When I first heard about the legendary Indian Pacific Train journey, the expression ‘bucket list’ hadn’t been invented yet. It would have been the late 1980s and I was newly arrived in Australia.
I have always been fascinated by trains, and had used them a handful of times in Bolivia, to travel between cities. My fascination reached new heights when I moved to Sydney, a city so large that people used trains to commute between suburbs! Furthermore, there were these things called ‘timetables’, which helped commuters plan their journey with a great degree of accuracy. Timetables, as far as public transport was concerned, were an alien concept to us. If buses in Bolivia run to timetables, those were never revealed to customers.
From the moment I heard about it, the notion of spending three days and three nights aboard a sleeper car, traversing the entire Australian continent from west to east (from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific), while seeing the entire breadth of the country, acquired the quality of a dream and lodged itself inside my mind along with the other things I hoped to do ‘one day before I die’.
In 2013 my mother and I celebrated 25 years living in Australia and wanted to do something special to mark the occasion. It surfaced that this archetypal Australian journey was also on her ‘bucket list’. As a pensioner, she was entitled to a handsome discount, and I discovered that by booking six months in advance we could receive a further reduction. Between us, this meant a saving of almost $1,000 on the Gold service (Superior Gold or Platinum were definitely out of the question for us). The fare included all meals, drinks and off-train excursions.
Bookings were made for the winter of 2013, and on July 14, the day before my 45th birthday, we boarded the Indian Pacific at East Perth station, carrying expectations as heavy as our luggage. My suitcase was particularly heavy with the weight of board games, books and crossword puzzles, taken in case we became bored.
The Indian Pacific’s journey spans 4,350 kilometres. At an average of 85 k.p.h., it takes 65 hours. Our train, which had 25 carriages, was nearly 600 metres long, including the locomotive. The dining car (Queen Adelaide Restaurant) was six cars away. This was a journey in itself through narrow corridors, opening and closing doors, creaky passageways, and endless rows of windows and cabins. Manoeuvring around other passengers walking the opposite way was a feat, particularly those who were elderly and fragile – of which there were quite a few.
Meal times were arranged in consultation with the catering manager; whilst our cabin host made sure we had everything we needed to make our experience comfortable. Our cabin was ‘cosy’, but we didn’t feel cramped. While we had our dinner, a magic fairy came to our cabin and readied our bunk beds for sleeping, and came back in the morning, while we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, to convert our beds back into comfortable seats, clean the ensuite and change the towels.
Even breakfast was a three course affair: tea, coffee or juice as starters, cereal or fruit compote as entrée; and blueberry pancakes, bagels with jam and fresh cream, or a full cooked breakfast for main. The superb lunch and dinner menus included seafood, chicken, kangaroo, fish, steak, soup and vegetarian meals to choose from, not to mention desserts such as panacotta with lavender flavoured fairy floss, all washed down with as many drinks as desired, all included in the fare. My glucose readings remained sky high throughout the trip (I didn't advise them of any special dietary requirements – if eating so well meant that this diabetic will die three days sooner, so be it). Feeling adventurous, I even tried Kangaroo fillet Mignon.
Our cabin was facing west, which meant we were travelling backwards. I was slightly put-off by this, but even in this regard they failed to disappoint – when we arrived to Adelaide, and whilst we were exploring the city sights, the locomotive was switched from the front to the back so that those passengers who were travelling backwards would face the front for the remainder of the journey. Still, facing west had its advantages: I was able to appreciate the deep orange-purple hues of the sunset on the first night.
Our off-train excursion to Kalgoorlie, ‘Queen of the Golden Mile’ in Western Australia, started nearly at 11pm. Being so late, we expected a quick tour of the main streets and a brief stop at the ‘super pit’, the massive gold mine at the heart of the town, which operates 24 hours. Instead it took almost two hours, including a visit to a museum, refreshments, and two demonstrative talks. I welcomed the first moments of my 45th birthday on top of a giant dump truck whose wheels were twice as tall as me. By the time we returned to the train at 1.10am, after driving through the infamous Hay Street, where only two brothels remain, we were wide awake. We spent a restless night hearing the humming and rattling of the train, and the screeching noises it made as it turned around corners, which reminded me of whale songs.
