Sydney to Perth on the Indian Pacific is one of the world's great rail journeys – 3,000 miles taking in vast deserts, mountain ranges, tiny ghost towns and some the finest cities you'll ever see.
There's just something special and romantic about travelling by rail. Perhaps it's the feeling of destiny, of knowing that you are going wherever the tracks take you. Or maybe it's the notion of adventure and heading into the unknown? Undoubtedly one of the worlds best examples of a great rail adventure is Sydney to Perth on the Indian Pacific. Three days, three nights and almost three thousand miles.
The train has the aura of being a kind of ark. A sanctuary of comfort and civilized modernity that would be carrying us across a very wild place. Thousands of miles of red sandy wilderness separated us from our destination, and this diesel-electric metal tube was out lifeline, it was all that we had to take us through it.
The Austrail flexi pass we bought in Sydney for $890 AUD got us the economy day-nighter seats, which are a far cry from luxury, but a good deal better than sitting in a cramped coach seat for three days. You can always get up and walk around, or sit in the cafe carriage enjoying the views with a cuppa. There are shower facilities on each carriage too.
New South Wales
After leaving Sydney, the train climbed high over the the picturesque blue mountains, enjoying the fabulous views through the atmospheric autumn mist before night fell.
It was on this first night that I got to know our hosts a little better. I stayed up quite late with a book and a coffee in the cafe carriage. You can stay in the cafe as late as you like as long as you don't fall asleep. I was joined for a while by some of the staff between their regular mail drops and carriage patrols.
We had a pleasant chat, chewing the fat companionably into the night. Most of the staff were from the halfway city of Adelaide, where the Indian Pacific operator, Great Southern Rail is based. They had that classic Adelaide attitude, that being laid back, friendly, and totally unpretentious. Remember, this expedition is a daily thing for these employees, so if you want any information about the many destinations, these are the people to ask!
Tiredness eventually won me over, I went to my seat and passed out surprisingly easily.
The following morning, all was dusty and red before we rolled into Broken Hill, the silver city of the outback. Here, we got the chance to stretch our legs and go for a wander around. There is an organised tour for $24 AUD encompassing the mines, the city, and some wonderful outback views, or you can look around on your own for free.
That afternoon, over the border into South Australia, the terrain became fertile again as we skirted around the famous wine region and drifted into Adelaide. You can take a bus or stroll into the city for a look around, or do the organised tour for $23 AUD.
Adelaide is a good halfway point where you can break your journey if you don't fancy the full three day slog. It feels pleasantly mild mannered and conventional in comparison to brash Sydney, and has everything you could want from a city. The orderly streets of the cbd are surrounded by well tended parkland and there are modern cafes and eateries everywhere. The one thing you must not miss is Haigh's chocolate visitors centre, where you can learn all about how the Haigh family's famous treats are made -and of course pick some up for yourself. If you stay, I recommend Backpack Oz on Wakefield street, where dorms start from $20 AUD a night. There is a free breakfast, pool table, train station pickup/drop off and wi fi.
The following morning, further into South Australia, we reached the sprawling Nullarbor plain. An area of flat treeless desert stretching over 1000km into Western Australia. It's hard to put the image of the Nullarbor into words. It is simply a sea of flat red dust. No hills, no trees, no signs of life at all. Now this is real outback country. Around the start of the Nullarbor we stopped at the township of Cook, a once thriving outback settlement which is now little more than a ghost town. The train stops here to take on water and to allow the passengers to get off and explore. It's a pretty surreal place, with a derelict hospital, school and country club surrounded by flat red nothingness as far as the eye can see. Even when surrounded by all the people from the train, there is a brooding sense of remoteness and pure isolation.
There are many similar townships all across the Nullarbor, and the Indian Pacific helps connect these outposts to the outside world by doing mail drops and pickups as it passes through. The word Nullarbor means 'no trees' and it lives up to its name. The only plant material you will see is patches of saltbush, a tough weed that gets its water by absorbing night dew from the air instead of through its roots. It is this weed that provides the desert animals with food.
The 'other' Wild West
That same evening we rolled into the gold capital of Australia - the Western Australian town of Kalgoorlie. The Aussies have been digging up gold here since 1893, and the mine is still going strong today. It is now the largest open cut mine pit on earth at over 400m deep, and 3.3km long. Perth mint puts on displays of fresh gold bars being forged from Kalgoorlie gold every day. As usual, you have a couple of hours to explore Kalgoorlie yourself, or you can pay $30 AUD for the guided tour, which visits the mine and shows off some of the impressive gold rush architecture too. It’s a full on living and breathing Wild West town, with your obligatory saloons, brothels and rowdy miners drinking their earnings.
The following morning we passed through Western Australia’s hefty wheat belt in the fertile south west corner of the state as we descended on Perth. Seeing the Perth skyline for the first time makes you want to applaud the train and those that run it, as though it wasn't certain that we were going to make it. This feeling of genuine appreciation was unexpected, but it's true that the Indian Pacific is truly remarkable when you think that land travel across this vast continent would have been almost out of the question as little as 100 years ago. Now it is done on a daily basis, with coffee in hand and nothing to do but stare out of the window at the wonders you pass along the way.
On the short ride into Perth central we could see the gleaming towers of the CBD and the green fringe of Kings Park atop its hill overlooking the city. What a city Perth is. You walk out of the train station onto a covered walkway over Wellington St leading directly into a pristine shopping centre with the fabulous sun-kissed open paved malls to your right. The whole city centre is immaculate, as though someone has been over it with a scrubbing brush. Even the skyscrapers seem to shine in a way that they don’t anywhere else.
Make sure you visit Kings Park, to see the city skyline next to the shimmering Swan river, especially at dusk when it all lights up. Also, try to catch the beautiful sunset from Cottesloe beach one night, and definitely head to Fremantle on the ferry to see the old architecture and visit the street market. We stayed at Perth city YHA, which I would recommend to anyone. It has a huge kitchen, TV lounge, plenty of computers and the rooms have lockers. It's also really close to the train station, and the free city centre CAT bus passes right by it. Rates are from $30 AUD per night for a 6 share.
The Austrail Flexi Pass costs $890 AUD and is remarkable value for money. It can be used on most of Australia's inter city rail network and will take you up and down the east coast, to Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney, Perth and through the red centre to Darwin and Alice Springs. There is no limit on travel, and the pass lasts 6 months - highly recommended.
The Indian Pacific - www.greatsouthernrail.com.au/site/indian_pacific.jsp
The Austrail Flexi Pass - www.railaustralia.com.au/flexipass.php
Haigh's visitors centre - www.haighschocolates.com.au
Perth mint - www.perthmint.com.au