Indian Pacific Adventure

It’s easy just to quote numbers and facts. The Indian Pacific – one of the top ten longest train journeys. Crossing the continent from the Indian Ocean in the West to the Pacific Ocean in the East. It includes the longest stretch of straight railway track in the world, 478km across the Nullarbor. The track is straight because there’s nothing to make it otherwise, no rivers to cross, hills to go around or through – nothing.
The whole trip is 4,352 km, and takes about 65 hours. Depending on the number of passengers the train is usually between 25 and 30 carriages long, around 750 metres. It weighs 1400 tonnes.
The Indian Pacific as a single train made its inaugural journey in 1970. Before then the railway line across the continent was a different gauge in each state, so passengers had to transfer from one train to another at various points along the route. In 1969 the line was finally unified, and a single train could be used across the country. Some of the carriages built then for the new train are still in use.
But numbers and facts don’t convey the real adventure of this train journey. For that you need to buy a ticket and climb aboard for the ride.
We left Perth on a Sunday morning, trundling through familiar suburbs and climbing the Darling Scarp along the Avon River. The track clings to the side of the valley, trees close to each side of the line, with glimpses of the river in between. In many places there are more rocks than river, and I pictured the competitors in the recent Avon Descent carrying their boats between pools.
Over the top of the hill and the scenery changes, there are cultivated paddocks, crops of hay. Large round bales dot the landscape like marbles dropped by a giant hand. The railway heads out through Toodyay and Northam and into the wheatbelt. Here there are vast expanses of wheat paddocks, at this time of year greenish gold, punctuated by grain bins or silos. Every town has grain storage, the tall white cylinders reaching into a brilliant blue sky.
There are three pieces of infrastructure that run together between Perth and Kalgoorlie, the railway line, the Great Eastern Highway and the pipeline for the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme. Sometimes we can see both from the train, sometimes not. The three lines cross, so that first the highway or the pipeline will be to one side of the train, later the other.
Travelling further east the scenery changes again, the paddocks of wheat increasingly give way to salt lakes; bush and scrub replacing crops. The sun is setting behind us, turning the trunks of the mallee trees beside the track a coppery pink. Soon it is dark, and for some time there is nothing to be seen through the windows, no towns or even farms.
Later a few lights start to appear as we reach the outskirts of Kalgoorlie. The train slows through an industrial area before coming to a halt in the station. Twelve hours since leaving Perth.
There is a bus tour in Kalgoorlie, taking in the Museum of Mines, the Super Pit, and the sights of the town, including Hay Street and the famous brothels. However, there is a limit to what we can see in the dark, and I am struck by the fact that it takes a long time for 50 or so people to get on a bus. The tour is not long, and we spend probably 20 minutes at each stop just getting on and off.
Back on the train we all head back to our cabins, where our seats have been transformed into beds for the night, with even chocolates on the pillows. It’s not easy to sleep through the noise and movement of the train, but eventually I do.
Sometime later, I wake to sunrise over the Nullarbor. The sky is a spectacular purple and indigo, through orange to deep red on the horizon. I lie in bed watching the daylight seep gradually over the landscape, which this morning is flat, scrub from the track right out to the horizon. After breakfast we sit looking out of the window for hours on end, and are lucky enough to see kangaroos, emus, and camels. A wedge tailed eagle soars overhead, matching the image on the side of the train. Over it all hangs a huge cerulean sky.
There are a few ghost settlements here and there, Rawlinna, Forrest, then Cook, where the train stops. We have the opportunity to get off the train; there is no platform, just a small set of steps at each door. Outside it is hot, windy, and there are flies. Not really hot, the temperature only in the 30s, whereas in summer it is regularly well over 40 degrees. Some people get back on the train quite quickly, but I stroll curiously around the tiny township. Apparently around 40 people once thought of this place as home, now there are only four permanent residents. What must it be like to live here?
A plaque in the middle of town records what seems to me like an act of supreme optimism. In the 1970s Greening Australia donated 600 trees to the community in an effort to provide shelter and shade. Amazingly, quite a few have survived, the only trees for hundreds of kilometres.
