by Adrian Bridge, The Telegraph, October 18, 2017
We’d waited as long as we could, but by 4.45pm there was nothing for it but to declare officially that it was beer o’clock on the Indian Pacific. That’s a little earlier than back home, but the circumstances were exceptional – and there was plenty to drink to.
For a start, we were on holiday (and if you can’t bend the rules when you are on holiday, when can you?). We were also in the middle of the Blue Mountains, a dramatic range of peaks shrouded in mist and bathed in the glow of a setting sun. We were right at the beginning of an epic journey by train from Sydney to Perth that would cover 4,352 kilometres (2,700 miles) and span an entire continent. We felt comfortable in our cabin, and had a good feeling about our fellow passengers; we looked forward to hearing their stories during convivial meetings in the bar and communal sittings in the dining cars.
We looked forward, too, to exploring extraordinary outposts and old mining towns deep in the Outback; we were in awe at the prospect of travelling through the Nullarbor Plain, a vast stretch of arid land in southern Australia through which runs the longest stretch of dead-straight track in the world (478km – if you’re counting) and a place described by one early explorer as “a blot on the face of nature”. We had three days and three nights ahead, and the whole of Australia to cross. It was a very exciting prospect. If that didn’t merit a beer, what on earth would?
Our journey had begun a few hours earlier at Sydney Central Station, where we got our first glimpse of the Indian Pacific’s distinctive silver/aluminium-coloured carriages adorned with the wedge-tail eagle – the emblem of the train and a symbol of the vast distance it spans (the train’s name refers to the fact it connects the Indian and Pacific oceans).
There was music and pre-boarding snacks and cheery uniformed staff to welcome us on board and give us a few ground rules (“You don’t want to mess with Sonya’s restaurant seating plans”) as we contemplated what lay ahead – the greatest of Australia’s long-distance train journeys – and eyed the other passengers, almost overwhelmingly Australian and of a certain age: the grey nomads, many freely confessing to being members of the “Ski Club” (spend the kids’ inheritance).
Shortly before 3pm we pinched ourselves as we heard the announcement: “Will customers for the Indian Pacific calling at Broken Hill, Adelaide and Perth please make their way to platforms 2 and 3.” (The train is so long it needs two platforms, though it comes together just out of the station). Then, at 15.03 on the dot, we were off. Perth lay almost exactly 72 hours ahead.
The journey of the Indian Pacific itself stretches over a much longer timespan. Indeed, today it will be exactly 100 years since two construction teams, one coming from the east and one from the west, met at the tiny siding of Ooldea, marking the completion of the final link of the stretch of track through the Nullarbor, thus making possible for the first time the coast-to-coast navigation by train of the entire Australian land mass.
The line – years in the planning – was intended to play a vital part in cementing what was still the fairly recently formed Commonwealth of Australia, even though in those early pioneering days, the journey was considerably less smooth than it is today. There were three different rail gauges that necessitated several changes of train along the way. And the arrival of what were then smoke-billowing steam trains produced a fearful reaction among indigenous Aboriginals, who believed they were great white snakes carrying evil spirits.
We were given a chance to reflect on all this on that first evening with June and David, softly spoken pensioners from the mountainous area north of Sydney who had always fancied crossing the country on one of its most iconic journeys and who were going to be spending a few days at the other end exploring the craggy landscapes and unique wildlife of the Kimberley region. Sonya had placed us at the same dining table as David and June and, as we trundled west through the darkness, Blue Mountains a distant blur, we enjoyed a meal consisting of dishes such as sweet potato soup, Pacific Ocean swordfish and sticky date pudding – good, comforting but also nicely imaginative – and exchanged train stories (ours of the Trans-Mongolian; theirs of the Trans-Cantabrian in Spain) and experiences of London.
There was a wistful look in David’s eye as he recalled Earls Court in the Seventies. He warmed, too, to the subject of Brexit. “It could lead to a resumption of stronger UK-Australia ties,” he enthused. “I’m sure the UK will do better out of the EU and have a stronger voice in the world.”
One of the reasons we’d travelled to the other side of the world was to get away from endless talk of Brexit. And there’s nowhere quite like the Australian Outback to clear the mind and give fresh perspective.
We appreciated this more keenly the following morning when we got our first proper look at the red earth so distinctive to the country. We were approaching Broken Hill for the first of what were to be a string of stops and diversions along the way. What an extraordinary place. Named Silver City as a result of the vast deposits of silver, zinc and lead discovered in the 1880s, this is a town that exudes a rich and racy past and which, though much-diminished, is still home to working mines.
