Moving Panoramas, Published TRACKS magazine, January 2013
8/02/13As the yellow locomotive pulls out towing 27 sturdy, steel carriages, a motor-rail with eight cars, two restaurants, two lounge-bars and with 183 passengers on board, there’s an undeniable air of excitement on board the Indian Pacific. In no time, passengers are unpacked and acquainted with their poky, but cleverly designed cabins and making make their way to the lounge for a welcome aboard champagne and to meet fellow adventurers.
This epic train trip takes passengers on the world’s longest stretch (478 kilometres) of straight rail track across the Nullarbor Plain from Ooldea to Loongana and then on to Sydney with several optional whistle stops along the way. The train’s history dates back to the early 1900s when a railway was needed to link the isolated western region with the rest of the eastern colonies. It was initially built using picks and shovels, carthorses and camels and it wasn’t until 1969 that an uninterrupted line opened between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. The 4352km ride from Perth to Sydney via Adelaide or vice-versa now takes three nights and three days.
On board is a great mix of people from seasoned and international travellers, senior groups, couples celebrating anniversaries and young backpackers to train buffs, bird watchers and people who are here for their trip of a lifetime. Some are travelling all the way to Sydney; others are hopping off along the way for side-trips and will board the next train coming through after a few nights stopover. Just when the conversation is firing up, passengers for the first of two sittings are called for lunch in the Queen Adelaide restaurant. This is where the romance of train travel and its old world, relaxed charm really sinks in. At tables set with proper china, silverware and white linen, delicious cuisine with an emphasis on local produce and some of Australia’s world-class wines are served. It also hits you that this 85km per hour, gently rocking journey is the destination.
As the train moves away from Perth’s metropolitan area, it cuts its track through the central wheat belt. Clearly a productive agricultural region it produces quality lamb, mutton, oranges, honey, cut flowers and other pastoral products. Vast fields of hay, oats, wheat and canola, create a brilliant patchwork of vibrant green, yellow and flaxen and fat cattle and sheep are grazing contentedly in paddocks of plenty. By the time you pass through Northam, WA’s largest inland town and commercial hub for these rich farmlands in the Avon Valley, the city commotion becomes a distant memory.
Tasmanians Pamela Hogarth and John Russell have been on the road for three months. On board to Adelaide, this is the final leg of their journey before flying back to Hobart. “We caught the Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin where we stayed for five weeks, then coached across to Broome and on to Perth. We decided to cut back on flying and try the trains,” Pamela says. “We are just loving the wide open spaces, the remoteness and the mystery of what lies beyond the horizons.”
Arriving in Kalgoorlie, the first whistle-stop, at 11.30pm means a late tour for those wanting to see and hear about this gold mining town. Driving slowly through the town’s empty, dimly lit streets on a Sunday night is quite extraordinary. Tour guide, prison officer and long time local, Keith, gives an intriguing account of Kalgoorlie’s history and what it’s like living here. “In 1883 an Irishman called Paddy Hannon rode into Kalgoorlie after hearing a rumour that gold was found here,” he explains. “Soon after arriving, while searching for his strayed horse, Paddy found large, gold nuggets lying open in a field. He covered them with bushes and rode into town to stake his claim. His find sparked WA’s biggest gold rush and by the beginning of the 20th century almost a third of the state’s population lived on the Golden Mile.”
Kalgoorlie has remained a gold mining town and today the Super Pit, just out of town, is Australia’s largest open cut gold mine. Keith takes the coach up a hill to a viewing place and even at midnight, you can see how massive it is. “Worth more than $12 billion to the state, it produces 850,000 ounces of gold a year and employs more than 550 people on site,” Keith adds. “To prevent theft, a Gold Stealing Squad, still active today, was established in 1907. In the early days thieving was considered a miner’s privilege and was rife. Even recently, two miners were jailed for stealing up to $1 million worth of gold and hiding it in the bush.”
Back on board the train and it’s time for bed. Your beds are prepared while you’re at dinner and cabin stewards offer to bring an early morning cup of tea. Tired from a long day and a late night tour, sleeping is easy. The rocking and repetitive, low rumbling actually helps you nod off. You wake to find the scenery has changed dramatically. The Nullarbor covers an area of 270,000 square kms and stretches more than 2000 km. Rawlinna, a line side settlement marking the western boundary of the Nullarbor Plain, is the train’s first stop on the Nullarbor. Heading across the world’s largest limestone landscape stretching 676km and devoid of trees, it’s like watching one long panning shot of sweeping plains. There’s little more to spot than spinifex and the hardy, drought and salt resistant bluebush and saltbush shrubs. A few kangaroos and sheep watch the train pass from a distance and wedge-tailed eagles are nesting on any man-made structure they can find. You soon find that lying in bed with a cup of tea watching moving panoramas is easy to take.
