Riding The Rails in Australia by Jim Loomis

As early as the mid-1800s, Australian railroads hauled grain and ore to seaports and carried passengers between state capitals. But it wasn’t until 1969 that tracks spanning the continent all conformed to one standard gauge. A year later, the Indian Pacific began running between Sydney on the east coast and Perth on the west and instantly became one of the world’s great transcontinental trains.
A second line, the Ghan, opened in 1929, rolling north from Adelaide on the Southern Ocean. But it stopped mid-continent at Alice Springs. Finally, in 2004, the route went the distance, stretching up to Darwin on the north coast.
Two great train rides and, taken together, they offer a full-credit course in Aussie 101.

From East to West …

My three-night rail journey across Australia won’t begin for another two hours, but I’m on the platform at Sydney’s main train station early to get my first look at the Indian Pacific, an almost endless line of elegant stainless steel rail carriages.

A full two hours before departure, passengers begin to appear and spend the time savoring the anticipation of the coming rail journey.

This legendary train operates twice weekly between Sydney and the city of Perth, 2700 miles across the continent on the Indian Ocean and, at precisely 2:55 p.m., it glides out of the station, rattling through a series of switches onto the main line.
The lounge car is the social center of the train and it’s here the passengers have assembled 30 minutes later for a welcoming champagne reception. There are people from many different countries here, but all share the common bond of enjoying train travel, and conversation flows easily.
I’ll be having diner at 8:00, the second sitting in the dining car, so there’s time to relax in my compartment and watch the passing scenery as the train climbs up into the Blue Mountains.
If my first experience in the Indian Pacific’s dining car is any indication, we are going to eat very, very well over the next three days. I start by choosing a zucchini, leek and blue cheese soup, then segue neatly to pork escallops on a potato-corn hash with carrots, yams and a prune puree. Dessert is a generous slab of banana cheesecake topped with passion fruit sauce.
The berth has been made up by the time I return to my compartment and, after a steaming hot shower in my private phone-booth-sized lavatory and an hour of reading, the rocking of the train lulls me, and I drift off.
The sun is already up when I awaken. The Blue Mountains are well behind us now and we’re passing through low hills, the reddish soil dotted with gray-green brush and gum trees.
Our first stop of the day is at Broken Hill. Many of my fellow passengers take the hour-long bus tour of this mining town, while I opt for a brisk walk up and down the platform. It’s already quite warm and the temperature will pass 100 degrees well before noon.
Later, with everyone back on board and enjoying lunch, the Indian Pacific is rolling through wheat fields and lush pastures dotted with sheep. By mid-afternoon we reach Adelaide, the capital of South Australia – a comfortable city, with wide streets and spacious well-kept parks.
There’s a crew-change here and the new attendants and chefs and train managers pick up seamlessly; another excellent dinner served in two sittings with berths made up while we dine.

Passengers chat with the engine drivers as they watch the Indian Pacific’s locomotives being refueled.

Just after breakfast on our second morning, the train eases to a stop at the town of Cook, well out onto the vast, desolate Nullarbor Plain, extending for hundreds of miles in every direction.  This was originally a service stop for steam locomotives when the railroad was constructed in 1917, but since the advent of diesel power in the early 50s, the town’s population has shrunk and, on this particular day, stands at two … both middle-aged ladies busily selling trinkets to passengers packing a little souvenir shop. Their husbands are away, but will be returning next week when, one of the women says with a laugh, the town’s population will double.

Departing Cook, the India Pacific heads due west across the Nullarbor Plain toward the Indian Ocean, two nights and some 1800 miles away.

Thirty minutes later, the Indian Pacific is again heading west, rocking along on the longest perfectly strain stretch of railroad track in the world – 302 miles. Outside, the Nullarbor is constantly if subtly changing: quite barren and desolate for a time then, an hour later, rocks and boulders lie scattered beyond the horizon. Later still, trees appear – gnarled and scrawny, but with pompoms of bright green leaves at the tips of the branches.
Over lunch, I ask a garrulous farmer from the wine-growing region north of Sydney what constitutes “The Outback” here in Australia. “Well, mate,” he says, “I’d say the Outback is everything west of the east coast and everything east of the west coast.” And he guffaws loudly.
Framed by a miraculous sunset, the Indian Pacific arrives for a two-hour stop at Kalgoorlie. Gold was discovered here in 1893 and the town’s main attraction is the Super Pit, a monstrous “open cut” mine that’s a mile across and nearly 1000 feet deep. Many of the buildings have a distinct Victorian design, and there are even three legal brothels. As our tour bus slowly passes one called The Red House, two of the girls wave cheerfully from a picture window, prompting our driver to note rather wistfully that there were once more than 40 such establishments here in the town’s heyday.
When I awaken the next morning, the Indian Pacific is in the final stretch run of our trans-continental journey. In the dining car over breakfast, passengers exchange email addresses as we trundle through the outskirts of Perth on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Ten minutes later, the first part of my crisscrossing of Australia comes to an end.

