What it’s like travelling across Australia on board the Indian Pacific
Justine Tyerman travels on the famous transcontinental Indian Pacific train from Perth to Sydney and never once picks up the book she took… in case she got bored. She shares a day-by-day account of the 4352km, three-night, four-day journey from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.
I arrived at East Perth train station ridiculously early in order to absorb the full sensory experience of the pre-boarding ritual.
I was in a high state of excitement and I was not the only one. A few other early birds and train buffs were wandering along the platform, gazing at the sleek, silver Indian Pacific with radiant expressions on their faces. Some had dreamed of doing this epic transcontinental train journey for years, I later discovered.
I found myself peeking through the venetian blinds at what was to be my home for the next four days, sussing out my fellow passengers, taking selfies with the eagle emblem on the side of the carriages, marvelling at the power of a locomotive that could pull the 700m, 28-carriage train weighing 1300 tonnes, and chatting-up a platform guard to take photos for me in the no-go zone – at the business end of the train.
The beast that pulls the Indian Pacific - 700m, 28 carriages, 1300 tonnes.
Photo mission accomplished, strains of Morningtown Ride drew me back down to the platform to where morning tea and entertainment were being provided by Great Southern Rail who operate the Indian Pacific, the Ghan and the Overland.
Matthew, a talented guitarist and born entertainer, was playing train-themed songs including a catchy, toe-tapping Slim Dusty number written about the Indian Pacific: From the waters of the western sea to the eastern ocean sand, the Indian Pacific spans the land…
Matthew became a great favourite with the passengers who inhabited our end of the train. He entertained us daily, on and off the train.
Matthew, aka Mattie, entertaining us in the Outback Explorer Lounge.
On the dot of 10am, we were welcomed aboard and shown to our cabins by hostess Nikki. My Gold Class twin cabin with ensuite was supremely comfortable, all the more so because I was a solo traveller with all the space to myself.
I stowed my small suitcase under the couch that converted to a luxurious bed at night, and sat with my heart pounding, pulse racing, anticipating the magical moment when the train would set off on the 4352km journey from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. She spans Australia from coast-to-coast like the wedge-tail eagle, Australia’s largest bird of prey, that we often saw soaring over the vast desert on wings 2.3m wide. Hence the emblem on the carriages… and the Slim Dusty song.
Here's my lovely, spacious Gold Service cabin by day.
We pulled away so smoothly I hardly knew we were moving. I gasped and a tear or two rolled down my cheek as the rocking motion began and I settled back to watch the landscape unfold.
Once we had cleared Perth city and suburbs, we wound our way through the beautiful green Avon Valley with rivers fringed by gum trees. The occasional kangaroo hopped into view but hopped away again before my camera captured him.
Over lunch in the classically-decorated Queen Adelaide Restaurant which looked as though it had been plucked straight from the Orient Express, we trundled past a lovely lake with a strange pinky hue and vast wheat lands dotted with giant silos. Apparently they are prone to spontaneous combustion, one of my new Aussie mates (henceforth known as ‘NAMs’) informed me.
The West Australia wheat lands stretched for miles.
Another NAM pointed out a pipeline running alongside the train track and explained the tragic story of C.Y. O’Connor, a visionary engineer who wanted to bring water to the arid goldfields of Kalgoorlie. He suffered such ridicule over his ambitious project, he committed suicide in 1902, less than a year before the water reached its destination and transformed the lives of all who lived there.
I heard many fascinating stories over the next few days, some from my NAMs and others over Radio Indian Pacific that was broadcast to the cabins along with a commentary. The tales of adventure, heroism, triumph and tragedy added great colour and personality to the journey.
My fine plans to eat and drink in moderation over the next four days disappeared out the window the minute I sat down to our first lunch and tried the succulent Fremantle jewfish with tartare sauce.
“It’s only four days,” I rationalised as I tucked into a dessert of cherry clafoutis.
“Yes, I’d love another bubbly,” I found myself saying to Nikki who was also our waitress.
The bubbles matched my effervescent mood! I love train travel.
Back in my cabin, the combined effects of the lulling motion of the train and a large midday lunch with bubbles defeated another of my fine plans – to write while travelling.
I was mesmerised by the reflection of the train against the red earth.
Mesmerised by the reflection of the train on the red earth and the huge Aussie sun flickering behind the gum trees, I nodded off for half an hour, seated upright, glasses perched on my nose and iPad open on my lap. I awoke with a heck of a jolt as a freight train thundered past us in the opposite direction while we were on a siding, just in time to witness a dazzling sunset over the desert.
The atmosphere relaxed considerably over drinks and canapes in the Outback Explorer Lounge. Barman Brendan was in hot demand pouring bubbly and beer and mixing some pretty impressive cocktails.
Matthew, who by now was known as Mattie, livened up the jovial mood even more with country and western favourites that started up a spirited singalong.
After dinner – a delicious pulled pork salad entree followed by a main course of tender braised beef and a cheese board – we disembarked at Kalgoorlie-Boulder on the western fringe of Nullarbor Plain for our first off-train excursion.
Irishman Paddy Hannan discovered gold near here in June 1893 and sparked one of the biggest gold rushes in Australian history. Within a week of Hannan’s find, 1400 prospectors flooded the region which became known as The Golden Mile, among the richest gold deposits in the world.
We watched an entertaining re-enactment of Paddy’s story performed by a couple of talented local actors.
I looked like a dwarf beside the tyre of a giant 793C haul truck at Kalgoorlie.
Today, the town is home to 31,000 residents home and the massive 3.6km wide, 512m deep Super Pit gold mine, the world’s largest single open-cut mining operation. The pit operates around the clock and is expected to do so until 2029.
We went to the rim of the floodlit pit and watched the giant 793C haul trucks slowly grinding their way to the top. Fully laden at 376.49 tonnes, the truck’s top speed is 11kmh. It takes an hour to get from bottom of mine to top and back down again.
I looked like a dwarf standing beside one of the truck tyres, worth an eye-watering $30,000 each. And even more minuscule when I climbed the ladder to the cab. The 793C stands a whopping 6.43m high, 7.51m wide and 12.87m long.
It was a chilly evening so snuggling down in my comfy bed with highest quality linen, a warm duvet and a profusion of soft pillows was heavenly. With the rocking of the train, I was asleep in no time . . . and awake again rather early.
To be continued… Look out for the next 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.