Exploring Australia 2: The Indian Pacific

The Indian Pacific:  lounge car (2009)

The Indian Pacific: lounge car (2009)

The Indian Pacific is a serious train [http://www.gsr.com.au/site/indian_pacific.jsp].  For me, it’s the only way to see how big Australia is.  Starting from Perth at midday Wednesday, it takes nearly two days – two lunches, two dinners, two nights’ sleep, and one-and-a-half breakfasts (the latter a doggy-bag before disembarking at Adelaide).  For the even more serious-minded, it continues via Broken Hill to Sydney.

The line from Perth to Adelaide, or more specifically the section from Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta, has major historical significance:  its construction clinched the deal by which Western Australia agreed to join the Commonwealth of Australia in 1900.  Without that deal Western Australia would have remained for the time being a British colony and would, very probably, have achieved independence like New Zealand.  (There was a point in the 1890s when New Zealand considered amalgamating with Australia, but the New Zealanders thought better of it.)

The statistics are awesome – 4,325 kilometres (2,687½ miles) for the full run from Perth to Sydney, crossing two time-zones, including the longest stretch of straight railway track (478 kilometres; 297 miles) in the world.

The train itself is awesome – 29 vehicles, including power cars, crew cars, baggage car and motor-rail vehicles, 771 metres (843 yards) long, 1,375 tonnes, drawn by one extremely powerful diesel locomotive – crawling its way across the endless landscape, much of the time on single track, pausing at passing places to make room for enormous freight trains.

It’s not cheap.  The basic version is Red Service – coach-style seating, by the look of it not dissimilar to basic Amtrak, in which people sit for days on end.  You see Red passengers boarding very sensibly carrying pillows.  There are also Red sleeper compartments.  The next version up is Gold Service – your own compartment, loos and showers at the end of the carriage, a comfortable bar car and a quite opulent dining car with all meals included.  There is something called Platinum Service, newly introduced with spare vehicles from the Ghan route:  apparently, the compartments are more roomy, with en-suite facilities.

On board Gold class, the single compartment is, rather like the interior of an airliner, a masterpiece of compact planning.  Even the wash-basin folds away.  The wardrobe, such as it is, is all of three inches wide;  the bed, of course, folds down;  the window-blinds sit within the double-glazed unit, controlled by an ingenious winding handle.  An odd consequence of the layout of the single compartments is that the central corridor is literally sinuous:  it curves from side to side.  Other coaches with double-bunk compartments have the customary layout with the corridor down one side.

There can be no better way to appreciate the vastness and emptiness of this great continent, without going to the lengths of driving for days on end, as Bill Bryson did in researching his excellent book, Down Under (2000).

I sat for the first hour or so, watching the route out through suburban Greater Perth, leaving behind the electric commuter trains, heading into the hills.  I chose to watch our way through an anonymous valley, with an accommodation road snaking alongside the track:  it was a good twenty minutes before I spotted any sign of life – a track-maintenance crew with their pick-up miles from anywhere.

Through a lunchtime glass of beer, an introductory presentation with a free glass of champagne, an interminable wait for second sitting and lunch itself, the landscape gradually opened out, became virtual desert, then became more verdant, hour after hour, mile upon mile.

As the first afternoon wore on, the train occasionally passed vast grain silos, then pastures with surprisingly purposeful-looking sheep, then monotonous low scrub, then patchy woodland.  For anyone used to watching rail journeys in Europe, this is indeed slow-motion travelling, despite the respectable speed of the train.  For hours on end there are no valleys, so no bridges or tunnels, hardly a cutting and never a viaduct.  Where there were cuttings, the rock varied in colour from pale grey to gunmetal to rust;  elsewhere the soil might be mustard or ochre.  That’s all there was to look at:  it was oddly restful.

Sometimes the trackside dirt road was punctuated by a gate, with the name of a ranch (which the Australians call a station) hidden beyond the horizon.  The lifestyle out here is a world away from the experience of most Europeans.  In all but the remotest corners of the British Isles, it’s a matter of choice not to go window-shopping, not to go the theatre or a big-league sporting event;  in populous regions education, health services, social life, variety is effectively on tap.  Living in rural Australia involves a direct reversal of these expectations.  These people must have particular qualities of self-reliance, initiative, stamina and determination.

The evening ended, after a convivial dinner, with a ludicrous but informative tour of the gold-mining twin towns of Kalgoorlie-Boulder in the middle of the night, peering at nineteenth-century hotels and public buildings, viewing the huge floodlit Superpit on the outskirts of town and examining the remaining, innocuous-looking brothels on Hay Street.  The coach-driver was straight from Central Casting – began each stage of the journey with the expression “Okey-doke”, and all of his sentences? Went up at the end? Like they do in Australia?  He knew what he was talking about, and went out of his way to make sure we saw as much as we could in the circumstances.

And so, as they say, to bed…


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