The Indian Pacific sounds like one of the world’s most epic train journey, but what’s it really like to spend 4 days crossing the breadth of Australia via the Nullarbor?
The brochure touts fabulous feasts and wicked wine but, curiously, makes no mention of the onboard entertainment: tantalising tales of clandestine love trysts and rumours of civil war that lure you in during the 4352-kilometre journey.
But I spiral into an existential panic when I hear that there is no wi-fi on the continent-crossing Indian Pacific. My phone service provider fails to appreciate that people like to, on occasion, not only travel far outside the outskirts of major metropolises but also constantly digi-brag about their experiences. What will become of me –sporadic internet at best for three-and-a-half days while I span ‘the longest stretch of straight railway track in the world’ (including my maiden Nullarbor Plain adventure)?
As the 774-metre-long, Perth-bound train departs Sydney’s Central Station, my innate, I-should-be-doing-something-constructive guilt-trip kicks in. I stroke my iPhone like it’s bound for the pet cemetery. Over the following hours, the big-city digital angst dissipates. I synch with the train’s swaying and dawdling rhythm, hypnotised by lush Blue Mountains vistas, with just a little assistance from a strategic glass (well, glasses) of Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz (2012).
I communicate the way we as humans used to, having a good old-fashioned face-to-face with reasonably like-minded strangers in the Outback Explorer Lounge. “Our families don’t even know we’re here,” says one half of a grey nomad couple. They nervously finish each other’s sentences, all giggly, like they’ve just bounded arm in arm out of a dance hall together for the very first time. It unfolds that both of their life-long partners have passed away and they only recently fell into each other’s arms. “It’s just easier that our families don’t know.”
By mid-morning of day two, the gathering now has a couple of conversation-starters in common: an early-morning jaunt around Broken Hill (our first scheduled stop) plus not everyone had a blissful eight hours’ slumber last night through outback New South Wales – the track out that way bumpier than the rest of the journey.
Back in the lounge, the ice is not so much broken as completely melted; the chitchat chugs along faster than the train. “I’m having a change of life, after my husband,” says a bubbly woman who wears her years with panache. She’s relocating to Perth from the East Coast to start afresh with a new partner. “What’s his name?” I ask. “Who says it’s a he?” she says, her mischievous eyes widen, stamping a full-stop on this line of enquiry.
I chat to 85-year-old Murray, who started his grand tour in Queensland. I expect to be regaled with tales of botanical gardens, motorised scooter reviews and laments of never-visiting kids. “I’m heading to Perth for a squash tournament,” he says. “There are three in my category, 85s and over. I don’t think I’m going to win, though.” Empty nesters, three; ignorant clichés, zero. As I sheepishly offer to buy Murray a beer half the lounge erupts in knowing, friendly chuckles… food and wine are included in the Indian Pacific’s fare. I settle into the ‘eat, drink, nap, eat, drink, sleep’ pattern – it’s infectious and feels natural.
The ‘eat and drink’ bits receive thorough attention – because I’ve happened onto the annual Food & Wine Train special – with help from a few special guests, namely wine critic Jeremy Oliver and TV chef Mark Olive (AKA The Black Olive), who executes rolling masterclasses for salivating passengers, the climax of which is a native-Australian ingredients magnum opus. Oliver unleashes the best wine he could find along the Indian Pacific’s route into tall glasses that clink together with the train’s cadence. “No one in Australia is drinking better wine than we are right now,” says Oliver. He waxes lyrical about there being little correlation between a wine’s quality and its price, but then he bamboozles us with a ($200-plus) bottle of Cloudburst Chardonnay (Margaret River). One of Australia’s best, in his opinion. Perhaps Kath, Kim and Kel were the visionaries, and we the fools.
The Queen Adelaide restaurant car tries hard to exude that Golden Age of Rail Travel ambience; intimate booths partitioned with stencilled glass, cosy dining where mobile phones seem like witchcraft from another age. The train’s chef de partie, Joe Cobiac, presents fresh specimens from his ‘local’-fusion 2016 menu: Kangaroo Island scallops with a horseradish shallot crust and miso caramelised jewfish with bok choy and coconut rice. They are met with an appreciative ruminating silence.
Adelaide-bound, the vista morphs from thirsty wilderness into pastoral pastels.
I’ve decided to continue the culinary and vinous trajectory for our second official stop, opting for the Barossa Valley side trip for dinner instead of an Adelaide walking tour.
Funnily enough, brunch seems more appropriate than breakfast on day three. And suddenly the dining-car repartee is being served with a side of intrigue.
Cook, the first of two stops along the Nullarbor, is apparently in the midst of a civil war; the semi-ghost town’s four residents are split right down the middle by a dispute, its nature as yet unclear. The barely detailed speculation rises fiercely from nowhere; the train’s staff neither feed nor prune the grapevine, which entwines the train faster than social media ever could, ripe for the picking when the train comes to a stop at the ‘Queen City of the Nullarbor’. Cook oozes a recently abandoned, world-wiped-me-from-her-memory ambience. On the south side of the track, a clump of houses stands lonely; doors ajar, still in shock. A wander reveals the town’s eerie sporting precinct; obviously built with more than just four people in mind.
