Romancing the plain

Why is train travel so romantic? Is it because you have time to pause and soak up the scenery, the food, the people?

You get the authentic trans-continental travel experience on The Indian Pacific, rattling and rolling through small towns and hours of desert – leaving the Pacific Ocean behind you with the Indian Ocean awaiting your arrival some 65 hours later.

For the antisocial person that I am, I was surprised at how fascinating the other guests proved to be. Ami and his sister Aurora from Israel; Russell with his long grey beard and warm-hearted humour from Belfast; Americans; English – Tony and Maisy from The Isle of Wight, all sharing their stories over a bottomless glass of local red – all included in the fare of course! I feel like I am a character in an Agatha Christie film.

The sheer vastness and beauty of Australia and the spiritual consciousness of this ancient place seeps into you if you gaze long enough through the huge picture windows. I felt a sense of what the First Peoples of Australia must have felt growing up as part of and caring for this amazing landscape. What you notice is that your fellow travellers are not necessarily in transit to somewhere as much as exploring their own personal odysseys.

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The lovely interior of a Gold Class dining carriage

“It’s so 60s!” someone comments, yet that is the thing I love best about this train. It is like stepping back into another era of timber panelling, ornate decorative touches, of dressing for cocktails, heading off on excursions and climbing up the ladder to your upper bunk where you hope you don’t sleep walk or even roll the wrong way during the night. You get to be pioneer, adventurer, luxury traveller and child again all in one day.

Even for the true Aussie that I am, the herd of emus startled at the rush of our train and the wallabies with their pouched joeys who stop to study us, give me a flush of excitement. I wonder at the freedom of their lives in country almost untouched by human interventions.

The colours change before our eyes, greens trading places with blues of the vegetation against the red earth backdrop. A few hundred more kilometres and silver-gold grasses sprout from dusty salmon pink sands, then to lilac against earthy beige.

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The Living Desert sculpture site at Broken Hill

Trees shrink to bushes then to tufts of woody scrub as we hurtle across the width of Australia, a distance twice that of England. I find myself fixated and mesmerised by the nothingness so full of life, colours and textures. Perth lies waiting for us, Sydney left well behind, yet where we are now is the only important place.

The endlessness of the plain creates space in my mind to contemplate, reflect and ponder – the true luxury of travelling the breadth of this continent.

One of our stops – the town of Cook on the Nullarbor Plain (affectionately deemed ‘the middle of nowhere’) offers a chance to put our feet onto the ground. The air was warm, fragrant and powdery. I scrunched some leaves that released the antiseptic vapour of eucalyptus, another blue shrub with the smell of fresh fish fillets; again I wonder at the diversity of this land.

Long bare roads to nowhere are signposted ‘road closed’ but where did they once lead I wonder? The fire siren sounds in Cook to alert us of our impending departure. This town of one family, the station caretaker and a splattering of houses, most deserted, is undisturbed by our visit and will sit silently until the next train arrives to replenish its water supply.

One of the off-train highlights is our twilight stop at the station of Rawlinna, a 2.5-million-acre sheep station 400 kilometres east of Kalgoorlie. Staff swiftly alight from the train before us to prepare lantern-lit tables, pop-up bars and bonfires burning in 44 gallon drums, so that we can enjoy a traditional lamb roast under the Nullarbor stars. The roast was slow cooked, the wine carefully chosen to impress and our train sat beside the platform, 25 carriages long, a slumbering, steel sentinel, patiently waiting and indifferent to our festive chattering and frivolity.

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Dining at Rawlinna as the sun sets over the Nullarbor Plain

I was glad to arrive in Perth. I needed to stretch my legs and join the real world, but I will admit that there was a tinge of sadness as we pulled into the station. Some passengers will no doubt be adding a tick to their bucket list but for me, I feel satisfied that I understand this country we have inherited a little more intimately. Something that is difficult to get from travelling by air, and much more relaxing than going by road.

Have you been on the Indian Pacific? What are your favourite train journeys?

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