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Riding the Indian Pacific across Australia

Updated on April 17, 2013

Cruising a Continent on the Indian Pacific

Edwardian romance, modern luxuries, memorable dining, and stunning Outback scenery come together to make an Australian rail journey one of the last great overland adventures.

As its name implies, the Indian Pacific gives you two oceans on one trip in the world of longer trains; but most of your cruise will be across the vast continent of Australia. From the spectacular Blue Mountains to the treeless plains of the Nullarbor, where the train travels the world's longest straight stretch of railway track (478 km), you will see unique landscapes develop, and spot a fascinating array of wildlife from the comfort of the lounge or your cabin.

Story by Bartend Tote

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The Indian Pacific is one of the longest rail journeys in the world

I want to enjoy the romance of traveling without haste

Cruising a Continent

The Indian Pacific is one of the longest rail journeys in the world, stretching from Sydney on the east coast of Australia to Perth on the west coast. This marathon excursion takes three days and covers 2,704 miles, at an average speed of just 53-56 mph.

"I want to enjoy the romance of traveling without haste," says Bill Harrison, one of the hundreds of passengers who boarded the 2,296 foot-long train in Sydney. Some have dreamed about this trip for decades. Most are Australian, but others have flown in from Southeast Asia, Japan, the US, and Europe.

This unique journey offers travelers the spectacle of an ever-changing landscape as well as the chance to learn about Australian history - the train passes through towns that helped to shape modern Australia.

Building the sections of track that make up the Indian Pacific's route was no easy matter. Among the challenges railway engineers faced were steep inclines through the foothills of the Blue Mountains, the sheer distances involved, and a harsh semi-desert environment.

But the most formidable hurdle was the Nullarbor area, a featureless 125,000 mile expanse of scrubland bordering the coast along Australia's southern arch. Covered by a 1,000 feet-thick slab of impenetrable limestone (the sediment of a shallow sea that covered this part of Australia for thousands of years after the great worldwide flood), there are no rivers, wells, or other sources of fresh water for hundreds of miles.

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The Adventure Begins

The train rolls past towns and villages

After leaving Sydney, the Blue Mountains swing into view as a landmark of epic proportions. The line originally ascended the eastern and descended the western sides of the Blue Mountains via zigzag track sections, but a series of 10 tunnels has made the route shorter and faster.

The train rolls past towns and villages, forests and rock formations amid a countryside that is home to a wide variety of indigenous wildlife like brush-tailed wallaby, koala and kookaburra.

Bathurst was founded during the first Australian gold rush. Mining is an important part of modern Australian history and many of the places along the way bear witness to a now defunct industry. After its mines were abandoned, Bathurst turned to wine-making, small scale agriculture, and dairy production.

The lakes of Menindee mark the beginning of an arid zone. Menindee used to be a part of a water conservation scheme set up to cope with recurrent periods of drought.

The soil under most western stretches of the Great Dividing Range contains large quantities of zinc, lead, and silver. These valuable deposits were first spotted by legendary bushman Charles Rasp. Australia’s largest mineral bonanza led to the creation of Broken Hill, which grew from a collection of tin shacks to the town of 20,000 it is today.

At Crystal Brook, the Indian Pacific veers south to Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, where the train stays just long enough to allow passengers a brief excursion into town. The city was planned by Colonel William Light as an urban center surrounded by parklands – a vision which still exists today.

The nearby Adelaide Hills and the Barossa Valley are green, lush areas, full of vineyards, where some of Australia’s best wines are produced.

After traveling 93 miles to the northeast, we see the formidable Flinders Ranges rise from the coastal plain; they seem to dominate the horizon. They form the frontier of the bleak Australian interior known as the Outback.

Port Augusta is one of a whole string of harbors built along the Spencer Gulf, all constructed with a view to export the wheat that was expected to be yielded by the envisioned “wheat belt” stretching from York Peninsula on the coast to Tarcoola and Barton far inland. But the dream of the wheat farmers here were often dashed by a lack of rain and an abundance of salt in the soil, and many of the ports are now little more than sleepy villages around deserted jetties.