Hospitality manager, Amie, says wooded areas of acacias border the outer extremes of the Plain and despite the weathered land and lack of sightings from the train, 794 plant species grow here and the wildlife is more plentiful than the view suggests. “There are 249 bird varieties found here and 86 different kinds of reptiles, including the goanna,” she reveals. “And 56 species of mammals have been identified, including a population of southern hairy-nosed wombats, red kangaroos and dingoes.”
Like most of the train staff, Searne Hall, says she doesn’t tire of working on the Indian Pacific and loves the job. “I’m taking six months off my nursing training to earn some money and as I’d worked on Great Southern Rail (GSR) trains before, it was great to be able to return. You get to meet fantastic people from all over the world and travelling across the continent is really fun – from day to day, you never know what’s going to happen.” Talk to any of the staff and you’ll find most have worked for GSR for many years. They enjoy the camaraderie, variety and long working hours are rewarded with extended days off. Able to perform myriad tasks, they are multi-skilled and in a confined space away from home for extended time, they inevitably form family-like bonds. Their unceasing attentiveness and genuine friendliness is a sure sign of work place contentment.
The next whistle-stop is the remote out-post, Cook where resident, Andrea Blythman, opens her shop for passengers. She says Cook was created in 1917 as a refueling station for trains and once had a population of 40. “It closed in 1997 when the railways were privatised - the population today is made up of my family of four. We decided to stay on to help out with the diesel refueling facilities,” Andrea explains. Today the train has pulled in alongside the other Indian Pacific travelling in the reverse direction. It’s waiting for the Royal Flying Doctor to land to transport an ill passenger to hospital in Adelaide. Passengers head to Andrea’s shop, which she only opens for the Indian Pacific. “Cook is the only scheduled stop on the Nullarbor and train drivers overnight here. We also store medical supplies in case there’s an emergency.” Perhaps that’s why the sign at the front of the shop says ‘If you’re crook come to Cook.’
Back on board and passengers in the lounge are discovering common interests. Card games are underway, birdwatchers keeping a keen eye out for eagles’ nests are swapping bird-sighting stories, a spontaneous book club has started up and a group of creative women have formed a knitting, crocheting and sewing circle. Before you know it, it’s pre-dinner drinks time and everyone is socially at ease and making new friends. And then comes dinner – innovative,
The entree choice is spiced sweet potato soup, topped with Moroccan sage cream; or Harvey Bay scallop ravioli in hand made pasta. Main choices include Dijon rubbed grilled tenderloin served on broken potatoes with a ‘Prairie Dust’ blackened prawn, finished with béarnaise sauce; range grain fed duck breast; Tommy Ruff grilled fillets, succulent green lip mussels, lemon infused rice, baby leaf spinach with a ginger, lemon myrtle, coconut and tomato bisque and fresh lime; or how about roast pumpkin, sun-blush tomato and triple cream brie amid saffron egg custard, baked in flakey pastry with chermoula dressed picked greens. If you can manage dessert, it’s hazelnut croquant and chocolate marquise tart, passion fruit curd and orange cake; or fine cheeses, figs and nuts. With an innovative menu spanning the continent (without being over the top), the daily fare decisions are tough.
Second night on board and everyone is happily immersed in the train experience. Most are steadier on their legs and walking through carriages more confidently. Many are losing sense of time and watching out the window is so absorbing you don’t like to look in fear of missing something. The train passes through Ooldea, a former Aboriginal mission and near the Nullarbor’s only natural water source. Next place is Barton, a railway camp named after Australia’s first Prime Minister, then on to Tarcoola which was named after the winning horse of the 1893 Melbourne Cup. Then the train passes by Woomera where a rocket testing range was established in the 1940s and still in use today. Rocket scientists’ worldwide find the isolation of Woomera ideal for testing conventional rockets and fuel sources.
