Why the Indian Pacific is still one of Australia’s great train trips
Get ready for the ride of a lifetime as the Indian Pacific celebrates its 50th anniversary.
An outcrop of kangaroos glows rose gold as the first sun spotlights the expanse of red sand and blue-grey saltbush that is the Nullarbor Plain.
“These are the gems. I think video gamers call them Easter eggs, because you suddenly find them,” says the Indian Pacific’s Linley Lott. “They might not give you extra points, but they are beautiful features dotted along the way.”
Everyone plays a kind of I Spy aboard the IP, as the 731-metre, 29-carriage train rolling 4352 kilometres from Sydney to Perth is affectionately known by staff, including service operations manager Linley. And, having joined the journey in Adelaide for the three days and two nights journey westbound to Perth, I’m keen to join in the game.
“Three emus,” drawls an American voice in the Outback Explorer Lounge where guests happily mingle. “Where, where?” responds a Scots burr, “I can’t see them … but ooh, look, camel at one o’clock.”
Some imagine the desert heart of Australia as an interstice of nothingness, a space between. But, like the spare aesthetic of minimalist painting, the train’s double-glazed windows frame so many questions as we rumble across the landscape on one of the world’s great train journeys.
How, for instance, does Katie Hall, fresh-faced mother of five-year-old Maggie, whose home is the half-million-hectare Kinclaven cattle station north of Rawlinna where we alight from the train, live out here?
“It is hard with the extreme temperatures, distance and dryness,” she acknowledges with a smile. “We only go shopping once a month. Maggie does School of the Air which is based in Kalgoorlie” (the nearest big town which is five hours away by car).
Trailing a cloud of dust over dirt roads, the pair have come to this remote siding 1000 kilometres east of Perth to help the train’s staff set up our alfresco feast by bonfire and lantern light.
Our dinner in the desert is a highlight of the Indian Pacific’s westbound journey and a welcome chance to stretch our train legs and breathe the desert air. (More: Five unforgettable Australian train journeys)
The train, which brings mail once a week and Santa at Christmas time to this remote outpost – as well as more than 25,000 travellers throughout the year – is about much more than linking dots on a map.
When the inaugural Indian Pacific service departed Sydney on February 23, 1970 to become the first direct train to traverse the country, it was proudly viewed as a reflection of nationhood.
More than $210 million was spent on the east-west standard-gauge project over seven years with then prime minister John Gorton using a silver-plated sledge-hammer to drive home a gold-plated dogspike on the final link.