Today it is also a tourist attraction – people come for the industrial heritage, the dramatic landscape, colourful art and a striking sculpture park a few miles out of town. It was quiet during our early-morning stopover, but we managed breakfast in a café that looked as though it had been unchanged since the Fifties and a stroll through a park containing a touching memorial to the perished members of the band who played during the last hours of the Titanic.
There is a lot of outback and hours are spent on the train peering into the vast empty space of the wilderness punctuated by the odd shrub and bush and – to general delight – sightings of kangaroos, wallabies and emus. The feeling of desolation is exacerbated later in the journey in the Nullarbor Plain, that huge expanse of arid flat terrain famously referred to as “a hideous anomaly; a blot on the face of nature,” by Edward John Eyre, an early explorer.
“Surely you’ll find it monotonous,” some friends had warned. “A day might be OK, but three?”
Actually, no. We found the starkness and extraordinary flatness of the scenery mesmerising, strangely compelling and utterly other-worldly. And although some on board who had been on Australia’s other epic train journey – the Ghan on the north-south axis that goes from Darwin to Adelaide – said that was the more impressive of the two, we were never bored.
For those that were, there were the stops – in addition to Broken Hill, an afternoon spent in Adelaide, home to the magnificent Oval (a must-see for cricket fans) and a city surrounded by green parklands and the vineyards of the Barossa Valley to the north. In the Nullarbor itself there was a fascinating encounter with Gary, the “Mayor of Cook”, one of only four residents of a desert township that used to boast a population of 200, with its own hospital, school and golf course. “We love it here,” said Gary, opening a tinnie on his veranda. “We love the peace and quiet.” Just as well, because there’s a lot of that in the middle of the Nullarbor.
Back on board, for those of a more gregarious disposition, it was always possible to retreat to the Outback Explorer Lounge and join others for a drink (the wine and beer flowed freely – literally). As travellers in Gold Class, we found ourselves sharing tables with others for almost every meal – something that without exception we found enjoyable, and much more convivial than the separate dining arrangements afforded to guests in the superior Platinum Class carriages.
Over the course of the three days we met a range of people – mainly Australian couples in the grey nomad category but also a German couple on an extensive tour of the country and a father and son team who loved ticking off exotic-sounding place names on the map – West Kalgoorlie, Mambray Creek, Orange East Fork, Wirraminna – and marvelling at the fact that at times so flat was the surrounding country that you could actually see the curvature of the earth.
Mealtimes also afforded the opportunity to break the days and discover more about our fellow passengers. Some, as the journey progressed, revealed to us poms that they were in fact – gasp with respect – direct descendants of the early convicts. We shook their hands warmly (though we all laughed when I advised my wife to keep a firm hold of her handbag).
Further entertainments came in the form of board games and books to borrow, and regular performances by the on-board guitar player Warren. There was also a memorable evening when we stopped for a trackside feast under the stars and a full moon in the small settlement of Rawlinna.
At this point we were almost on the final stretch; all that lay ahead was the push into Western Australia and the return of greener hues, towering trees and fields of cattle – so welcome after all that red earth – as we made the final run towards the Indian Ocean. We’d found it all utterly fascinating. But what, I wondered, was it like for those who did the journey regularly?
“I never tire of it,” said train steward Jols, a man with a splendid curling moustache and a naturally upbeat disposition. “No matter how often you do it, no two journeys on the Indian Pacific are ever the same. You always notice something different.”
There was one final question still niggling as the 14.57 arrival in Perth drew near, and I put it to one of the many on board with whom we had shared the ride.
“So when exactly is beer o’clock, Malcolm?”
“Beer o’clock, mate? It’s whenever you feel like it.”
- The Indian Pacific is run by Great Southern Rail (greatsouthernrail.com.au). Trips are between Sydney and Perth with an option to do part of the journey to or from Adelaide.
- There are two classes of cabin: Gold (standard and larger) and Platinum (double beds; enhanced dining).
- Fares for Sydney-Perth start at AUS$2,899 (£1,710) per person (two sharing), with discounted fares out of peak season.
- Best times to travel are spring and autumn (Sept-Oct; Feb-May).
- The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express it is not. “Shorts and flip-flops are fine for lunch,” we were told. Bring something warm for the cooler times of year.
- Off-train experiences include, for passengers on the Perth-Sydney route, in Broken Hill, The Main Drag, a show staged by local drag queens in the Palace Hotel – used in the filming of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. In Adelaide there’s a tour of the Oval.
- Quirky facts: average train speed is 53mph; average train length is 2,539ft (774m); the Indian Pacific’s inaugural run, after a uniform standard gauge track was completed, was on Feb 23 1970.