Rail Travel from Another Era: Life Aboard The 4 Day Slow Train From Perth to Sydney

Published in PRIMOLife Magazine May 2015

Lunch has been cleared away, crumbs litter the table, and we are lingering over our cups of coffee. My three dining companions and I are staring out the window at the passing landscape. “Is that… a tree?” someone volunteers. “Nope”. We are crossing the Nullarbor Plain, a vast expanse of desert sand and scrubby bushes, and as its Latin name suggests, not a single tree. We are on the longest stretch of straight rail track in the world, and the landscape has not changed for more than 10 hours. We continue staring out the window. Sound terrifyingly boring? It’s not. For me, the large windows that connect us to the outside world during our 4 day journey on the Indian Pacific across the Australian continent are mesmerizing. I’m hypnotized by the enormity of the land, the sheer emptiness of it all, and the thought that this journey was once regularly taken on horseback.

By the time I reach Sydney, I’ll have covered 4,352 kilometers, and taken one of the last great train rides of the world.

My dinky, self-contained twin cabin is cozy and functional but I know that if I’d brought a cat, I wouldn’t be able to swing it. Before the train pulls away, a staff member comes around to say hi, and plan my meal times. The dining room is four carriages down, and able to serve 48 people at once. The need, therefore, for a bit of planning. I feel like an eccentric lady of leisure, airily informing my numerous staff that “I shall dine at 7.30pm on the dot”.

Mentally putting on a large wide brimmed hat to suit my new grande dame persona, I sit back and look out the window as the train slowly pulls away from the station and weaves its way through Perth’s outer suburbs. We aren’t in a hurry, but I’m grateful for that as we pass through the beautiful Avon valley. The dry river beds full of smooth granite boulders pass below my window and we are shaded by tall Marri trees. The train manager pipes up over the intercom, and over the days, I tune in and out of the on board radio station which plays music and stories. A soundtrack to the vast stage around us, full of history and people, just beyond the horizon.

We pass the eerie lights of a remote mine at dusk, dusty trucks and conveyor belts glowing in the electric light as we get closer to Kalgoorlie. It takes us almost 11 hours to arrive, as we often wait to let other trains pass, and I break up the day between my cabin, the lounge car, with its panoramic windows on both sides, and the Queen Victoria restaurant dining car.  Serving three course meals three times a day out of a tiny kitchen, the Indian Pacific chefs sure have their work cut out of them. But you wouldn’t know it. The service and quality of food is better than I’ve had in kitchens with twice as much room. I adore the old-fashioned elegance of the dining car, with its white linen tablecloths, heavy silverware and delicious plates whisked back and forth by the staff, now in smart server attire. The seasonal menu is designed with local ingredients in mind, thematically colleting flavours as we progress across the country. I nibble at saltbush dukka, olive oil, barramundi, kangaroo and wild lime.

Over the next few days, we train folk become adept at negotiating the narrow corridors, the swaying and rocking of the train and rattling doorways between the cars. Passing each other in close proximity, we act like overly polite traffic controllers, pausing at each end of the corridor, deciding who will go first. “After you!”, “Oh no, you go first!”, “Are you sure? Ok then”.

I settle into the rhythm of train life quickly, and the faces of my fellow passengers become familiar and friendly, as we chat over meals in the dining car or glasses of wine in the lounge. There is Rebecca, a young PhD candidate from Boston on her first trip to Australia, wanting to experience the outback in a new way. Val, from the UK has been in Perth to visit her grown up daughter. John and his wife establish themselves as the socialites of the train, joking around and quickly making friends. Most of the other passengers are Australian and while I come well under the average age, everyone seems to be taking the train for a different reason and with a different perspective. Towards the back, in the Red class, backpackers from all over the world take advantage of the cheaper rates, making do with reclining sofa seats instead of cabins. I admire their guts, but having done my fair share of sleeping rough, I’m grateful for my bed.

Before leaving, I had loaded up pages of long articles to read on my laptop, charged my Kindle and brought my notebook along, sure that the long hours with nothing to do and nowhere to go would drive me crazy. Yet somehow, I’m never bored. For long stretches, there is no phone coverage and thus no internet, and yet I enjoy the feeling of being disconnected. My boyfriend is on the opposite side of the globe, and I miss our contact, but there is something cozy about being utterly unreachable. My cabin feels like a little hidey-hole, with the entire world just outside my window.  

