Why fly when you can clickety-clack across the longest straight line of railroad with new friends, writes Peter Saunders.
A trip across Australia, right to left or left to right, is 3800km by rail (nearly eight trips between Auckland and Wellington). The Indian Pacific Railway is quite an experience in a tight railway cabin, with lots of people to meet and a bit of gourmet wine and food included.
For my journey — four days and three nights to get from Sydney to Perth — the train was just under 1km long (imagine that at the railway crossing you use). Depending on demand, it can sometimes reach 1.3km.
Some locomotives and power generators are part of the train’s village and there is a car transporter added after the caboose for those who want their car at the end. The restaurant and bar carriages are three or four in number, spread throughout the length — so we don’t have to walk far for a drink.
My trip cost $4795 as a solo traveller, own bathroom (including shower). This fare would be reduced by a live-in partner, in a pull-down bed and ladder above the main seating/bed. There are seasonal price variations: low, shoulder and high season and there can be a reduction for early booking. A rare double-bed cabin is extra and needs early booking.
There is also a Platinum class well above that “gold” price, and well booked in advance, the main benefit a suite and more culinary choices.
It’s not the cheapest way to get from Sydney to Perth. For $400 you can fly the journey, but then, of course, there are three nights’ accommodation plus breakfasts, meals and drinks to replace what is included in the price of the Indian Pacific.
If rail travel takes your fancy, the same operator runs a similar train (The Ghan) from Adelaide to Darwin through the middle of Australia or around the coast from Sydney (or Brisbane) to Darwin, or as far up the coast as you wish to go. Fly home to New Zealand from a couple of locations.
For me, it was between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, hence the train name. It was remarkably quick, I found, not the boredom of “watching the Nullarbor Plain flash by hour after hour” I had been warned of. Two out of three nights we had off-train dinners, one in the McLaren Vale, the other under the stars at a farm in Western Australia.
Yes, the compartments are small, but comfortable. They’re based on two occupants, unless buying solo. The shower is small, yet my back gets as much hot water as it feels it deserves; the amenities are as generous as any hotel bathroom, and I learn quickly to manage the space available, even through the motion of a train at speed.
A second person? You would need to know them very well. The beds are converted by staff during breakfast and dinner to or from seating.
The staff are wonderful, caring, helpful and understood their demographic. From the carriage hostess to the bar and the restaurant car, I cannot speak highly enough of their warmth and personal interest. In the bar and the dining car I met other people. The Queen Adelaide diner has booths for four so I met a couple each meal. All interesting and cheerful. The Outback Lounge or bar was equally social, casual seating and, as a solo traveller, I was well and warmly greeted and chatted to daily by all sorts of people.
Food was definitely above expectations. With the name Queen Adelaide, I did not have high hopes for the restaurant cars (three of them) as I come from a country where this name covers a downmarket wine brand. But we were reminded that the name is historic, from local royalty and nothing to do with any current vinous image.
Food each day offered one feature main course, plus a white (or red) meat alternative with a vegetarian option. Entree and dessert were all generous and tasty. No worries. In fact, the white tablecloths, silver service and cooking were impeccable and I looked forward to lunch and dinner very much.
The Outback Lounge offered a range of craft beers and nine wines. Two were sparkling and the most popular in the bar. I enjoyed working through the list of beers and wines over four days and three nights.
Fellow passengers were about three-quarters retired Australians, the other quarter a mix of people of different ages from around the world, although I did not encounter another Kiwi. Most incorporated the Indian Pacific as part of a broader holiday.
The 3800km journey includes a haul across the longest straight line of railroad in the world — across the Nullarbor Plain. I did not see a kangaroo, but many fine Australians did, as well as a wallaby or two, a few emus and some low-flying hawks. I did not have my nose pressed against the window looking, although that was an option, day and night.
Do it again? I discuss this with several travellers at different times and the answer seems to be, it is huge fun, but probably doing it once is enough for most of us.
However, the Adelaide to Darwin experience, The Ghan, does beckon. The thought is not unappealing, and I could put up with the restrictions of the small room as a minor inconvenience among fine dining and warm staff and fellow passengers.
Singing The Circle of Life under the country stars a few hours from Perth is part of an experience that won’t be forgotten.
These unexpected moments have to be appreciated, in “the circle” — a straight-thinking line from Sydney to Perth.
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