… and from North to South

As my Qantas flight settles through cloud layers on its approach to Darwin, I recall a fellow passenger on the Indian Pacific who had said – quite proudly, I thought – that Australia was “either too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry.”
He was right: Darwin is steamy-hot and it’s pouring rain. Sightseeing is often not an option in the Wet Season here, so I spend a relaxing afternoon reading in the plant-filled lobby of the Novotel Atrium Hotel.
The dining room features smoked crocodile on the menu and a half-dozen servers from various European countries. My dinner is brought by a young woman from Estonia who says she is here to make a little money and to improve her English which, I note, is already liberally spiced with an Aussie twang.
The sleek silver Ghan stands waiting at the station platform the next morning: 23 rail carriages behind two 4000-horsepower locomotives. The train’s name comes from the nickname given to Afghan herders who came to Australia along with the camels that carried men and supplies into the Outback during the late 1800s.
A rail line linking Adelaide on the Southern Ocean with Darwin in the far north was always the plan, but the final link – the 882 miles between Alice Springs and Darwin – wasn’t completed until 2004.
As we rock along heading due south along this newer stretch of track, the landscape is lush and green. Flocks of white egrets follow cattle grazing in knee-deep grass among the red gum trees. Dark brown termite mounds  – many six to seven feet high – rise up from the pastures, silent testimony as to why Australian railroads are built with concrete, not wooden, crossties.
Just after lunch, the Ghan comes to a stop at Katherine, a town of some 7,000 people. One of the first “Flying Doctor” services was located here, with pilot/physicians answering emergency calls from ranches and farms hundreds of miles away in the Outback. Dr. Clyde Fenton was one of the first and his canvas-covered bi-plane, a 1934 deHaviland Gypsy Moth, is on display in a corrugated metal hangar.
Across town is the Katherine School of the Air, with a faculty of 17 teachers conducting classes by satellite and TV monitors for 208 children scattered over half-a-million square miles of Outback.

The Ghan stops for several hours at Alice Springs, allowing passengers to tour the area. The statue depicts an Afghan camel herder, from whom the train got its name.

The next morning, back in the desert and not quite halfway through its journey, the Ghan reaches Alice Springs. This small city sprang up as a telegraph relay station for the railroad when fresh water was found here, and was originally called Alice’s Spring, after the wife of the telegraph operator.
At first blush Alice Springs seems very familiar. Just over there is the local K-Mart and the anchor store of their air-conditioned indoor mall is a huge Woolworth’s.
But an exotic touch comes from the large number of Aborigines moving through the mall, stopping for an ice cream cone or peering into shop windows, and chatting in one of their tribal languages. One, a “stockman,” – that’s what the Aussies call their cowboys – cuts a very impressive figure: long sleeved plaid shirt with a dark blue bandana at his throat, slim jeans cut just so over western boots, and a traditional wide-brimmed hat.

Late in the afternoon the Ghan crosses the Finke River, described as “a major and intermittent river.” It’s impressively wide, all right, but bone dry save for a bit of water here and there in low spots.

According to the conductor, it was full of water just two weeks earlier.

The harsh desert is left behind during the wee hours and by mid-morning we’re back in the more temperate south, rolling along between pastures and farmland. In less than two hours, we’ll be in Adelaide, final stop of the Ghan’s 1851-mile journey.

In the lounge car, I shake hands with some of my fellow passengers in case we miss each other on the platform, and I return to my compartment, alone with the touch of melancholy I always get during the last few hours of any long distance train trip.

From Adelaide, Qantas takes me back to Sydney where my final night in Australia is spent at the magnificent Opera House and a brilliant performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Still, on the way back to my hotel, I find myself reliving memories of the Indian Pacific and the Ghan, the two magic carpets that carried me twice across this astounding country.


Getting there

Qantas flies non-stop to Sydney from Los Angeles; Hawaiian Airlines and American Airlines have non-stops from Honolulu.


Both trains run twice weekly in each direction; the Indian Pacific between Sydney and Perth, the Ghan between Darwin and Adelaide. Both trains share Adelaide as the one major town common to both routes and the only practical spot to switch from one train to the other.

On Board Accommodations

Platinum Class (Ghan only) offers a full-size double bed in an extra-large compartment. Gold Class compartments are somewhat smaller with upper and lower fold-down berths. Both classes have en suite shower and toilet facilities. Red Class includes large reclining seats with lavatory and shower facilities in each car. Very compact bunks are also available in Red Class.

Platinum and Gold Class passengers have access to a lounge car and dining car meals are included in those rail fares. Alcoholic beverages are additional. Red Class passengers purchase meals and beverages in a café car.

Fares (per person)

Indian Pacific (Sydney-Perth): Gold – $1400, Red (sleeper) $950, Red (coach) $500. Ghan (Adelaide-Darwin): Platinum – $2090, Gold – $1380, Red (sleeper) $915, Red (coach) – $500. Note: Fares shown in US dollars and will fluctuate with rate of exchange. Fares to intermediate stops are proportionately less.

Some considerations

Australia is a long haul from the U.S. mainland. I suggest flying to Honolulu, pausing for a day or two, and continuing to Sydney on Qantas or Hawaiian Airlines.

Stuff happens, so plan to arrive in Australia at least a day before your train departs.

Do take advantage of the optional tours offered at the various stops along either route which last from two to four hours. They vary from simple bus tours to boating adventures, but all will enhance your understanding of each area and add immeasurably to your total experience. Coast range from $20 to $60 per person and reservations may be made on board.

Appropriate dress aboard either train is “smart casual.” Pack light, because space is limited in sleeping compartments.

Electrical current in Australia is 220 volts. Bring a converter for any small appliances or laptop. A surge protector is recommended for laptops while aboard the train.