I’m in Perth, Western Australia, and I’m getting ready to board a truly transcontinental train. The luxurious Indian Pacific will be my hotel and restaurant-on-rails for three nights and four days, as I travel over 4,300 km to Sydney.
The lounge car is the centre of activity on board. Passengers can enjoy barista-made coffee, all-inclusive drinks, watch live music or play along with a pub quiz in the train’s lounge cars. Each group of sleeping carriages share their own lounge, named after pioneering Australian explorers.
Our first train stop was at sun down, 370 miles from Perth and passengers left the train to board a fleet of buses waiting to take us on one of our all-inclusive excursions. Our destination was Kalgoorlie, a town once known as Hannan’s Find, dedicated to the Irishman responsible for Australia’s biggest and last gold rush in 1883.
Patrick Hannan remains prominent in statue form. And as the bus drove through the dark city streets, I could still get a sense of wealth from Kalgoorlie’s grand civic buildings. The dome, on top of the Town Hall’s clock tower, is etched in 24 carat gold!
The town’s Supreme Court cost £60,000 to build – ‘big money’ back in 1900. You’ll also notice how wide the streets are. That’s because camel trains used to cross this desert before the train arrived and the town built its exceptionally large thoroughfares to allow camels to turn easily.
As our bus left the main strip, a pithead wheel towered over the town. The mining that created this initial wealth is still massive here. Australia is the second largest gold producer after China and this town is at the heart of this industry.
We soon reached Hannan’s North tourist mine, on the outskirts of Kalgoorlie. There’s a chance to pose against the wheels of the huge yellow dump trucks. The tyres must be 20 feet high. An onsite mining museum tells the town’s story. But I chose to sit outside as a theatre company performed by lantern light and brought the town’s founders to life.
“The play is about the history of Kalgoorlie – how it was formed and the dangers that the prospectors faced coming out into this new world,” explained actress Keira Bolitho. She was well versed in Paddy’s life history. “After finding the gold, he moved to Melbourne and drank all of his money away. His partners took the rest of the gold and the fame. He died sad and alone at his sister’s house,” she said.
After the show, we drove on through the bleak, rocky landscape in the darkness until we saw the bright lights of the Super pit open cast goldmine, the world’s biggest. From the viewing area it looked like someone had scooped out a chunk of land, in the way you spoon ice cream from a tub. Floodlighting revealed machines bigger than bungalows descending the terraces that fringed the deep excavation.
Our driver Harry Argus was born here and he knows the mine stats off pat. “It’s about 3½ km long, 1½ km kilometres wide and it’s just over 600m deep. There are a lot of mines outside of Kalgoorlie but everybody working here lives in Kalgoorlie,” Harry said. That’s important to locals. I’d heard some mutterings about people who fly in to work in these remote outposts and fly home with all of the cash at the end of their run of shifts. This mine clearly had the locals on side. “I’ve heard that this will operate until 2029,” said Harry.
Back on the train and for most of the next day we crossed the mainly flat, red and arid desert of the Nullarbor Plain. It’s a barren plateau, twice the size of England. There was nothing to see. Even the name, Nullarbor, means ‘no trees’. But that’s the attraction – watching this unique, inhospitable landscape slip past from the air-conditioned comfort of the Indian Pacific.
The track appeared dead straight for almost 300 miles – the longest stretch of straight railway on earth. Astronauts can even pick out this long line across the desert, they say. I chatted to train driver JD about it. It’s not his favourite part of the route. “You get up to the last turn and you think – oh we are in for the long run now,” he said. “It’s straight, but it’s not flat.”
I asked JD about the boredom in the cab. “We pair up, so we get to talk about all sorts of things. And we enjoy a fair variety of weather conditions – wind and thunder and lightning,” he said. JD quickly recalled the most incredible sights he’s seen from his cab. “It was a pitch black night and a meteorite entered the atmosphere and turned the whole sky green,” he smiled.
When JD is in the cab at the front of this 775m-long train, he says he always feels that he has got his dream job. “When you turn the corner and you look in your rear view mirror and you see the great freight haulage that you’re pulling, you feel a sense of accomplishment,” he said.
The train made a short scheduled stop in the really remote settlement of Cook. The stop is 1,384 km from Perth and 2,972 km from Sydney. I had heard it described as a ghost town but it’s not the sort that you see in the Westerns. There are no saloon doors hanging off or tumbleweed here. It’s a settlement of modern, prefabricated bungalows and, at first glance, if it weren’t for the distinct lack of activity, you wouldn’t know that it had been abandoned.
As we stepped down from the train to the trackside, Train Manager Dean Duka explained why hardly anyone lives here today. “It was established in 1917 when the transcontinental line was laid. Ninety people once lived here. There was a school and a hospital,” Dean said, gesticulating toward some low rise, prefabricated buildings.
“In 1989, when Australian National Railways was sold, Great Southern Rail didn’t need the town anymore so now it’s just a stopover for the drivers. They have a break of up to 11 hours and catch freight trains back to their home stations. Only four people live in Cook. Their job is to look after the drivers. They rotate the people that live here every six months so they don’t get cabin fever because it is very isolated,” said Dean.
