Whilst the word ‘train’ normally conjures up images of short daily journeys, the Indian Pacific is a real train, as far removed from the urban commute, as you could imagine.
Long after alighting from the Indian Pacific on a sunny Saturday morning at Sydney’s Central Station, the wonder lingers on – the sheer magnitude of the feat of traversing the Australian continent from west coast to east for 4348 km (or 2461 miles) in 65 hours! Yes, you can, and most do, cross Australia aloft in a few hours, totally insulated from the outside world and could be anywhere. But it’s only at ground level – and by rail – that you can fully appreciate the journey.
We start at the East Perth Rail Terminal with 25 carriages plus loco and motorails, stretching more than 710 metres. Punctually, at noon, our journey begins. Conspicuously absent is the tension associated with airport departures; no desperate last-minute checking of baggage for prohibited items and weight limits nor the need to queue for security screening.
Picking up speed, we’re soon clear of the northern suburbs of Perth. There can be no better vantage point than the Outback Explorer Lounge, as the Indian Pacific winds, serpent-like, along the valleys and through the occasional tunnel. Towns and villages flit past as we enjoy an excellent lunch in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant. The panoramic view of the vast wheat belt of Western Australia seems to last forever, then the sidings and silos give way to a much harsher landscape, where even the hardy pioneers shunned settlement.
The afternoon passes in relaxed reflection, induced by the gentle movement of the train and the muted sound of steel wheels on steel track and muffled conversations from fellow travellers. There are close to 200 passengers on board, but their presence does not intrude. Many are reading, listening to music, chatting or just soaking up the unfamiliar landscape. As our society becomes evermore urbanised, the sheer novelty of the great outdoors grows even stronger. And there is no better example of the wide open spaces than in the Australian Outback.
Unlike cramped aircraft, you are free to leave your seat and wander the length of the Indian Pacific. Depending upon the hour of the day, you can enjoy the quiet of the lounge or the convivial conversation of new friends over a drink or a real coffee from the bar. No DVT exercises are needed here. We briefly wait on a loop as another west-bound freight train passes, with containers, many stacked two-up, because out here the sky’s the limit. Such periodic halts induce further reflection on the vastness of this country but not the emptiness, because while human presence isn’t evident, nature is.[… breakout] Wedge-tailed eagles, the emblem of the Indian Pacific, and other birdlife are plentiful and the vegetation changes, sometimes subtly and occasionally abruptly, as we progress east.
An hour after dinner we pull into Kalgoorlie-Boulder, with a population of 30,000, Australia’s largest outback city. We tour the city centre by coach, seeing many fine Victorian buildings. Then it’s up to the viewing site for the Superpit Goldmine, which stretches more than 3.3 km. There’s something strangely eerie about this landscape, particularly at night.
As dawn breaks, my city eyes adjust to an even more remote horizon and unfamiliar landscape. The relentless advance of this long silver snake across the aptly named limestone Nullarbor Plain, again instils a sense of wonder. Not least for the pioneering engineers and labourers who, with little more than horse and camel and only hand tools, laid the original track, including the longest continuous straight stretch, 478 km, in the world.
We continue to pass dots on the map, Rawlinna, Forrest, Cook, Ooldea, Barton, former railway settlements which, with the advent of diesel and, more recently, privatisation, have rended redundant. All except Cook, where our loco is re-fuelled, the crew changed, water replenished and the solitary shop opens briefly during our 45-minute stay.
The same rain that had uncharacteristically refreshed the Nullarbor has also visited Adelaide. As the Indian Pacific slowly nudges through the sodden suburbs, the morning peak-hour commuter traffic is particularly noticeable when compared with the serenity of our last few days.
We leave Adelaide, re-tracing our track north as far as Crystal Brook, from where the line runs roughly north-east through Jamestown and Peterborough. The latter is a mecca for rail buffs visiting Steamtown’s museum and tourist railway – reminders of the age of steam and Peterborough’s significance as the point where the historic break of rail gauge necessitated a lengthy stop for all trains.
From Peterborough, the rail line plays tag with the Barrier Highway, a narrow strip of bitumen in a stark, dry landscape. Nearing the New South Wales border and shortly later, Broken Hill, civilisation re-asserts itself in the form of pastoral activity; fences, gates and isolated buildings.
We enjoy a guided tour of Broken Hill, then it’s up to the lookout and the miners’ memorial, high above the railway station. It’s a strange sensation to gaze 360 degrees and see only black beyond the city lights.
Another night, with different dinner companions, and we head east across the vast, largely empty western plains of New South Wales. Dawn and breakfast arrive as we pass through the rich grazing country around Bathurst. We ascend the Great Dividing Range via a series of impressive tunnels through this sandstone barrier. Between Lithgow and Clarence, we pass the 7.5 km-long Zig Zag, a series of ramps, two tunnels and three sandstone viaducts, built between 1866 and 1869 so trains could negotiate the western escarpment. We again marvel at the achievements and vision of the engineers responsible. Finally, after traversing the Blue Mountains, it’s an easy flat run through the sprawling western suburbs of Sydney to our ultimate destination. With a touch of sadness, mingled with wonder, we share final farewells on the platform before going our separate ways.
To find out more about the Indian Pacific or any other of Great Southern Rail’s train adventures, visit www.greatsouthernrail.com.au or phone 132 147.