With the Nullarbor left behind, the train is moving closer to Adelaide and once again into sheep and wheat country. Following recent good seasons, evidence of previous drought years is all but gone. You can see the Snowtown wind farm dotted along the Hummock and Barunga ranges, which consist of 47 turbines generating enough electricity to power 60,000 homes. The second stage will see the wind farm power up to 180,000 homes, generating 270 megawatts from 90 turbines. In Adelaide some passengers are taking side-trips to explore places like the Barossa Valley or Kangaroo Island and will rejoin the next train in a few days, while others will take a quick tour of the city, including the renowned Adelaide Market, and be back onboard within a few hours.
Passengers can travel in red service in either a sleeper cabin or a day-nighter seat; gold service in a twin or single cabin with a private ensuite or platinum service, which offers more cabin space, bigger ensuite and double beds. In red, popular with backpackers, the seats are wide and comfortable with lashings of legroom and guests enjoy the licensed Matilda Café. Frenchman Stephane Pellot, travelling in a day-nighter, is on a short trip to Australia from Paris. He thinks train travelling is a great way to see the outback. “You can see a lot more in a train than a plane and it’s a nice way to meet other travellers and Australians,” he says. In the same carriage, Hetty Browning and Nancy Ellis are travelling with a police legacy group and are having a ball. “Our group goes somewhere together every year,” Hetty explains. “And this is a trip we’ve all been looking forward to.”
The next carriage along is definitely the happiest. It’s almost full with members of the Fleurieu Harmony Chorus and their partners. Travelling from Adelaide to Broken Hill to sing for nursing home residents and the Broken Hill Musicians’ Club they are making the most of being together and singing to anyone who walks by – passengers and staff have been lingering in this carriage all day. The Fleurieu singers are members of the Australian Men Barbershop Singers and with the help of music director Tony King and his pitch pipe, they are creating sheer joy.
While there has been great anticipation for the next whistle stop, Broken Hill, passengers are informed that the train has been delayed by freight trains on this busy corridor, so there’s only time to stop at the station to let the Fleurieu singers off and for a quick walk along platform. Broken Hill’s beginning can be traced back to 1863 when a boundary rider noticed something odd about the rocky outcrops at a place called ‘The broken Hill.’ It was later revealed as one of world’s richest ore deposits and lead zinc and silver mines still yield tonnes of ore each year. The Royal Flying Doctor Service and School of the Air, which delivers education to children in rural and remote areas, are both based at Broken Hill. Expected time of arrival was 4.30pm – which would have been great for sunset images. But an early dinner in the Queen Adelaide curiously takes everyone’s mind off the missed sideshow.
In between bites and sips, you wonder just how they manage to deliver such spectacular, steaming hot dishes to so many people over two sittings, in two restaurants, three times a day. Experienced onboard chefs Callan Berry and Sam Daniels make it look easy in their swaying galley. “Our food and beverage manager sets the menu and we work with what we have to get it right,” Callan says. “It’s just a matter of being super organised. The kitchen is like any other, just more compact.” On a moving train with generators, things can go wrong. “When you’re in a far flung place with a break down, it can be challenging,” he adds. “Occasionally we might need a refrigerated van sent out with food – but generally, we’re able to compromise and make things happen on schedule.”
Tonight the train heads to Sydney via Parkes, Bathurst, Lithgow, Mt Victoria and the Blue Mountains. At breakfast, passengers enjoy the change of scenery, as the train weaves through the rural heartland of New South Wales, known as the Central West. Bathurst is the oldest settlement west of the Great Dividing Range on the Macquarie River. A fertile area, it produces wool, sheep, vegetables and fruit. Bathurst was the site of Australia’s first gold discovery and in 1876 the railway link to Parramatta opened. Lithgow is the gateway to the Blue Mountains National park, a world heritage area. Approaching the quaint little town, Mt Victoria, north west of Sydney, you are immersed by the spectacular Blue Mountains. It’s between here and a station called Bell, the Indian Pacific reaches the highest point of its journey – more than 1047 metres above sea level. From here it’s downhill to Sydney – and the end of what is truly one of the world’s greatest train journeys.
Route: Sydney – Adelaide – Perth and vice-versa
Duration: 3 nights in either direction
Average train speed: 85km per hour
The Indian Pacific departs Sydney twice a week, leaving Saturday and Wednesday in high season and leaves Perth every Wednesday and Sunday. In low season it runs a weekly return service.
Platinum Service costs $3598 pp twin share; Gold Service $2178pp twin share; Red service with sleeper cabin is $1510 pp and a Day-Nighter is $783pp. Pensioner, student and backpacker concessions and package deals are available. Whistle stop tours are optional and extra.
See www.greatsouthernrail.com.au for details.