The lines on the combination tennis and basketball court are one shade off being a memory as are the surrounding rusty wire fences, incrementally succumbing to the outback’s will. A hand-painted sign that stands before a stoney pancake of land gazing out onto a featureless horizon offers $2 rounds on the nine-hole ‘golf course’. A gleaming swimming pool ladder beckons from a distance, but dirt and mongrel-tough weeds are now the shoddy substitutes for cool water. A ‘Caution Dry Weather Road’ sign stuck into the earth where the pool’s deep end would be is outback irony at its driest.
As the train’s horn musters the passengers at the end of our half-hour invasion, I spot the town’s population, standing four abreast in unity, outside a lived-in house. In fact, there are two full-time and two part-time residents here, all working for the railway – the rumours of schism are just another heat shimmer on the plains now. “You can smell the serenity out here, mate,” says one of the part-timers, his deadpan face eventually cracks a grin. “She was good in her heyday; a provisional store, post office… All the houses down there were full. Nothing left anymore, though.”
One half of Cook’s full-time residents, Haley, chimes in. “We love it out here,” she says. “It’s definitely quiet at night; you can hear the dingoes occasionally but that’s about it. Well, them and the occasional train rattling through at 100 Ks an hour. But even they become background noise after a while.”
Back on board, the cute illuminated room-number sign drags me into a black-and-white-movie world from the one-and-a-half-person-width corridor. It feels like I should be wearing a soft-brown, double-breasted suit and felt fedora, grappling with a large broadsheet newspaper, as a smouldering Marlene Dietrich slides open my compartment door.
I retire to my cabin to drink in the panorama; nomadic eyes roaming from bare earth to book to power nap.
Through the generously sized windows (sealed for air-conditioning) the Nullarbor vista offers its slow-burn performance. Rocky tracks dissect the stubborn, scrubby growth, while the earth changes mood and hue often with the light. Hints of teeny, tiny settlements flash past. Was that a town or a mirage? Random monuments sporadically interrupt the void; we pass a discarded freight container left to die beside the tracks, ‘Bring back the mullet’ spray-painted across its flank. As if it ever left!
The Indian Pacific’s Gold-Class cabin is calculatingly retro and comfortable without being super luxurious in the modern definition. The Tasmanian myrtle and south-west jarrah veneer wood panelling feels old-worldly, but is not worn or tired; the brass trim is mirror shiny; the muted shades of green upholstery interspersed with subtle floral patterns don’t even try to be a contemporary flavour. The two substantial fold-down (single) beds in each cabin would be cumbersome to set up if the earnestly attentive staff didn’t turn them down (and up) for you each day seamlessly.
Overall, the service is co-ordinated and consistently efficient yet casual and unstuffy in that very Australian way. Very impressive for what is a long three-and-a-half-day ‘workday’ for the staff. Their energy remains high and the in-jokes and banter evolves throughout the trip – the staff usually give as good as they get, too.
Inevitably there are elements of compromise needed aboard a long-distance train; on the top of that list on the Indian Pacific is the combined shower and toilet cubicle in Gold Class (due for a refurb this year). Hot water pipes strongly on demand and the minimalist vanity is well stocked with a cluster of Appelles products and everything is entirely functional, but the ‘shoilet’ is certainly more water closet than bathroom in size. Platinum Class (the more luxurious of the Indian Pacific’s two classes) offers a significantly larger convenience.
As the light retreats from the plain, a delightful ‘bing-bong-bing’ preludes the announcement that we have arrived at our final stop before Perth: a lamp and fire pit-lit track-side evening feast on the cusp of the 1 million-hectare Rawlinna sheep station. The spread is ready, pre-prepared by chefs who have driven five treacherous hours from Kalgoorlie, just so we won’t have to wait too long. Surrounding station owners travel here to pick up the mail once a week, but the settlement’s only resident is logistical MacGyver Greg, who has set up the open-air dining space single-handedly. Tonight, he’s shrewdly parked his road train next to the long line of tables – a buffer from the desert winds, the train itself covers the other side.
Three-piece band The Switch serenades us, as I sit down for dinner and another de-brief with strangers, this time under a universe of stars. “Where are you from,” I ask? “It’s a long story,” she says. I feel absolutely no need to swipe, like or share. I just listen and let her finish her story.
On its 65-hour journey across the continent, the Indian Pacific only has four scheduled stops:
Broken Hill, NSW
Day 2, early morning – You have a couple of hours to explore the character-filled mining town (Pro Hart Gallery or the Broken Earth Miners Memorial), or you can head out to see the nearby rock-hewn sculptures in the Living Desert Reserve.
Barossa Valley, SA
Day 2, afternoon – Jump on a mini-bus to explore the Barossa. You stop off at Maggie Beer’s Farm Shop to stock up on your oils, vinegar and perhaps some salted brandy caramel. Alternatively, you can head to Adelaide for a walking tour.
Day 3, afternoon – A whistle-stop walk around a tiny town; stroll around the abandoned buildings of this once thriving community – and maybe run into the four locals.
Day 3, evening – A track-side traditional outback lamb roast dinner under the stars at a seriously remote sheep station. It will blow your mind and tastebuds.