The Indian Pacific - Part One
EAT. Drink. Be merry. A fitting proverb for an iconic train journey.
Perhaps. Ask me again in three days.
Apart from the occasional commute on the tube, I’m unfamiliar with the railroad. But I’m about to embark on my first real train trip and it’s massive — Sydney to Perth. I have no idea what to expect.
I will most certainly eat and drink, but will I be merry after three days and three nights on a train?
Sixty-five hours in a cabin smaller than my wardrobe.
The train is the Indian Pacific to be specific — so named for the oceans at its origin and terminus. It’s so long, before it can shunt into the railway siding at Sydney’s Central station, it must uncouple.
It’s usually about 800 metres in length, but subject to carriage configuration it can stretch to a kilometre.
I’m leaving from Central Station, Australia’s busiest rail hub, with 11.5 million passenger movements a year. Only a tiny fraction of those are journeys from Sydney to Perth on this 30-plus-carriage mega-train.
On an unremarkable Wednesday afternoon in early spring I make the trip. I’m excited as I trundle my luggage towards the pointy end of the train on Platform One.
I’m about to embark on one of the true transcontinental rail journeys, an epic odyssey that captivates imaginations and fills bucketlists the world over.
Australia is spoilt: two of the world’s great train trips bisect it.
There’s the north-south, Adelaide to Darwin “Ghan”, an honorific to Afghan camel drivers who came 150 years ago to explore Australia’s vast, untamed interior.
And the east-west Indian Pacific, which runs weekly from Sydney to Perth and back again. The beginnings of the track connecting New South Wales with Western Australia can be traced back to 1917, but the Indian Pacific didn’t make its first unbroken journey until February 20, 1970.
When it arrived in Perth five days later, more than 10,000 people were there to greet it.
A one-way trip originally took 75 hours, but line efficiency and other general improvements have shaved 9 hours off the travel time.
That’s 66 hours including a 60-minute contingency buffer advised by Indian Pacific’s operator, Great Southern Rail, for the tardy.
But I arrive on time clutching my Gold Class ticket Charlie Bucket-style and am immediately shown to my carriage by a picture-perfect steward with a blinding smile.
The sense of space conveyed by the marketing material is conspicuously absent.
My private cabin is comfortable but compact. I am relieved I’m alone. I try to imagine two people sharing this space. I cannot.
There’s a plush bench seat, which converts into a bed, and a pull-down bunk above for the “plus one”.
A panoramic picture window with adjustable blinds floods the tiny cabin with light. I stretch out on the bunk; all 183 centimetres of me are remarkably comfortable.
There’s white linen with just the right amount of crisp and freshly plumped pillows. So far so good.
Keyboard warriors bag the bathroom facilities mercilessly so I brace for what’s behind the tiny, mirrored door.
But at first glance the minuscule wash space seems adequate. It’s a shower-over-toilet arrangement with a compact sink. I’m no contortionist but I’ll manage.
“I arrive on time clutching my Gold Class ticket Charlie Bucket-style and am immediately shown to my carriage.”
Then, with a distant purr and a slight jolt, the Indian Pacific inches slowly into its first kilometre. Only 4351 to go.
The two engines — one forward and one aft, in a push-me-pull-me arrangement — soon have the 1500 tonnes of steel trundling through Sydney’s Inner West at a leisurely pace.
The carriages: a confection of lounges, luggage cars, sleepers, sitters, crew quarters, kitchens and restaurants chuff along comfortably and ascend the Blue Mountains effortlessly, quickly reaching their cruising speed of 85kmh, while I catch a few zeds. But immediately next to my cabin is the Outback Explorer Lounge car, so my snooze is short-lived as a gaggle of baby boomers muster for the welcome drinks.
I wrangle my bed hair and join them. Food and drink including beer, wine and spirits is all-inclusive for all Gold and Platinum class guests.
The train carries about 200 Gold Class passengers and 20 Platinum Class passengers per trip. Economy, or Red Class as it was known, was cancelled in June 2016 after the removal of a Federal Government subsidy. Only a small portion of the journey (between Melbourne and Adelaide) known as the Overland remains available to Economy Class passengers.
At the welcome-aboard mixer, there’s bubbly and canapés and the opportunity to meet the host (Caleb) and fellow passengers.
Small talk with kindred spirits invariably leads to, “why the train?”
Margot and Ewan from Melbourne are celebrating their 28th wedding anniversary. Margot wears too much make-up. She sweeps away imagined imperfections from her husband’s goldbuttoned blazer as we chat.
I half expect her to moisten a tissue and wipe his face but she seems satisfied with pursing her lips at my crumpled shirtsleeves.
“I want to stab her with my toothpick.”.
Ewan, a retired airline pilot, has wanted to make the trip all his adult life. Margot has not. Ewan looks delighted. Margot looks constipated.
“I can’t imagine anything worse,” she says with a Toorak drawl, washing down her displeasure with three fingers of méthode champenoise.
She surveys the carriage with disdain and drains her glass.
“Two nights on a train,” she says, shuddering.
“Three,” I say as I chink their champagne glasses with mine.
“Happy anniversary,” I say.
She hates me. It’s mutual.
A passing waiter tempts us with something delicious skewered on a toothpick.
Something we don’t quite catch, panfried in butter and garlic, he tells us on his return sweep.
“What’s this?” Margot asks mid-chew.
I have no idea, but as I grab another I tell her it’s crocodile.