“Most countries in western Europe are wet, with an occasional drought,” Explains Keith Roth, a pensioner traveling with his wife to visit their daughter in Perth. “But Australia is a dry land with occasional rains.”

The saline surface was deposited by a shallow sea that covered Australia for thousands of years – the period of creation that the Aborigines call “The Dreamtime.” Only rugged indigenous plants – like the

Saltbush – can cope with such conditions. It gets water from the morning dew rather than from the salty soil.

Crossing Australia by Train Aboard the Indian-Pacific from Sydney to Perth

Crossing Australia by Train Aboard the Indian-Pacific from Sydney to Perth
Crossing Australia by Train Aboard the Indian-Pacific from Sydney to Perth
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Into the Desert

The landscape seems monotonous

Where the saltbush ends, the desert begins, say locals. At Ooldea, we find the last natural water source for hundreds of miles around. The earth is a rusty red color owing to a high concentration of iron oxide. Tufts of plumed spinifex grow among the scrub, a low forest of countless midget trees. Underground, their long roots search relentlessly for water.

The landscape seems monotonous – but after a while the desert proves to be a feast for the eye, as described by Tim Bowden (an Australian TV presenter and author). “In the desert, there is always something to see; hawks hovering over unseen pray, wild flowers, changing patterns of vegetation, distant hills, a play of sunlight and cloud in the sky and on the ground.”

For thousands of years, Aborigines carved out an existence in this barren landscape, living from what the land offered; only a hand full of white people have ever been able to duplicate their unique skills.

The hamlet of Cook lost most of its population following the introduction of diesel-electric locomotives, since it was no longer necessary to refill the water tanks of the steam engines. This deserted place once boasted more than 300 citizens, a school, a church, a pub, a swimming pool and even a jail consisting of two rudimentary tin sheds. Today it has a permanent population of just four.

The Nullarbor

Trees vanish suddenly from the landscape

After leaving Cook, the train enters the vast emptiness of the Nullarbor Plain. Trees vanish suddenly from the landscape and nothing grows here save for a few relatives of the marine flora.

The rare erect objects are all man-made; a simple wooden cross for a deceased railroad worker, solar panels to support communications, and a sign that says: “Prisoners of War Encampment.” Around 18,000 Italian soldiers who had surrendered to Australian troops in Ethiopia during World War II were interned here. A fence was not necessary to keep them confined because running away would have meant certain death.

They were put to work on the railway line and released after the war to return to Italy. Many returned to Australia with their families – although none returned to the Nullarbor.

Passengers with a keen eye may get to spot a red Kangaroo foraging during daylight hours, a wedge-tailed eagle, a flock of long-legged emus, or even a bunch of wild camels, the great-grandchildren of the camels abandoned a century ago by railroad workers.

Paradoxically, the featureless landscape is captivating. “It’s a view that allows for self-reflection,” says Mike, a retired Australian army-officer. “There is nothing to distract your thinking form where it wants to go.”

A glass of fine sparkling wine turns the journey into one reminiscent of colonial-era expeditions. We are approaching the end of the longest stretch of straight railway track in the world: 297 miles without a single bend. Notwithstanding the attractions of the vast emptiness of the Nullarbor, it’s a rewarding experience when trees reappear, some 125 miles before the train reaches Kalgoorlie.

From September to November – the Australian springtime – semi-desert flowers bloom and green begins to cover the ground.

“This land could be so rich if it was possible to get fresh water over here,” says passenger Keith Roth. “It may take another 100 years, but I am convinced that one day it will be possible to begin farming and gardening this part of the world.”

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End of the Line

The Indian Pacific stays for three hours in Kalgoorlie

End of the Line

The train arrives in Kalgoorlie just as evening falls. Here, giant open goldmines mark an example of large-scale human interference in the natural habitat that has existed untouched for so long. The Indian Pacific stays for three hours in Kalgoorlie, allowing passengers time to venture into town. It’s a small, wealthy place with wide avenues and romantic two-story buildings resembling the “cowboy” architecture of mid-west America.

