Credit: Sue White
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Standing on the platform of Central Railway station in Sydney, I cross my fingers that Ralph Waldo Emerson (and for that matter, Aerosmith) was right. If life really is about the journey, not the destination, the next 4352 km should be unforgettable.
Taking the Indian Pacific train from Sydney to Perth is on many travellers’ bucket list; after all, it’s one of the world’s iconic rail trips. Sure, I could fly from Sydney to Perth in under five hours, but how will it feel to embrace the 65-hour journey instead?
An inkling of an answer comes late on night one. All 662 metres of the 28-carriage train are stopped, inexplicably, in the middle of nowhere. Technically speaking, we’re near Parkes, NSW, however, I don’t need the region’s famous telescope to realise I’ve already left city life far behind: the sky is packed with stars. Lying head to glass window on my comfortable bunk, I play ‘find the shooting star’ for hours. Eventually, my partner (who wins at finding shooting stars, but loses rock, paper, scissors for choice of beds) heads up the ladder to his top bunk, and we settle in for a clanging, rocking sleep.
By taking three nights to travel from Sydney to Perth, I should emit about 50 per cent less carbon than taking a plane. But I’m also hoping to make use of the time to connect with my less-frazzled side. Luckily, this turns out to be easy: although short (one to three hour) ‘stopovers’ are scheduled for Broken Hill, Adelaide, the ghost town of Cook on the Nullarbor Plain and Kalgoorlie, there’s plenty of time for reading, backgammon, yarning with the other passengers and the occasional ‘nana nap’.
But while train travel may be relaxing, it’s not egalitarian. My quest for serenity is undoubtedly aided by the fact that I’m travelling gold class. Nightly champagne receptions feature in the bar carriage, three-course meals are enjoyed in the restaurant (vegetarians are well catered for) and the comfy bunks and private bathroom conspire to make the trip more than comfortable.
After a rough sleep thanks to the NSW train tracks (the worst of the journey), day two starts early. Rising at 5am I watch the sun rise over the Menindee Lakes, before arrival in the outback town of Broken Hill, on the border of NSW and SA. Many passengers bundle into a coach for a quick whiz round the sights, but more sitting sounds distinctly unappealing so I use the stopovers to do some DIY walking tours instead. My hour in Broken Hill is well spent exploring the side nooks and crannies of this remote mining town, sneaking into the mural-adorned lobby of Mario’s Palace Hotel (featured in Priscilla Queen of the Desert) and yarning with Elizabeth Barrett, a local chocolatier who has been selling chocolates on the platform since 1994. In Adelaide, a three-hour stop gives me plenty of time to stock up on snacks at the fabulous Central Market and still squeeze in a stroll along the Torrens River.
Crossing the Nullarbor
The mood after Adelaide is celebratory. I suspect it’s because we know what’s coming: if there’s a ‘peak’ of the Indian Pacific experience, it’s undoubtedly the Nullarbor Plain. Despite the bad rap from early explorer Edward John Eyre, who described this seemingly endless stretch of desert as a ‘blot on the face of nature’, it’s what I, and others, are here to see.
Spared from trees, excepting the occasional mallee, the plant life on the Nullarbor is limited to a bluey green salt bush, its cousin the blue bush, and the occasional, slightly larger, emu bush, all growing out of bright red dirt. The odd camel or wedge-tailed eagle breaks up the sameness; and despite this being the longest stretch of straight train track in the world (487 km), it’s compelling.
Nonetheless, it’s a long day, and by the time we get to the WA goldmining town of Kalgoorlie, everyone is ready for the home stretch into Perth, just an overnight away.
“It’s nothing, but it’s something,” says a dining companion over breakfast, as we reflect on yesterday’s Nullarbor experience and nod in mutual understanding.
It’s a fitting metaphor. After over 4000 kms of a lot of nothing, I’m left with the lingering feeling – all this nothingness is something indeed.
The Indian Pacific train travels from Sydney to Perth (and vice versa) at least twice a week. Trains leave Sydney on Wednesdays and Perth on Sundays, with additional journeys in peak periods. The trip takes three nights (around 65 hours).
If you have the cash, gold class ($2092 pp) is highly recommended, for access to the dining and bar cars, and the private bathroom (twin cabins): it’s a long journey! Red class is cheaper – sleeper ($1468 pp/$1052 students/YHA), or seated ($759/$368 for students/YHA) but has more basic dining facilities.
When to go:
The trip runs year round, but spring offers something special, as WA wildflower season makes the desert scenery even more unique.