Isolated it is. The highway is 107 km away on an unsealed road. “It is very, very rough”, said Dean. “When you get to the highway you’re still approximately 400 km from the next town.” A sign on the train station forecourt says ‘if you’re crook, come to Cook.’ Crook is slang for sick, but since the hospital has closed, that’s not great advice. Today, the nearest GP is half a day away.
After 30 minutes in one of the most hostile environments on the planet, I was ready to reboard the Indian Pacific. The crew signs each guest off the train and signs them back on board, so nobody is left behind!
I really appreciated the wonderful food served in the air-conditioned restaurant carriage. Before I embarked on this journey, I had assumed that the meals would be similar to airline food. I was very wrong. The food was excellent. And as we left Cook, I went to find the cook, Senior Chef, Joe Koziak.
“The kitchens are specially designed and the chefs have a high set of skills,” he said. The Indian Pacific tries to mirror local delicacies and tastes as it winds its way across Australia. “Camels were used by the Afghanis when they explored this part of Australia. When that profession ended they just released them into the wild. They thrive out here,” said Joe. So he puts them on the menus for the Nullarbor stretch!
“As we are around Cook, we have a wonderful camel tagine. Many guests are uncertain about eating camel but as the journey progresses they get used to the standard of our food. They are ready to get adventurous,” Joe smiled.
The menu is interesting and so are the serving locations. We’d started the day with an alfresco breakfast alongside the tracks at an isolated sheep station. “In an aeroplane you just can’t pull the plane over and have a meal outside. It’s really good,” said Joe as he recalled the morning’s trackside breakfast. “It’s rustic Australiana with the smell from the fire.”
More food was ahead at our next stop. The Indian Pacific was heading to Adelaide, one of Australia’s most cultured cities and quite a contrast from Cook. It was morning when we arrived in the capital of South Australia, recently named Australia’s ‘most liveable city.’
The city is named after George IV’s wife and was planned to impress. Adelaide’s grand 19th and early 20thcentury buildings run up to the River Torrens, which flows through the heart of town. “You can go on a pedal boat on the river or walk to the beach, which is 8 km away. And there are free cycle bikes in Adelaide,” our guide exclaimed.
The CBD, or city centre, is easily walkable and covers just one square mile. Adelaide’s centre is notable for its number of churches and because it is circled by leafy parkland. The botanic gardens are impressive for their tree-lined avenues and high-end, conservatory restaurant but the Georgians, who laid out the city, planned the open spaces for defensive reasons rather than aesthetics. “The green space was seen as a form of protection. If they were being invaded then the cannonballs would have to go through the park before they hit the city,” our guide Jenny explained.
Adelaide is considered a cultural place with numerous theatres, art galleries and museums. Some locals claim that the city is a cut above because its first settlers chose Adelaide. They weren’t sent here. “The early settlers who came here were free people. They moved to Adelaide for a better life. They weren’t compelled to live here, unlike the folks in the convict areas,” Jenny explained.
Adelaide’s Oval is a popular choice for cricket fans and a specific off-train excursion takes passengers on a tour of the ground, where they can view the iconic scoreboard, erected over a century ago.
As the Perth to Sydney train arrives at breakfast time, I headed to the city’s vibrant food market, an Adelaide institution. This market hall first opened in 1869 and it’s filled with stalls offering tastes of South Australia’s excellent local produce.
Mark Gleeson of Adelaide Central Market says the city’s settlers came from all over the world and that has help create an interesting food culture. “It’s a melting pot of immigration. Germans, Italians, Greeks, Vietnamese, Africans, Afghanis. Each of those cultures has brought their food offering to this state,” Mark told me.
Adelaide’s location, away from the more populated east coast, has also encouraged a local food economy. “Self-sufficiency in farming has given Adelaide a bit of a jump ahead in terms of food culture,” Mark said. And he made those comments as an east coast import! “I came from Sydney thirty years ago and after a couple of months I fell in love with the joint. It just gets under your skin,” said Mark.
At first glance you might think that the market stalls would only be taken by small traders, but there are some big producers here too. Mark says there’s kudos associated with having a stall in the market and many traders who started off there have chosen to retain a presence, staying close to their roots. “Some of these businesses are very sophisticated food industries. There’s a butcher here called Barossa Fine Foods. Their grandfather started the business 70 or 80 years ago and they now have around twenty stores in South Australia. I’d estimate a turnover of $20 or $30 million,” said Mark.
Tour guide Sheryl Turner took the train passengers for a tasting tour of the market. Sheryl moved to Adelaide from Devon but there are no cream teas on her sampling session. “We have red gum smoked kangaroo, smoked crocodile, emu cabana and kangaroo bratwurst to start with,” smiled Sheryl. As I smelled and nibbled samples of leaves and herbs that are local to South Australia, I felt a real sense of food discovery. I was experiencing flavours that I’d not tasted elsewhere.
