Crossing Australia on the luxe Indian Pacific train is one hell of an adventure
Heather Butler rides coast to coast, from Perth to Sydney, aboard an iconic train
Crossing Australia by train, from the west coast at Perth to Sydney on the east coast, made our first trip to the antipodes a true adventure.
The trip takes three nights and four days.
Contrary to expectations, the train did not clickety-clack but rather "talked" to us. It sort of rumbled and moaned, like distant conversation - hearing comforting talk but not catching the words. The tracks, designed for freight, give the train a not unpleasant wobble. So one was "wobbled" to sleep, rather than rocked.
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The train, the Trans Indian/Pacific, is beautiful, well maintained and cheerily staffed. The lounge car is so well laid out it makes socialising easy. The dining car, staffed by the same caring crew who see to the en-suite compartments, serves gourmet meals three times a day, where tables are laid with fresh, crispy linen for each sitting.
Leaving Perth, the suburban life seems not unlike South Africa. Once clear of the surrounding hills, we saw vast tracts of flat-land, at places covered in scrub, at others, gleaned farmlands.
The train offered on-board entertainment in the form of a singer/guitarist, and we enjoyed the passing scenery to the strumming of John Denver-type songs.
We needed our afternoon nap the first day, as we had arrived in Perth at midnight, and had been collected early for the train.
STREETS PAVED WITH GOLD
Our first stop was Kalgoorlie at 9pm. Here we were taken on a night tour. The main street looks like a movie set from an old Warner Bros western. Hotels date back to the 1890s, and proudly boast their own ghosts.
The famed open-cast gold mine (the Super Pit) functions day and night. The massive trucks, which carry the pickings, are so big that the control cabin is 5.5m from the ground, access gained by steel stairways, and many being driven by women.
From the edge of the pit, one can look down to the flood-lit bottom, where these enormous trucks look smaller than Dinky Toys. At the mine, the organisers of the tour arranged a mini pageant depicting the first gold find. It was a lovely stop-off but a pity we were not able to see this intriguing town by day, where, in the past, the pavements were literally lined with gold. (They were laid with slabs made from the mine gravel and the gold content was found to be quite high. Once this was established, the pavers were lifted and replaced with less elaborate material).
Back at the train, we trundled off through the night.
We had a two-and-a-half-hour time change, so next morning brunch was the Australian slider. This is a bacon and egg bread roll, and was served with coffee on the siding that is Rawlinna. This is the start of the Outback and the Nullarbor Plain. Those of us who woke for the stop enjoyed the pure air and a walk around this remote settlement.
Once we got going again, we felt the whole trip may have been a conspiracy and we were travelling through the Karoo! But, of course, from the lounge car, several passengers spotted kangaroos and camels.
Later that day, we arrived at Cook, which boasts a population of exactly four. Cook was set up as a supply station for passing trains, and years ago was a small, thriving town. Being half way between Perth and Sydney, it was also a radio relay point, and the communications paraphernalia is still there. The one dirt road is very wide and houses face onto it. There are "gaol" cells, (wood and tin boxes) on the platform with the biggest hasps imaginable. Pity the poor soul who found themselves on the wrong side of the law here - they'd surely have cooked in Cook. We were given time to have a good look around.
Trundling on, by late afternoon, the landscape gradually changed to more undulating reddish earth, which anchored medium-height, spindly trees.
THE COMMON KANGAROO
The next day, we had a whistle-stop tour of Adelaide. What a lovely city, where new architecture blends tastefully with the old. From the tour bus we enjoyed good roads, wide streets, statues, waterways and tracts of parklands. It is home to 1.3 million, and is the fifth-largest city in Australia. We were taken to The Oval for lunch.
At Adelaide we had a change of crew, and an extra dining car was added to the train, which extended it to 742m.
En route to Broken Hill, there are vast stretches of farmland, with the usual farming activities on display. It seems a very dry area, but there was evidence of recent rain. From the dining car at lunch, we saw several kangaroos enjoying the shade of low, bushy trees. Then one bounded across in the open, and a little further on they became quite commonplace.
THE BIGGEST PICTURE
Broken Hill is known for its art and silver mines, and there were several tours on offer, even a drag show (the town is synonymous with the movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert).
We chose to see The Big Picture, an amazing 100m-by-12m diorama, painted in two old Harvard hangars joined together.
The work depicts the varying features of the Outback and is well worth seeing. It took two years and truckloads of paint to complete. The building includes a small museum and shop. The town has a population of 17,000 and has lovely vibes with many of the buildings covered with murals.
Our last stop before Sydney was in the Blue Mountains. The nearest town is Katoomba, situated on top of the spine of a plateau 1,000m above sea level. The undergrowth and cliff faces are the extreme opposite of the desert we had just traversed. Massive fern trees, eucalyptus and other indigenous trees form a rainforest in the gorge, which has a beautiful waterfall, over which one glides on the cable-car crossing. The views are of varying rock formations with names like Three Sisters and The Orphan, and it seems as though you can see forever. We took the steepest railway in the world, with a 52-degree gradient, to reach the forest floor to see the old mine workings. A bit like riding a roller-coaster!
We had hopped off the train at Mount Victoria Station for this tour, and the Indian/Pacific carried on the two hours to Sydney with our luggage.
Later in the day, we caught a suburban train into Sydney, where we collected our luggage and were duly whisked off to our hotel.