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Travelling on Australia’s longest train journey

Coast to coast ... the Indian Pacific train offers the longest rail journey in Australia.

Coast to coast … the Indian Pacific train offers the longest rail journey in Australia. Photo: Jessica Hromas

Will Brodie is changed by his trip through the outback on Austalia’s longest train journey.

Most of my images of inter-city train travel have come from TV, usually reruns of movies. Orient Express. Wild West. Improbable action heroes performing impossible stunts along the roofs of locomotives traversing precipitous European Alps.

It is the absence of TV, and other distracting media that defines the actual experience of Australia’s longest train voyage, the overwhelmingly flat Indian Pacific coast-to-coast journey from Sydney to Perth.

Staff on the Indian Pacific offer unobtrusive professionalism.Click for more photos

Wide brown land by train

Staff on the Indian Pacific offer unobtrusive professionalism. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

  • Staff on the Indian Pacific offer unobtrusive professionalism.
  • There is something mystical about the outback.
  • Coming into Broken Hill.
  • Fine dining in the desert ... the Indian Pacific's dining car.
  • A gold class cabin on board the Indian Pacific after the sofa has been transformed into bunk beds.
  • A platinum class cabin on board the Indian Pacific.
  • The sun sets as the train approaches Bathurst.
  • Coming into Broken Hill on board the Indian Pacific.
  • Menindee Lakes near Broken Hill.
  • Coming into Broken Hill on board the Indian Pacific.
  • Stopped at Broken Hill.
  • Guests enjoy a few drinks in the bar car on the Indian Pacific.
  • From coast to coast ... the Indian Pacific.
  • Jessica Mauboy and friend arrive at Watson on the Nullabor Plain.
  • A local at Watson on the Nullabor Plain.
  • Locals await Jessica Mauboy's performance at Watson.
  • Jessica Mauboy performs at Watson on the Nullabor Plain.
  • A fan gets emotional with Jessica Mauboy at Watson.
  • Jessica Mauboy waves farewell to fans.

The vibe of the elegantly ageing décor is late ’60s or early ’70s, and it seems that the experience is designed for someone wishing to escape from a busy and distracting modern world.

If there is someone in your life driving you crazy whingeing about how they are stressed, too busy, or suffering from “information overload” and lacking the time to think, point them towards this train.

The Indian Pacific is all about enjoying the simple pleasures, and remembering how profoundly essential they are.

Consider where you get ideas, clear your mind – on the loo, in the shower, walking the dog – times and places where there is not silence but there is a lack of media noise. Train sounds are repetitive, meditative, for hours and days, not minutes.

The soothing hubbub of minor rattles, bumps, scrapes, buzzes, squeaks and groans of machinery, shaking timber and metal relax a passenger like a massage for the ears.

The eyes get treated to a widescreen panorama of evolving landscape. Just looking out the window becomes a transfixing activity – one can get psychedically hypnotised by the gradual transformation of the landscape from city to suburb to hilly town to steep Blue Mountains ridges to dairy hillsides, then plain and desert as the train leaves Sydney and enters the immensity of Australia’s innards.

The timber-panelled, rectangular Gold Class cabin I inhabited featured mirrors on the facing wall and on the back of the door to the right, as if to make it feel larger. And the concealed bathroom (soon to be upgraded) featured a fold-down toilet and felt a little cramped.

But the cosy, neat, retro space seemed boundless once one succumbed to the comfy couch to gaze at the countryside. The window dominates like the biggest hi-tech home theatre screen. Now showing: a unique feature film concept – Australia, a riveting documentary starring more emus than actors.

If one takes a break from this scenic showcase, to indulge the pleasures of reading or snoozing, the remaining stimulation on offer is no less nourishing for the urban soul – conversation and fine wine and dining, in the fittingly elegant and demure bar and Outback Explorer restaurant.

There is time to get to know a stranger, or converse more deeply with a friend or loved one. There are none of the interruptions that usually thwart decent conversation – and if you get tired of anyone, the sanctuary of your cabin awaits.

Two times a day, when you return to your nook, it has been transformed in your absence – at dinner time your bed is prepared, and in the morning while you are out, the cabin is cleaned and the bed again becomes a comfortable sofa. No time is wasted on mundanities, so you can concentrate on your thoughts and impressions.

Such unobtrusive Indian Pacific professionalism doesn’t preclude the train from having a disarming ‘country’ feel – from barman Damien to hospitality director Cath, everyone I met was chipper without being cloying, and genuinely friendly. They all seemed to get along and came across as a happy family rather than a crew of faceless hired hands. Perhaps it is because they are based out of the comparably quiet city of Adelaide, rather than sprawling, urgent Melbourne and Sydney.

On my journey, trackworks delayed the train, precluding potential “whistlestop tours” at Broken Hill and Adelaide, frustrating staff who wanted to show off the full experience of the journey – there are at least two options at each main disembarkation, none of them which cost more than $50, and most offering a glimpse of each region’s history – mining in Broken Hill; wine in Adelaide. Travelling so far, over so much track, in three states, there are inevitably technical issues every now and again. But passengers on my journey barely noticed the interruptions, and none complained about missing the sideshows.

There were several British folk on my trip, all keen to experience the fabled Aussie outback. Often, one learns most about one’s own backyard through the eyes of foreigners, and by trying to answer their questions. Err, no, I don’t know why Australia is so expensive. Um, no, I don’t know a heck of a lot about Maralinga, the Gunbarrel Highway, or wedge-tailed eagles. But I am keen to learn more, just like you…

British expectations of Australia were upheld by the remorseless consistency of the Nullabor Plain, and the cheery, rural-style hospitality of their hosts. We were travelling on the Indian Pacific’s Christmas Train, which both raises money for the Royal Flying Doctor Service – the massive (60-plus planes), vital airborne medical service that covers remote and regional Australia – and says thank-you to isolated communities along the train’s route by treating them to concerts from a prominent Australian performing artist.

One of the festive season’s stops was a Nullabor ‘station’ called Watson, which possessed no platform and no sign to denote its existence. Singer-in-residence Jessica Mauboy made the leap from the train on to the stony desert to perform acoustically to indigenous kids who had been trucked in from as far as 300 kilometres away. One of the children spontaneously, shyly embraced the part-indigenous singer, and she reciprocated for the entirety of her song. It was a genuinely touching moment for both artist and fan.

To Australian city-slickers, such remarkable moments, the warm, unpretentious service and the awe-inspiring scenery of this journey feel like reminders of the truth behind some old cliché’s about our country.

There is something mystical about the outback. It changes your sense of time. The trip is comfortable and luxurious, but you feel like more than three days have passed when you step off in Perth. You have been through something, you have changed a little. You have travelled for hours past and through landscapes that alter only imperceptibly every hour, or two hours, regions which seem to exist to amaze, bemuse, stupefy with their barren grandeur.

And with the trivial hassles of everyday work and life, subtracted, such scenery, the rewarding chats, the epicurean indulgence and meditation have performed a three day health spa on your head, your soul.

TV doesn’t do that.

The writer travelled as a guest of Great Southern Rail.

The Indian Pacific runs between Sydney and Perth twice a week over the high season (Jan-Feb, Sep-Oct) and once a week (Mar-Aug, Nov), or once a fortnight (Dec), during the low season. Platinum service costs $3486 per person twin share, with gold service $2092 per person twin share. See for details.

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