We headed back to Mark and he offered me a huge slice of his signature dish – an iconic Aussie dessert, his delicious pavlova. “Traditionally it is a circular cake made with crunchy meringue and with a sticky centre covered in cream, passion fruit, strawberries and kiwi fruit. But we’ve added a modern twist,” exclaimed Mark. “Ours is made with soft meringue and rolled with a filling of fresh cream, blueberries, raspberries and wedges of dark chocolate.” It had a marshmallow texture and was rich, delicious and very moreish!
I’d certainly spend more time in Adelaide. Sheryl informed me that the city is generally cheaper than Sydney or Melbourne for drinks and meals. We were back on board the train in time for elevenses, although I couldn’t face another morsel.
The next leg of the journey brought a welcome change in scenery. It was good to see some greenery and undulating hills – the perfect backdrop for a post-brunch snooze. We reached our next stop after sunset – the silver mining-bankrolled town of Broken Hill. And like Kalgoorlie, the town’s architecture suggested that its forefathers had plenty of funds available.
Today, this isolated town has become an arts and crafts outpost. And fans of ‘Priscilla Queen Of The Dessert’ flock to the Palace Hotel. The train trip includes a ticket and drinks for the ‘Main Drag’ show, which is performed in the actual theatre that featured in the movie. “70% was filmed here in Broken Hill,” drag artist Shalita Buffet told me.
The hotel setting is stunning. It has a grand, Victorian musical hall feel. It’s a ‘one of a kind’ with its murals all over the foyer walls. In the main theatre, the acts on stage are also very special.
Shalita and performance partner Christina Knees-Up were heavily made up, waiting for the show. After the risqué, crowd-pleasing performance of gags, insults and dancing to disco hits, the pair posed for photos. “Pictures are mandatory,” Shalita announced over the p.a. system.
The couple perform just one regular show each week, especially for the train travellers. Christina, who works in accounts during the day, explained that the artistes spend a lot of time preparing to go on stage. “If you are going to do a swishy job, the make-up can take anywhere between three and four hours. It’s a big effort. If anybody thinks that drag is just slapping on a bit of make up, they’d be surprised,” she said. “These aren’t even our real hips!” interjected Shalita, who also said she was proud of being able to dance in nine-inch heels.
The show is great fun. Many people in our party couldn’t resist dancing along to ‘I Will Survive,’ ‘It’s Raining Men’ and ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’. Amusingly, there were one or two people in the audience who had no idea what was going on – or why they were there!
Broken Hill is in the state of New South Wales, but the clocks there follow South Australian time as the town is close to the border. During the Indian Pacific journey, the train crosses three time zones and one of the time changes requires you to alter your watch by thirty minutes, which seems confusing and pretty pointless.
Next morning, I opened the blind of my cabin to view more stunning scenery. The train snaked along the single track, through cuttings between undulating hills and rolling green countryside of the Central Tablelands. If it wasn’t for the tree varieties, this landscape could have been mid-Devon or the Cotswolds. It was very familiar. In some places the tight turns in the track meant you could see much of the train behind.
We left the train at Mount Victoria at the start of the Sydney commuter lines, 3,400 feet above sea level. We were heading to the Blue Mountains, one of Australia’s most cherished National Parks.
Scenic World is a theme park where the panoramic vistas of this region of cliffs, waterfalls and forests are the attractions. If you have a head for heights you’ll be captivated by the expansive views of the stunning gorges.
Staff work hard to get the passengers excited before they ride one of the world’s steepest passenger railways. The gradient is 52° but you can pull a seat switch and everyone on your row will be forced to sit at a 64° incline. The carriage looks more like an enclosed ski lift with a row of seats, your legs clamped in by a bar.
As we waited to board the attraction, the walls are decorated by pictures of the original mine railway, with what looked like skips for carriages. That descent must have been terrifying. It’s frightening enough today when the modern vehicle plunges down the steep mountainside, along 310 metres of track.
You can take the train back up to the visitor centre at the top or wander at your leisure along one of the trails, through thick green rainforest filled with art installations. But I saved the best part of the park for last. You have a choice of two ways to take in the stunning views down the valley and across to the rocky sandstone pinnacles, known as the Three Sisters. There’s the Cableway, the steepest and largest aerial cable car in the southern hemisphere, or the Scenic Skyway, which transports you 270 metres above the craggy rocks. You’ll get stunning views, wherever you’re standing, thanks to the glass floor. The spectacle is breath taking.
After lunch, the Indian Pacific staff took us to the train station where we boarded a service for the 90-minute journey to the incredible city of Sydney. Even the last minutes of this experience felt special, as we were encouraged to board a ‘private, chartered train.’ The train journey had ended, but another adventure in Australia’s biggest city, one of the world’s greatest, was about to begin.
I had no real sense of Australia’s size until I crossed the continent on the Indian Pacific. And through my cabin window and the off board excursions, I gained a better understanding of how much variety there is across this huge nation. From Perth’s gleaming skyscrapers to rather grim ghost towns, culturally rich Adelaide to gold-rich boom towns, red arid desert to fertile green farmland. The Indian Pacific provides weeks worth of experiences crammed into four days. And you only need to unpack once!
You can learn more about the Perth to Sydney train experience at www.greatsouthernrail.com.au.
For Adelaide info, check out www.southaustralia.com.
Listen to our full report here: