Domestic Travel

Tue, 14 Aug, 2018Justine Tyerman

Indian Pacific: Off-train excursions highlight of train journey

Indian Pacific: Off-train excursions highlight of train journey

Justine Tyerman continues her journey on the famous trans-continental Indian Pacific train from Perth to Sydney. On Day 3 of her epic 4352km, three-night, four-day trip across Australia, she visits the South Australian capital of Adelaide, learns the tragic story of two early explorers and meets a couple of drag queens…

The Indian Pacific was cruising sedately into Adelaide when I woke up on day 3 of my train journey across Australia from Perth to Sydney. Before boarding coaches to explore the city, we farewelled barman Brendan, hostess Nikki, dining room manager Mario and others who had looked after us so well since boarding in Perth. They were taking a break before heading north on the Ghan and we picked up a new crew for the Adelaide to Sydney leg of the journey.

I managed to have a quick chat to Brendan before disembarking.

He was such a delightful, gregarious fellow, and a whiz at making cocktails so it came as a surprise to find he’d only been behind the bar since April. Prior to this, he was studying for his masters in social work at Flinders University and before that he was teaching maths and science to years 7-10 and in Townsville.

He enjoyed teaching and study but loves his new job.

“On the train, I work with wonderful, caring, talented people and brilliant guests who are always seeking fun, happiness and good times,” said Brendan.

“It’s great being involved in creating fun memories for guests and new friends in what is really a unique atmosphere, and watching passengers build relationships with each other. Everyone arrives as strangers and leaves as friends.

“I work on the Ghan as well as the Indian Pacific so I get to see Australia and explore fantastic, scenic places. It’s an awesome job,” he said.

“I’ll see you on the Ghan in September,” I said as I thanked him, hopped off the train and onto our smart tour bus. He thought I was kidding!

The famous Adelaide Oval.

Australia’s capital of festivals and the arts, Adelaide is a most attractive, well-designed city encircled by beautiful parks. Historic buildings like St Peters Cathedral have been carefully-preserved and the lovely River Torrens adds a tranquil feel to the busy metropolis. After an informative bus tour of the city and the option of exploring Adelaide’s fresh produce market, we enjoyed a lavish breakfast at the famous Adelaide Oval. The cricket buffs amongst us were frothing at the mouth with excitement. I watched a team of groundsmen meticulously grooming and conditioning the grass in preparation for the season ahead and envisaged the stands full of excited fans.

No disrespect to lovely Adelaide but after two days in the Outback, I felt oddly resentful at the intrusion of civilisation into my bubble. I breathed a sigh of relief when we returned to the Indian Pacific and I snuggled into my cabin, waiting for the next phase of the trip through South Australia and New South Wales.

Travelling north though the state’s green and gold fruit-bowl with vast windfarms on the horizon, we skirted the fringes of the Barossa Valley, a world-class wine-growing area famous for its shiraz. Passengers on the Sydney to Perth trip can take a tour of the region’s world-class boutique wineries and dine at a vineyard. I envied my NAMs (new Aussie mates) who were doing the journey both ways.

We zipped through settlements rich in history like Peterborough in the wheat-lands, population about 1500. The rail line through Peterborough was once the busiest single track of railway in the world. A huge number of trains loaded with freight and ore, and the Ghan carrying passengers to and from Darwin, all passed through the town. A record was achieved in 1923 with 102 trains in a 24-hour period. An original 1880s Y Class locomotive sits alongside the track as a reminder of the steam-driven era.

The Indian Pacific near Port Augusta with the Flinders Ranges in the background.

The cuisine on board the train was outstanding every day but lunch on day 3 was exceptional – a chicken salad with pistachio, currants, red onion, lemon rocket, pearl couscous topped with mint yoghurt dressing followed by rhubarb parfait with figs, honey ricotta ice-cream and praline. The Vasse Felix Filius chardonnay from Margaret River was a superb accompaniment, along with a lively political debate with a couple of retired school teachers.

The landscape here was not as relentlessly flat as the Nullarbor and featured a few mulga trees and an undulating horizon. Somewhere near the Outback town of Manna Hill, home to about 66 people, I spotted a few kangaroos, emus and something that looked like a camel shimmering in the distance… but no one else saw it so it may have been a mirage.

After lunch, my NAMs drew my attention to a plaque on the wall in the Outback Lounge. It told the tragic story of explorers Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills who set off in 1860 with the objective of crossing Australia from Melbourne in the south, to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, a distance of 3250 kilometres. At the time there was much fervour for epic journeys of exploration. Most of the inland of Australia had not been explored by non-indigenous people and was largely unknown to European settlers.

Passengers enjoying drinks and listening to Mattie in the Outback Explorer Lounge… before the dancing began.

The expedition team of 15 men, 26 camels, 26 horses, many wagons, 6 tonnes of firewood and enough food for two years left Melbourne on August 20, 1860 amid much fanfare. Bad weather, poor roads and broken-down wagons meant they made slow progress at first.

