From Perth to Sydney, a 3-day, 4,352-km journey

Aboard the Indian Pacific — Somewhere along the world’s longest straight stretch of railway track, Art O’Connor looks out the window at the red emptiness of the Nullarbor Plain and the blue of the blazing Outback sky rolling endlessly past.“Ya gotta drive or take the train to appreciate how big this country is,” he declares.

O’Connor knows whereof he speaks. He has driven between Perth and Sydney more often than he cares to remember, because he doesn’t like flying. But this time, heading to Sydney on business from his home outside Perth, he and his wife Vicky decided to treat themselves to the train.

Not just any train, mind. This is the renowned Indian Pacific, running 4,352 kilometres from Perth to Sydney, in a three-day journey that carries passengers through almost every kind of terrain in Australia, from river valleys to the Outback to mountains. And unlike most of the world’s great train trips, the Indian Pacific spends the better part of its journey far removed from civilization.

I was aboard from Perth to Adelaide, a segment that takes some 40 hours. Pulling out of Perth, the scenery segued gradually from lush to scrubby. Around midnight we opped briefly in the gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie, and by the next morning the train was rolling along the longest stretch of straight railway in the world.

For 478 kilometres across the Nullarbor Plain, the track runs dead straight. The calm of the carriage was interrupted only by the occasional shout of “Didja see the kangaroo?” — whereupon we would all gawk out the nearest window, sometimes spotting something, sometimes not — and by a stop in Cook, a dusty dot of a town on the Nullarbor that is home to three people, 12 dogs… and one pet kangaroo.

Not so long ago, Cook was a bustling railway town, its populace mostly dedicated to repairing the timber ties (or sleepers, as Australians call them) along the tracks. But then the railway switched to concrete ties, which require far less maintenance. With no more work, everyone moved on.

Now only a young caretaker couple, Michelle and Bruce Hutchison, remain. During our two-hour stop, Michelle cradled their toddler son Brody and politely answered questions from bemused passengers.

It’s not, she said, such a lonely life, out here in the heat of the plains. “We’ve been living on the Nullarbor for years. We’re used to it.” And anyway, in addition to the four weekly halts by the Indian Pacific, 50 freight trains a week come through, “so it goes without saying that it’s always busy.”

Behind their house, Rachel the kangaroo and the dogs were lethargic in the heat. Otherwise, Cook was devoid of activity. The store was closed, as was the old, tiny prison, the school and the building that served as both hospital and weather station. But you could still see signs of Outback humour — literally. “Our hospital needs your help. Get Sick!” read a sign outside the erstwhile medical facility. “If you’re crook come to Cook,” suggested another, “crook” being Ozzie slang for not feeling well.

Back on the train, there was only one more halt, in Port Augusta at the edge of the Outback late at night, before we arrived in Adelaide at an ungodly hour of the morning. I bid goodbye to my new friends on board, envious that some of them were continuing to Sydney on a scenic journey that would take them through the hills of the Flinders Ranges and the Blue Mountains, around the massive Menindee Lakes and finally into Australia’s largest city.

With so few stops, there had been plenty of time to get to know my fellow passengers. But then that’s one of the great things about train travel. I was fortunate to be travelling in first class, and discovered to my surprise that I was one of the few overseas visitors on board, despite the fact the train’s promotional literature waxes eloquent about people coming from all over the world purely to travel the Indian Pacific.

I’d been told to expect the people in first class would be a tad more reserved than what you might find in second class (“It can be one big party down there,” a steward in first class said of second class). But in typical Oz fashion, everyone was totally down-to-earth, and much socializing was done by all.

This epic trip wasn’t always so pleasant or restful. Until the Indian Pacific’s inaugural run in 1970, the cross-country journey traversed five different rail systems and involved five train changes for passengers. In those days, entire communities existed along the route whose inhabitants made a living moving freight from one train to another. They were called break-of-gauge towns. Only four years ago or so, I was told, did all of Australia’s state capitals finally become linked by standard gauge railway.

Here are some useful travel tips if you are planning a trip to Australia.

Indian Pacific:
Runs twice a week in each direction between Perth and Sydney. Has three classes: First, Holiday (less swish than first and you have to pay for meals, unlike in first class) and Coach (sitting up).

$1,590 per person in first class in peak season (Sept. 1-Oct. 31, wildflower season), $1,350 Aus. per person the rest of the year. The Australian dollar is currently almost exactly equivalent to the Canadian dollar. You can shave costs by travelling in one of the other classes and/or booking a segment of the trip. A trip from Sydney through the Blue Mountains to Broken Hill, for example, costs $554 Aus. in Holiday Class in the off-season; a Coach Class ticket would be $262 Aus.

Other trains “Down Under”:
Great South Pacific Express, launched earlier this year, running along the scenic east coast from between Cairns and Sydney and described as “Australia’s Orient Express.” The fabled Ghan from Melbourne to Alice Springs and, as of earlier this year, also once a week between Sydney and Alice Springs. The Spirit of the Outback or the Spirit of the Tropics in Queensland.

Web sites:
Australia’s Great Train Journeys
Features the Great Southern Railway, which operates both the Indian Pacific and the Ghan

Great South Pacific Express

Queensland Rail Traveltrain

Australian tourist info:

For info on flights, see a travel agent or call Qantas at 1-800-227-4500.