The Indian Pacific Train
After a hard few months working on a vineyard in Victoria, I took the Indian Pacific train from Adelaide to Perth as part of my travels. The Indian Pacific Railway runs from Sydney to Perth, operated by Great Southern Rail. I never thought I’d have a chance to experience this iconic journey but after mine and Tim’s road trip plans fell through, we thought why the hell not (and blew a massive hole through our already dismal travel fund!)
I’m not a train nerd really. I discovered this journey existed when I read Bill Bryson’s incredible Down Under book about his travels in Australia. This book turned any nerves I had about going to Australia into pure excitement and he made the Indian Pacific Railway journey sound magical. Hogwarts Express kinda magical, you know? Tim and I were lucky enough to book our trip in early 2016 while the economy class ‘Red Service’ was still offered for just under $1000 per person. As of July 2016, the cheap carriage was withdrawn and now only the prohibitively expensive Gold and Platinum class carriages are offered, meaning the lowest priced ticket from Adelaide to Perth now comes in at $1600 per person (unless you book well in advance.)
The journey from Adelaide to Perth takes three days and two nights, which is pretty much the maximum amount of time I could have dealt with the Red service seating arrangement. Though the seats were plenty wide, they only reclined so far as to give the illusion of comfort. A few hours go by and that illusion is shattered. I considered climbing onto the suitcase rack above our heads to lay down more than once.
There is something pretty special about a long train journey, though. All that time to watch the landscape drift by with no obligations, sipping wine or coffee. While Gold and Platinum class had their fancy restaurant and bar carriage with leather booths and cloth napkins, we in Red class had our own restaurant car- where everything was wipe-clean. We were well and truly segregated, but the atmosphere was friendly and I had no complaints about any of it. Even though the showers and toilets were shared by the whole Red carriage, they were clean. The shower was tiny and felt like you were attempting to shower in an aeroplane bathroom, but it was manageable. Our conductor was a no-nonsense Aussie bloke and the food car did a great curry. All the older men in the carriage gravitated towards each other to talk about Man Stuff and play cards while drinking mid-strength beers. Red class was nothing special but with the amazing scenery and good company to distract from the basic facilities, it was fine.
“Off Train Excursions”
We only caught brief envious glimpses into the upper-class carriages, while disembarking for the two scheduled breaks (Great Southern calls them ‘off train excursions’.) Despite having comforts Red class couldn’t even dare to dream of (beds! Blankets! Tea and coffee making facilities!) they didn’t look to be having much fun. The Red class travellers were much more our kind of people- a few backpackers and young couples, along with friendly older folks. The first stop saw us congregating next to the train at night. A huge bonfire was lit for us and we swapped stories with other passengers while side-eyeing Gold and Platinum class, who were all seated a short distance away having a meal under the stars.
The second scheduled stop was at the ghost town of Cook, situated in the massive desert expanse of the Nullarbor Plain. We disembarked and had half an hour to explore this place, now basically just a group of dilapidated buildings. Cook was once populated. You can see where the old school was, the playground and even the faded School Rules still painted on one of the walls. Now, there are only four people living in Cook and the train stops there to drop off supplies- including water- every few days. Cook is 513 miles away from the next inhabited town and it truly feels like it. By the time I’d looked through the empty, dusty buildings and seen the rusted basketball hoops near the school, I was well and truly creeped out and headed straight back to the train.
The part of the whole experience I was most excited about was the Nullarbor Plain section of the journey. ‘Nullarbor’ means ‘no trees’ so obviously I spent the whole time the train crossed this desert trying to spot a tree. Spoiler alert: I didn’t see any trees. This part of the journey includes the world’s longest dead-straight stretch of railway track at 297 miles. To be honest, although they announced the stretch coming up over the tannoy, I think the only way to appreciate it is if you’re sitting in the driver’s car. It felt the same as the rest of the journey from our seats in Red.
Overall, I’m so glad I got a chance to take the Indian Pacific train while it was still kind of affordable as backpackers. It’s such an iconic journey and was a great way to arrive in Perth, a place that would become our home for months. The process of arriving gradually at a place, through the outskirts and suburbs is just so much more satisfying than arriving into an airport, I think. At times I did wish we’d just taken the plane, such as when the scenery wasn’t changing and I couldn’t get into my book or when I was struggling to sleep due to the guy behind us singing songs about kangaroos at 5 am (true story, unfortunately…) but I’d do it again. I’d love a chance to take The Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin but unfortunately, I have no properties that I could remortgage.