Burke took an advanced party on to Coopers Creek and waited for the majority of the supplies to follow under the supervision of William Wright. But Burke was a man with a mission in a hurry to get to the Gulf of Carpentaria. So he departed with Wills, John King and Charles Gray on December 16 leaving most of the stores behind with four men who were instructed to wait three months until they returned.

A diary note on March 28 1861 documented that salt water marshes stopped the explorers from reaching the open ocean at the gulf so they began the retreat just short of their destination.

The return trip was plagued by delays and monsoon rains and the death of Gray from scurvy, apparently because the lime juice had been left behind.

When they reached Cooper Creek on April 21, 1861, they found the camp had been abandoned just hours earlier. Wright had never arrived with the main supplies but some stores had been buried in a box under a tree marked with the word ‘DIG’.

Rather than try to catch up with the rest of the party, Burke decided to make for Mount Hopeless. A relief party was sent to the site but did not find a note left by Burke.

With their provisions and strength failing, Burke and Wills died in late June 1861. In September 1861, a search party found the Irish soldier John King living with Aboriginal people who had fed and sheltered him.

The remains of Burke and Wills were discovered and returned to Melbourne for a public funeral in January 1863.

At some point in the afternoon, the Indian Pacific crossed the path of their doomed expedition. Looking at the unforgiving landscape, I shuddered to think of the men perishing out there in the wilderness.

The Indian Pacific near Broken Hill at dawn.

Just as I was about to slip into my customary post-prandial reverie, our guitarist Mattie started tuning up in the lounge. In no time, his ‘fan club’ were singing and dancing in the aisle like a bunch of teenagers at a rock concert.

Before I joined them in the ‘mush pit’, I stood at the end of the carriage and looked around the animated faces of my fellow passengers and NAMs who just three short days ago, were strangers to each other. Quite apart from the extraordinary landscapes we witnessed, the trip is an exceptionally social experience – a veritable party on rails with exquisite cuisine and cocktails included. It was hugely enjoyable even without close friends but with a carriage load of old mates, it would be quite a celebration. A great way to mark a 60th… or even an 80th as some of our fellow passengers were doing.

The Miners Memorial at Broken Hill, an off-train excursion for those travelling from Sydney to Perth.

When we crossed into New South Wales, we lost a few hours and pulled into Broken Hill in darkness. Like many Outback towns, Broken Hill was built on precious metals. In 1883, silver, lead and zinc were discovered here, deposits that proved to be the largest and richest in the world. Broken Hill, known as ‘Silver City’, holds the distinction of being Australia’s oldest mining city. It’s also the base for the legendary Royal Flying Doctor Service and School of the Air.

The choices of off-train excursions at Broken Hill had me in a dither. I could opt for culture at the regional art gallery and the world’s largest acrylic painting by local artist Ando, or attend a live drag queen show. When I discovered that the cult movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was filmed right there at the Palace Hotel in Broken Hill in 1994, it was no contest. ‘The Main Drag’, starring the brash and brassy Shelita and Christina, was hugely entertaining. The high-energy, up-tempo show totally blew me away and had the audience singing, clapping and participating in no time. The glitzy, sequinned costumes, garish wigs and make-up worn by the two strapping local lads, one an accountant and the other a teacher by day, were hilariously OTT - their eyelashes were so long and thick, I’m surprised they could see at all and their stilettos were so high, they were like stilts.

From the moment Shelita and Christina sashayed onto the stage with a couple of dancers, they wowed the audience.

Their opening remarks set the outrageous tone for the show:

“Welcome to the Main Drag! Firstly there are some simple rules of engagement. Flash photography is strictly…  mandatory!

“Do we look gorgeous? Do we look beautiful? Do we look sexy? Well drink up! The more you drink, the prettier we look! Oh come on, you have to spend a lot of money to look as cheap as this.”

With scenes from Priscilla projected on the wall above the stage, the girls sang well-known hits from the movie like ‘I will survive,’ ‘Hey, big spender’ and ‘I love the nightlife’ to the delight of the audience.

Justine with Shelita and Christina after the Main Drag show at the Palace Hotel in Broken Hill.

After the show, I had a look around the grand old Palace Hotel. It’s an icon in its own right with grandiose murals on the walls and ceilings including a copy of Botticelli's Venus – quite surreal with a disco ball lighting effect.

Dinner that evening was divine – as usual, there were three or four choices at each course which was always the hardest decision of the day. The lamb shoulder slow cooked in honey and black vinegar looked very tempting but I opted for carrot and coriander soup to leave room for the Hunter Valley beef fillet with Pacific oyster sabayon sauce, and blood orange meringue tart with wild berry salsa. The tart had a handmade chocolate pastry case. It was dreamy.

The 80th birthday party celebrations continued in the lounge long after I retired. Such energy!

Read Justine’s account of Day 1 and Day 2 of the Indian Pacific.

To be continued… Look out for the final part of the Indian Pacific travel series next Wednesday.

Justine Tyerman was a guest of Rail Plus and Great Southern Rail.

* The Indian Pacific is a four-day, three-night 4,352km, 65-hour journey from Sydney to Perth and vice versa operated twice a week by Great Southern Rail. Find more information here.