The mid-morning sun glints off the stainless steel carriages of the Indian Pacific, stationary at the non-descript East Perth Terminal in Perth, as it waits for its passengers to board and set off on a journey of 4,352km across the Australian landmass to Sydney.
I’m travelling from Perth to Adelaide, a mere 2,369km, which takes about 42 hours, including two nights on the train. It is one of the world’s more storied train journeys, immortalised in an eponymous song by Australian country legend Slim Dusty, as well as in the Bill Bryson classic Down Under.
The Indian Pacific in its current form first ran in 1970 when a hodge-podge of railway gauges was finally unified and a single, standard-gauge railroad was laid all the way across the continent. In its early days, when it served a transport function as well, the Indian Pacific, connecting the Indian Ocean with the Pacific, ran four days a week. In its current tourist-focussed avatar, it runs once a week in each direction, except for a two-and-a-half month period between September and November, when it runs twice a week.
There are three classes of travel — Platinum, Gold and Red — and I’m travelling Gold Class, which is what the majority of the carriages are devoted to. Platinum Class is the über-luxe option that features full-fledged hotel-like rooms, while Red Class has large, spacious reclining seats with lots of legroom, but doesn’t include meals, beverages and off-train excursions in the fare.
In Gold Class, if you’re travelling alone, you’re given a ‘roomette’, a rather snug unit that accommodates a seat that transforms into a bed at night, and a drop-down sink. Toilets and showers are at the ends of each carriage. If you’re travelling as a couple, or are fortunate enough to be allotted one as a solo traveller, you get a ‘twinette’, and it’s considerably more spacious and comfortable. This features a wide sofa-like seat that converts to two bunk beds, not unlike a first-class AC coupe on an Indian train. But that’s where the similarities end. My twinette is done up in tasteful wood veneer and features a proper cupboard with a safe built in. It also comes with an en suite shower-cum-toilet that is a marvel of space management. There’s also a small washbasin with hot and cold water, and a full complement of hotel-like toiletries and fresh towels secreted away in a little cabinet. My seat was magically transformed into a shockingly comfortable bed when I was away for dinner, and equally magically restored when I was away for breakfast. If you don’t bother to draw the blinds, you can have a view of the starry sky as you go to sleep (and an eyeful of sun if you don’t wake up early enough).
My train is slightly delayed getting out of Perth on account of a technical problem of some sort, but my cabin is not a bad place to bide the time reading the supplied literature about the train and fiddling around with the channels of piped music. There are four of them, one each that play Western classical and jazz, another that plays pop music of a certain vintage (think Dolly Parton and the Jackson 5) and yet another that plays slightly more contemporary pop music, but still nothing so daring as to be from this millennium.
“Would you like me to wake you up with some coffee or tea?” asks my cheery conductor Beth as she gives me a quick briefing about the train, its features and the mealtimes. I decline the offer, but if you are so inclined, the freshly-brewed coffee on board the train is excellent and it wouldn’t be a bad way to start your day.
Once the train gets moving, I make my way through a few carriages and I reach the Outback Explorer Lounge. This is where you can relax and read a book (there is a small selection of books in the lounge library, but unless your interests extend to Australian arcana or trains, you’re well advised to bring your own), play one of the provided board games, order from an extensive selection of beers, spirits and Australian wines, all of which are included in the Gold Class fare, and stare out of the large glass windows at the passing scenery.
The friendly and ever-helpful hospitality manager Catherine ushers me to the Queen Adelaide Restaurant car for my ‘lunch reservation’ at 1.30. Lunch is a sumptuous three-course affair, with a pre-selected appetiser of soft and crusty damper rolls with a spicy-sweet jam. For my main course, I order what turns out to be a perfectly pan-seared medium-rare beef medallion served with garlic mash potatoes, chilli jam, crispy pancetta and a shiraz jus, and dessert is an unfussy yet deeply satisfying lemon meringue pie. Meals on the train (all of which are included in the Gold Class fare) are all extraordinarily well-thought-out affairs. Whether it’s the delicious kangaroo steak or the free-range chicken, they all have some relation to the regions that the train passes through, and are painstakingly prepared and plated. Add to this the superb selection of wines including a rich ‘Stella Bella’ Cabernet Merlot and a light and soft Di Giorgio ‘Lucindale’ sparkling Pinot Noir Chardonnay, and the experience of dining on board the Indian Pacific is easily reminiscent of dining at a restaurant of a high standard.