I spent most my birthday traversing the Nullarbor plain (from the latin ‘null’ and ‘arbor’, meaning ‘no trees’). Despite the name, nearly 800 species of plants grow in that region, and there is no shortage of wild life either –camels, wedge tail eagles, lizards, snakes, wombats, red kangaroos, dingoes and emus, although we didn’t see any. That section of the track is the longest stretch of railway line running in a straight line in the world (485 kilometres). From the windows the desert was so vast I thought I could see the curvature of the world.
We had the chance to stretch our legs in the ghost town of Cook. The town was officially closed in 1997, although diesel locomotives continue to stop there for refueling, and of course, the Indian Pacific. Due to this, it still has a population of ‘4 people, 2 cats, 20 chooks, 30 dingoes … and 2 million flies’.
We slept better the second night and got up at 6am the next day to have a quick breakfast before boarding a bus for our ‘city highlights’ tour of Adelaide, South Australia, which concluded at Haigh’s chocolate factory. We left Adelaide facing the front, sliding through fertile fields, flat and green, stretching as far as the eye could see – a startling contrast to the landscape of the previous day. By the afternoon, we had entered the Outback: red earth, grey bushes and gum trees, with the sun hanging low on a sky scattered with clouds.
The last off-train excursion was at Broken Hill, New South Wales, where we were greeted by a spectacular sunset. We were shown the town’s main streets, all named after minerals (Sulphide, Bromide, Argent), and learnt about the history of this once burgeoning gold town, now past its heyday. The tour concluded with drinks at the Palace Hotel, which began in 1889 as a Coffee Palace. It became famous in the 1990s after the movie ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ was partly filmed there. We were welcomed in true Priscilla style by a 68 year old drag queen, who showed us the artistic murals painted on the walls and ceilings by Mario Celetto and indigenous artist Gordon Waye.
After another delicious dinner aboard the train, we slept through another night and woke up to the sight of a magnificent rainbow spreading over the Megalong Valley in the Blue Mountains. Soon we were speeding through the outskirts of Sydney, crossing the Nepean River, and arriving at Central station, where our adventure came to an end. On my first night back at home, I felt my bed rocking and swaying through the night.
For me, this journey was an opportunity to pause and reflect, to enjoy a few days without having to think about sticking to schedules (other than meal times and the off-train excursions), or fulfilling commitments, or rushing somewhere as I always seem to be doing. A chance to sit and relax without staring at a computer or mobile phone screen, back to the basics of pen and paper, an old fashioned book, some relaxing music, the Indian Pacific ‘bush’ radio channel, and the living, breathing landscape of this country as the main entertainment, which at times was relaxing and at other times hypnotic. I read one whole book in a day, and wrote prolifically in my travel diary. My mother brought her book and her knitting but didn’t progress much with either – often I found her snoozing without guilt, stretched across the seat, lulled by the rhythm of the train. We didn’t even unpack the crosswords or board games that I carted all the way. In any case, there were plenty of board or card games and willing, friendly adversaries on the Outback Explorer Lounge, which was always buzzing with the chatter of people and the clinking of glasses.
Most of the people aboard the Indian Pacific were retirees. Retirement is still two decades away for me, a future so far away it seems to belong to another country. I don’t know what my health or my financial situation will be then, and was thankful to have been able to tick this bucket list item while I still have some funds, stamina and a pair of strong legs, even if that meant that I was accompanied by people who were a lot older than me. If anything, it made me feel very young; and when we saw the way in which some passengers were struggling to walk around the moving carriages or to get on and off the train (particularly the man on a wheelchair with an oxygen bottle), even my sixty-seven year old mother felt like a spring chicken.
A few days later, the Great Southern Rail Company sent me a survey to evaluate my experience. I gave them ten out of ten.
Bel Vidal - Débutante novelist (author of Exuberance), blogger,