The next morning, the Indian Pacific reaches the undulating plains bordering the foothills of the Avon Valley. Large homesteads and farms dot the vista. Flocks of sheep and cows occupy fenced plots, while other fields are filled with wheat.

The moist, green hills rising up from the banks of the Swan River could not be more different from the dry heart of Australia that the train has just crossed. The Indian Pacific then rolls into its final destination, the coastal city of Perth, the capital of West Australia, closer to Singapore than to Sydney.

At East Perth Railway Station, we disembark just a few miles from the shore of the Indian Ocean, seemingly a world away from the Pacific where we had been just three days earlier. It is only through such a marathon journey that you really get to comprehend just how vast a country Australia really is.

Indian Pacific Railroad Map

Indian Pacific Railroad Map
Indian Pacific Railroad Map

Polaroid of Laughing Kookaburras

Polaroid of Laughing Kookaburras
Polaroid of Laughing Kookaburras

Indian Pacific Locomotive

Indian Pacific Locomotive
Indian Pacific Locomotive

Indian Pacific Dining Car

Indian Pacific Dining Car
Indian Pacific Dining Car

Indian Pacific Outback

Indian Pacific Outback
Indian Pacific Outback

The Indian Pacific,Passenger Train,Australia - Gold Service guests enjoy the comfort of a double cabin

Information

The Indian Pacific runs twice per week, each trip taking around 65 hours. Three classes offer various levels of comfort, from Red Service Delighter Seats and Sleeper Cabins, to Gold Service. Gold Service guests enjoy the comfort of a double cabin including en suite bathroom with shower. Other classes are required to share bathrooms.

Website: www.trainways.com.au

Train Commemorative Stamps

Train Commemorative Stamps
Train Commemorative Stamps

The Indian Pacific from Amazon

Information

The Indian Pacific runs twice per week, each trip taking around 65 hours. Three classes offer various levels of comfort, from Red Service Delighter Seats and Sleeper Cabins, to Gold Service. Gold Service guests enjoy the comfort of a double cabin including en suite bathroom with shower. Other classes are required to share bathrooms.

Website: www.trainways.com.au

“You get what you pay for”

Yes, the bathroom is small and the toilet is a bit strange, but it works and usually doesn’t smell. For the most part, the cabin is fine.

Food is OK, but not great. Wine choices are OK, but not terribly high end. The description of what is included with the fare and what is not leaves it unclear whether wine at dinner is included or not.

The track is kind of bumpy. Still, you should have no problem sleeping. I have the feeling that some of the folks who thought they didn't sleep because of the bumpiness might have not slept on a train elsewhere either, even on a nice and smooth track.

The ride is enjoyable and you will not regret doing it. These trains are quite old (probably as old as the 1970s). In a way, the experience can be very nostalgic.

To keep a sense of perspective, one might want to take in consideration that the price is actually quite reasonable. To give an example close to home, the overnight trip crossing the Canadian Rockies in a private cabin is significantly more expensive.

Reader Feedback - Tell me about your favorite train ride

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    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Great lens on traveling on the Indian Pacific. This is a great trip although just a word of advice. You cannot take alcohol of your own on the trip. And if you are a bad sleeper then book a cabin. Sitting up in those seats....well I did not sleep the whole way. I really did try ... truly I did. but...

    • despinadesign profile image

      despinadesign 5 years ago

      Great lens! Thank you for taking us through that journey. I now want to take the journey myself one day.

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image

      Blackspaniel1 6 years ago

      Excellent lens.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      You did a superb job in telling us about riding the Indian Pacific Across Australia. I have always loved the "idea" of Australia, but have never been there. I'm crossing my fingers and hoping for the opportunity to take this train ride sometime in the future. Thumbs up!

    • mariaamoroso profile image

      irenemaria 6 years ago from Sweden

      Oh, there is so much beauty to see on this fantastic planet. One day I will see this too!