identifiable. In broad daylight you can see very, very far from the train.
I went to take a shower and when I came back the red sand hills had gone. Now there was only a flat, seemingly endless plain with a few scrubby bushes and dirt coloured stones. And then there were no trees at all.
It brought immediately to mind poet Dorothea Mackellan’s poem about the beauty and terror of this sunburnt country and her conclusion that it’s “the wide brown land for me”.
The main event, of course, on the Indian Pacific trans-continental rail route is the Nullabor Plain. The road to Perth skirts the Nullabor, travelling along the coast, but the railway line bisects it.
The word Nullabor comes from the Latin for ‘no trees’ rather than an indigenous Australian word as I would have guessed. The Aboriginal people of the western deserts call it Gondiri, which means ‘bare like a bone’.
Both methods of description can only attempt to indicate the great emptiness of 180,000 square kilometres of saltbush and blue bush country devoid of trees. A heat haze gives the deceptive appearance of water on the horizon.
Another misconception I held was that the Nullabor was once an ancient seabed, now irretrievably dried out over millennia. In fact it is a huge area of limestone karst – where acidic rainfall has dissolved the rock over time, forming natural depressions.
In 1875 explorer Ernest Giles wrote in his journal: “The plain appeared to extend a great distance all around us. A solemn stillness pervaded the atmosphere; nobody spoke much above a whisper.”
Now of course there is quite a difference between attempting to travel across the Nullabor in 1875 with the aid of only, perhaps, a camel or a horse and riding a luxury train where meals such as grilled barramundi on horseradish compote with fresh broccolini are regularly served up.
I can hardly imagine the daily feats of endurance by Frenchman Henri Gilbert who walked across in 1897-8, or Arthur Richardson who travelled by bicycle in 1896.
The gentle jingle of crockery and cutlery on the tables of the Indian Pacific restaurant car reminded me of Alice and her tea party with the Mad Hatter. Perhaps the sense of travelling so very, very far was similarly surreal.
The only stop on the way between Adelaide and Perth is to take on water and change drivers at Cook – a lonely scattering of buildings straddling the trans-Continental rail line in the middle of the vast Nullabor Plain.
The horizon here is so far away, with clouds suspended like a scattering of mauve-coloured petals. There are isolated airstrips and clusters of solar panels.
At dusk and at dawn it was exciting to see that the Nullabor is far from devoid of life. The dominant, earth-hugging Australian plantlife is able to absorb and utilise night time dew, providing sustenance for hardy Australian wildlife.
From Tarcoola onwards the Indian Pacific train becomes a postal service, picking up bags of mail without stopping and handing them in at Kalgoorlie.
The second night I made sure to leave my window blind open to enjoy the incredible display of stars. Next morning after another wonderful sunrise I finally saw a stunted, lonely-looking tree. The Indian Pacific had crossed the Nullabor and passed into Western Australia’s wheat belt.
As the final hours of my journey sped away the train crossed salt lake plains and at last reached the lush green farmland of the Avon Valley. I watched the young green of wheat just starting to turn gold below a yellow-washed sky.
And trees at last – tall stands of Red Gums, yellow blooming wattle. Passing houses with long, low verandahs, mirror-like dams and fruit trees; alongside the rocky bed and foaming water of the Avon River.
Coasting right on time into Perth’s eastern station there was a sudden flurry of activity as passengers packed up and disembarked; fond welcomes on the platform and a new city to explore.
The Indian Pacific is perhaps Australia’s greatest rail journey. It crosses a country, a continent and a heartland.
By Natasha von Geldern
Tips for enjoying the Indian Pacific great railway journey
You need to adjust your schedule while travelling on the Indian Pacific. When you climb on board a choice must be made between two sittings for each meal. I rose early and went to bed early – after a pleasant digestif in the lounge bar carriage of course. Breakfast is early to enjoy the morning light and wildlife spotting opportunities.
The train crew on the Indian Pacific is extremely accommodating, with four chefs, a team of technicians and the hospitality service crew taking good care of their passengers. They work hard to keep the operation running smoothly, with beds made up while you have dinner. They would not have got to bed before midnight and then were up before 6am to bring passengers cups of tea in bed. They are there to help so ask your cabin attendant.
Showering in close confinement with the Indian Pacific train constantly swaying from side-to-side was interesting. I used the bathmat provided on the floor to make a dry and slip-proof surface to dry off on.
Storage space in the cabins is modest so take an overnight-size bag on the Indian Pacific train. You can check in larger luggage and collect it at the other end.
What is your favourite train journey?