I enjoy the solitude of my private space, with nothing to do but watch the world go by from my window or stretch out on the couch to catch up on some lost hours of sleep. The rocking and rolling of the train that is barely noticeable during the day seems much stronger at night, and in my single bunk the swaying prevents me from a deep sleep. But I don’t mind. I feel like a sailor, rocking in my hammock, away to discover distant shores.

As we eat up kilometer upon kilometer of steel track, I get to know not only the other passengers, but the crew of Great Southern Rail who take the journey with us. Our lounge host Sonya Lemondine has been working on the Indian Pacific and The Ghan for 12 years. Funny, warm and always smiling, Sonya tells me she had worked in hotels, bars and restaurants for years, but missed the days of ‘old fashioned’ service, which she found aboard the train. She joshes and cracks cheeky jokes as she walks up and down the length of her dominion but I get the feeling that despite the friendly attitude, very little escapes her eagle eye. I try to get her to spill the dirt, but she’ll only admit that the long hours can be tiring. No insufferable passengers then? She smiles and tells me that she tries to treat everyone as if they were her own family. With numerous repeat travelers, those who do it for the love of the journey, and those who simply can’t fly any longer, some do become a bit like family for the GSR crew.

“This is about the whole experience” she says. ”If you want to get from A to B and not see anything, then fly”. Sonya and her colleagues are in the business of giving a once-in-a-lifetime journey.

For much of the year, there is just one locomotive making the non-stop coast-to-coast journey, so it’s no surprise that life onboard the train is a little different from the outside world. The Indian Pacific has its own history, customs and quirks. I come to love being on ‘Train Time’, a time zone that we carry with us as we move from west to east, and press the staff for their stories from the track.

Hitting roadkill along the way is par for the course, but nothing under the size of a bullock will actually stop the train. And then, only if they get truly unlucky. In the event of a roadkill-induced mechanical problem, the crew and train drivers have had to learn to fend for themselves, with no supplies easily had. MacGuyver-like tactics are employed to bring the locomotive into the next station however they can.

Deep into our passage across the Nullarbor, stopping in Cook is a refueling break dressed up as a town visit, but I appreciate the opportunity to stretch my legs and look around. Once a reasonably stable community of around forty, it is now a ghost town staffed by a tiny crew, who service the Indian Pacific and other freight trains which pass through every day. I poke around among the long-abandoned basketball court and school rooms, admiring the large collection of road signs that have somehow travelled to this strange spot. There is no platform in Cook, and it feels like we are the only people to have passed through in years, but I know this to be an illusion. The Nullarbor goes on and on forever around us and I feel that I am finally beginning to grasp just how large Australia is.

I become so accustomed to our little family, the familiar faces in the restaurant, and the staff, that it is a bit of a shock to see the crew change over in Adelaide, and half of my friends depart. A new wave of travelers comes onboard, but now, like a grande dame turned reclusive Mrs Haversham, I don’t bother making new friends. There is only one more day to go, after all.

From the expanse of the Nullarbor Plain, to the red, red dirt and weatherboard houses of Broken Hill, and the crests of the Blue Mountains I reflect on how dramatically the land has changed over the last few days. I enjoy seeing the front of the train as we curve and weave between rocky passes and through small valleys, coming closer to Sydney. We begin to pass through regular stations, with regular people waiting on them. We are back in civilization. Lines from Dorothy MacKellars classic poem ‘My Country’ come to me. One of our most beloved poets, she described Australia as “a sunburnt country, A land of sweeping plains, Of ragged mountain ranges, Of droughts and flooding rains”. With this in my mind, I watch the train disgorge onto the platform and see the backs of heads and suitcases disperse and vanish. I take a moment before I plunge back into the pace of the metropolis myself.

Another line lingers. “Her beauty and her terror, the wide brown land for me”. Making the crossing for the first time, I understand now what she meant. Australia is a country that can overwhelm, frighten and inspire you. Beautiful and vast, it’s waiting for you.  

Go, and be awed. 

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