Life Travel The spaces in between: riding the Indian Pacific

The spaces in between: riding the Indian Pacific

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It’s easy to forget the spaces in between.

In the age of $37 airfares from capital to capital, the experience of travel is compressed into a swift but ultimately uncomfortable commute.

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For those looking to languish in luxury away from packed airports and busy roads there is another option.

Could there anything more romantic, in the nostalgic sense, than travelling across Australia on the Indian Pacific?

The four-day train journey runs like a Slim Dusty best-of album from Sydney to Perth, taking a straight run through the dry centre of Australia.

I’m boarding at Central Station in Sydney. The train stretches across three platforms. It’s so big – around 700 metres long – that it must be broken into pieces to fit the station.

Killing some time before we mount, I jam my finger into a hole in a marble column by the platform. Little do I realise I’ve just defiled a piece of Australian history. It’s a bullet hole, the last remaining evidence of The Battle for Central Station – a booze-filled revolt by a few thousand Australian soldiers during World War One.

Once on board, it’s impossible to complain about cramped conditions on the train. The cabins are roomy for the space you’ve been given – a clever doubling up of responsibilities by the couch (it turns into a bed) and your toilet (it subs in as a shower).

There’s a wide window too. I resist the usual hotel room urge to throw off my clothes and jump on the bed like a lunatic. We’re still on the platform and the porthole sits precisely at eye level.

The train is roomy
The train is roomy and comfortable, albeit slightly rocky.

Next, we’re off moving. I rest my coffee on my book and head into the lounge. First lesson on trains: always have one hand free. My landlubber feet haven’t gotten accustomed to the train’s rocking rhythm. One hand keeps my coffee steady, the other attempts to reach out and open the heavy carriage-driving door. Meanwhile my body wants to do the salsa.

It doesn’t go well. My newly-purchased spy novel looks like an antique by the time I sit down. I don’t know where my coffee went. I blame that on New South Wales though – or at least the rail workers did when I asked them.

“Thick cloud cover?” I ask, “Or is it the stormy conditions causing the turbulence?”

NSW just has old tracks. The Blue Mountains are particularly rough. Unlike the lofty isolation of air travel, the Indian Pacific never lets you forget you’re bound to the earth and all its imperfections.

Poor souls left in the middle of the aisle when a real bump hits are rendered airborne. Time slows as they sail through the air. Drinks follow – top-heavy champagne flutes are the worst affected. Train tip: drink something with a low centre of gravity.

Food on board is
Food on board is plentiful.

Once we’re out of the mountains, the ride is buttery smooth. Speaking of butter – sitting down to dinner, I’m tempted to rub it in to my hips to lubricate the journey through the train’s thin passages. It’s almost a necessity with the amount of food that comes along. Good stuff too – modern and artistic takes on Australian cuisine with native ingredients.

The only thing stopping me from greasing up is the Native Pepperberry infused in to it – I think it would sting. It’s the first flourish in a meal that jumps from locally caught seafood to handmade smallgoods. Everything along the way is sourced from a recent stop and treated with respect.

It’s easy to make friends on the train. I see it like a friendly version of prison; you’re not going anywhere, so why not stop and have a chat and see what people are up to? My brown-stained book follows me everywhere and I never see a page, because every time I sit down or grab a drink, it ends in a pleasant conversation.

The main lounges are roomy and accommodating, and the open bar helps with a party atmosphere at night. I didn’t expect that. The cabaret tunes come on and I see Norm, a 92-year-old man, dance so hard he – and I – have heart palpations.

I’m surprised he doesn’t spontaneously combust. The girls are swooning. I’m a few sets of teeth younger than most of my fellow passengers, but they’re up later than I am. There’s Norm of course, and then old Irish Moss, named as such because she’s downing a six pack of cough medicine every day. Candy Crush, a grumpy old duck, sits in the middle of the lounge, absorbed in her phone and oblivious to the rocking retirement home around her.

Scenery is dusty, striking and hard to tear your eyes away from.
Scenery is dusty, striking and hard to tear your eyes away from.

The stops – Bathurst, Broken Hill, Watson, Rawlinna and Karlgoorlie – are all worth exploring. There’s a woman in gym clothes that runs up and down the length of the train every time we come to a halt. I start sweating, more from a sense of inadequacy than the heat.

The real star of the show is the scenery. There’s nothing quite like waking up in your cabin and having a whole new view every morning. It makes the hangovers a little easier.

In fact, thinking about it, this trip is the longest, straightest line I’ve ever been on in my life or career. My parents would be proud. Astronaut Andy Thomas says the train track can be seen from space; 478 kilometres through the Nullarbor, like a thin pencil line. Google Maps agrees with the assertion.

We pull in to Perth on the last day. I’ve barely slept a wink, I’ve put on weight and I can’t help but regret that I’m flying home from here. I’d rather be going by train.

The journalist travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail.

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