For the rest of the time when you’re not eating, drinking or sleeping, there’s many hours of truly spectacular scenery to gaze upon. From the plains of Western Australia with its endless fields and shrubbery to the immense bleakness of the Nullarbor plain (Nullarbor meaning ‘no trees’ in Latin), to the red earth and uneven terrain of South Australia, there’s every shade of vast emptiness that you could possibly imagine. The Nullarbor is particularly fascinating because it also features the longest stretch of straight railroad in the world, a staggering 478km without a single bend. If you’re lucky, you’ll also spot a few kangaroos or camels as you speed along; but I wasn’t, unfortunately.
The journey on the Indian Pacific also features off-train excursions, including one at the gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie, but these are subject to the train’s running schedule; with my train running late, the tour of Kalgoorlie was cancelled. You can also get off the train at Cook, a town in the midst of the Nullarbor plain that proudly boasts a population of four people, whose job it is to fuel and water the trains that pass by (of which all but the Indian Pacific are freight trains). It used to be home to 300 people, and you can still see a crowd of buildings that used to serve as a school, a hospital, a store and houses, which are all lying unused. It’s effectively four people away from becoming a full-fledged ghost town, but it’s an intriguing glimpse of what life is like in the back of beyond.
“I definitely prefer this train to the Ghan,” says Barry from Rockhampton, referring to the Indian Pacific’s more famous cousin that runs from Adelaide to Darwin. The occupants of the train are mostly elderly, which I suppose is because this is not a cheap journey to undertake. This means you end up meeting people who’ve accumulated a lifetime of stories. From a rail enthusiast and his wife from Yorkshire, to a group of two couples who had motorbiked their way from Sydney to Perth (a 4,900km ride, they tell me) to a couple setting off to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary on the Sydney Harbour bridge, there’s a wealth of fascinating conversations (and obviously one or two slightly less interesting ones) to be had on board the Indian Pacific.
The emptiness of the Outback is truly amplified by the fact that there is no cell phone reception virtually throughout the second day, unless you’ve opted for a Telstra SIM, which I understand has fairly good coverage along the line. So you can decide between solitude and connectivity when picking a pre-paid connection at the airport. There is thankfully no wi-fi yet, although Beth tells me “we’re working on it”. The crew on board are all exceptionally friendly and helpful and are a vital component in your feeling utterly pampered for the length of your journey.
On the third day, the train pulls into Adelaide bang on time at 7.20am, and I sign up for a city tour of Adelaide that is an optional extra for those alighting there. It turns out to be a rather nice way to get a quick bus-bound view of the very picturesque city. As I collect my bags and head out of the Adelaide Parklands Terminal, even after spending an indulgent two days on board the Indian Pacific, I feel a stab of regret that I’m not continuing all the way up to Sydney.
You can board the Indian Pacific at Sydney, Adelaide or Perth, depending on your Australia itinerary. Sydney return fares from Delhi start at Rs 58,000, Adelaide at Rs 63,000 and Perth at Rs 57,000. It makes sense to book multi-city tickets so that you can, for instance, start your Australia trip in Perth, take the train all the way to Sydney, and then fly back to India from Sydney.
When to go
The train runs once a week (from Sydney on Wednesdays, from Perth on Sundays) through the year, with an additional service (from Sydney on Saturday, from Perth on Wednesday) between August 31, 2014, and November 19, 2014.
What it costs
The full journey costs A$2,489 per person travelling in a Gold Service twinette. Red Service for the same journey costs A$899. Other prices and options are available at greatsouthernrail.com.au. There are discounts to be had if you book more than six months in advance.
What it includes
The Gold Service fare includes, apart from your cabin, all meals as well as wines, beers, spirits and other beverages calculated to keep you in good cheer throughout the journey. The fare also includes off-train excursions at Kalgoorlie, Adelaide and Broken Hill. The Red Service fare gives you a reclining seat — and access to hot showers and a cafe car where you can purchase food and drinks.
What to wear
As is usually the case in Australia, casual wear is the norm. Shorts and a T-shirt are every bit as acceptable as trousers/jeans and a shirt. Anything more formal would probably make you feel terribly out of place.