Back on the train again, now familiar territory. Further east, and the Nullarbor starts to give way to a different landscape, around Tarcoola. There are trees again, salt lakes, and hills. Another sunset, and another dark night.
I wake early next morning as the movement of the train changes. After hours of steady rhythmic progress it slows, clatters over points, lurches round corners as we travel through the outskirts of Adelaide.
Having lived in Adelaide some years ago I decide not to go on the offered bus tours, but get a taxi and go to the Botanic Gardens. It’s good to walk on something that isn’t moving for a change. It’s still early, only 8 am, and there are few people about. Office workers on their way to work, staff sweeping paths and raking lawns. The gardens are beautiful, and a stunning contrast to yesterday’s scenery.
Feeling refreshed, I take another taxi back to the station, with time for a coffee before getting back on the train. When we pull out of the station, we are heading north again over the same tracks we travelled last night. The city and suburbs give way to market gardens, and they in their turn are replaced by country similar to the West Australian wheatbelt we travelled through only two days ago. Here there are hills on the horizon, and some of them have wind turbines scattered along them. The giant blades perch on top of the towers, slim and elegant as dancers en pointe.
At Crystal Brook the track branches east towards New South Wales, and we are again travelling through new territory. The hills continue north of the track, and the country in between changes gradually from crops to scrub. At first glance it is similar to the Nullarbor, except that this country is undulating. We see feral goats darting through the scrub away from the train as it passes.
Late in the afternoon we arrive at Broken Hill, the last stop before Sydney. We take another bus tour around the town, and stop at Pro Hart’s gallery. There are lots of his paintings, and a re-creation of his studio. His style is not for everybody, but it seems to suit the landscape where he worked. I find the most intriguing thing is a cabinet in the corner full of small silver objects, almost all of them either baby’s rattles or teething rings. There are at least 100 I guess, and I wonder why? Did he collect them gradually, or did he just buy somebody else’s collection? There is no information on the cabinet at all, so I am left wondering as we climb back on the bus and return to the train.
We have dinner, and watch as the light drains from the landscape again. There are a few scattered farmhouses, lights only serving to emphasise the darkness around. Then to bed, I must be getting acclimatised to the train because I fall asleep quickly.
Daylight next morning sees us in farming country, in New South Wales. Mostly grazing, undulating land scattered with farm buildings, divided into paddocks with sheep, cattle, and horses peaceful in the early light. The railway winds through the landscape, and as it bends we can see some of the rest of the train, but it is so long that the front is out of sight, hidden by a hill.
The first town we come to is Bathurst, followed by Lithgow. Each time we slow, lumbering over points and crossings. I am reminded that towns and cities almost never look their best when seen from a train. There are other smaller townships, and gradually they blend into one another as we get closer to our destination. The countryside becomes more hilly, there are tunnels and some very narrow cuttings. The sides of the cuttings seem to be made of solid rock, but there are plants and ferns growing out of them, even some small trees.
The train rattles and jolts and groans and sways on its descent from the Blue Mountains, like an old lady going painfully downstairs. We are told over the intercom that there is a freight train in front of us, slowing our progress. The sky is overcast and grey, with patches of mist in the valleys. There are bright patches of pink and purple in the gardens alongside the track, and whereas in Perth I would assume they were bougainvilleas, here I think they are azaleas or rhododendrons.
At last the suburban landscape flattens, the ride smoother although still slow. The Indian Pacific is too long to fit into Sydney’s Central Station, so it is split into two halves and pulled into two different platforms. As we are at the back of the train there is more waiting whilst the front part is taken off, then another engine comes back for us. Packing my belongings, checking to make sure I have left nothing behind, I leave the cabin that has been my home for the last few days, and step down onto the platform. My 65 hours of adventure are over, and in a few days I will get on a plane and fly back to Perth in just four and a half hours. It won’t be an adventure though.
Julie Livingstone 2015