Margot disappears behind her napkin. When she emerges she is sweaty and grey. She glowers at me with angry eyes.
Ewan tells me they flipped a coin to decide their holiday destination and Margot’s luxury, over-water bungalow in the Maldives now has to wait until their 29th year.
“So it’s the train to Perth and a few days in the Margaret River,” says Ewan.
“Same as me,” I point out.
“Oh, are you in Platinum Class too?” Margot asks as she beckons a waiter for a refill.
I want to stab her with my toothpick. But the train emerges from a tunnel and as the mountainscape unravels before us, Margot falls silent. But just for a moment.
“How long have you been a journalist, Tom?” she asks sweetly.
“It’s Tim,” I say just as sweetly, and as I pause to tally the years, she destroys me with a killshot.
“Jim, now tell me. Is this a complimentary trip? I hear the wages are a scandal.”
Ewan’s cheeks flush with colour. We stand caressing our champagne flutes, taking in the Great Dividing Range.
It’s spectacular but Margot’s lips are pressed together in thin lines of disapproval. She confirms what I have long suspected. Train rides are not for everyone.
Margot air-kisses her husband and heads back to her Platinum cabin to dress for dinner.
Ewan seems immune to his wife’s prickly brand of small talk and while he and I exchange pleasantries a while longer he suggests that really Margot’s “loving the trip”. I’m not so sure.
And later in the dining car at dinner, as she pushes morsels of swordfish through her still tightly pursed lips, I remain unconvinced.
Dining on the train is a precarious game of diplomacy, deftly played out in the hands of the host.
The logistics of feeding everyone on board means that invariably you share your table with a stranger or two.
Which is awesome if you’re super-social between mouthfuls, but if you’re the type who prefers to daydream quietly through three courses and a coffee, it can be quite challenging.
It is the host who decides who dines with whom. And I am nervous. Did he see me talking to Ewan and Margot? He might think we’re acquainted. Are we sitting together? Will she verbally dissect me over entree?
But as I dress for dinner, I inadvertently dodge this bullet.
Showering in such a tiny space proves more challenging than I imagined and by the time I have freed myself from the shower curtain I am the last to arrive, which means I score a table for one and Margot is already installed in a button-down leather booth just across from me.
This time her disapproval is focused on a jolly Texan couple who fill the dining car with their happy drawl and twang.
Margot quickly silences them with chatter about her “extensive” charity work, her 22-foot-long 19th Century Regency Mahogany Extending Pedestal Dining Table and her PhD in comparative literature.
Dining alone suits me just fine. I’ve plenty of research to do. I’m not overly hungry but curiosity leads me first to the swordfish and then to the cheese platter.
They smell divine but neither dish delivers much beyond the nostrils. However, they are not bad for micro galley grub and tucker.
A glimpse of the minuscule confines of the train’s kitchen, later, shows just how miraculous it is that anything remotely edible is prepared aboard the train.
I vow to be more forgiving when next I dine. Between mouthfuls I thumb through the train’s quarterly publication, Platform. It’s a mix of Australiana, recipes, travel, trivia and all things rail.
Among the many superlatives, the narrative is peppered with countless references to the “epic”, the “iconic” and the “romantic”, which seems appropriate for a trip that starts at $2529 a person for Gold Class and $4359 each for Platinum Class.
Great Southern Rail literature says: “Over 200,000 consumers travel on the trains as guests each year, incorporating all levels of service including the stylish Platinum Service and the Hallmark Gold Service. The Platinum and Gold Service categories are traditionally represented by self-funded retirees or ‘empty-nesters’ with time, money and inclination to travel by train. These guests could be classified as seniors 55+ and the Baby Boomer markets, whilst honeymooners also use this service.”
After dinner, a handful of these Baby Boomers continue carousing in the lounge car playing Cluedo.
According to a jolly, grey-haired guest sipping single malt in the games corner, it was Professor Plum in the library with the candlestick.
But like me, many guests prefer to just turn in. Doing nothing all day can be exhausting. Lights out.
Day two begins as day one ended, with the trundle and sway of the carriage. Dawn breaks over the vast emptiness of the Australian outback.
Desert ochre and crimson sunrise converge, and the vast expanse of nothingness burnished by the morning sun is just as spectacular as the host said it would be.
I decide to spend an hour or two in bed with my dog-eared, thrift store copy of War and Peace, but I can’t tell my Bolkonskys from my Bezukhovs, and the smell of double-smoked bacon snaking through the carriage hastens my dressing and propels me aft, to the dining car.
The cooked breakfast is superb.
If you are what you eat, on this, day two of my bi-coastal odyssey, I am two eggs overeasy with a side of hollandaise and a flourish of baby spinach.
As I chase the last Swiss mushroom around my plate I am not entirely thrilled at the thought of another full day on the train but there’s definitely something agreeable about the soothing click-clack of the railway’s anthem that seems to be nurturing the wellness of my soul.
The languid monotony of train travel is forcing me to unwind. And then I realise, for the first time in ... forever, I am completely relaxed.
No phone, no reception. No computer, no charger.
Absolutely no worries. And Margot is nowhere to be seen.
Is it possible the infinitely patient Ewan, trapped with Margot in a Platinum Class carriage for three days, cracked?
But for now I have absolutely nothing urgent requiring my attention. Nothing pressing, except perhaps a cheeky flute of mid-morning bubbles.
With every passing kilometre, I am moving further and further away from the warpspeed humdrum and daily grind of my 9 to 5 life. And I think I like it.