Starring Pat who got to Australia the really, really long but extremely cheap way
As Australia is a rather big place it affords the opportunity to do another epic cross-continental train journey – all the way from Perth to Sydney. I had looked at all the various options and eventually, thanks to some ignorance of the current state of my bank accounts decided to “treat” myself to a single cabin in Gold Class on the Indian Pacific Railway. It’s an epic journey – 4352kms across the bottom of Australia – that takes, in theory, 56hours to travel and includes the longest stretch of completely straight track in the world – over 400m.
The cabins are quite small but absolutely perfect – there’s an arm chair, a table, a fold up bed and a wash basin and all laid out – some towels and a little bag of complimentary toiletries. At the end of the corridor: showers. I have taken great delight through the course of the journey in relaying tales comparative Trans-Siberian tales to the other travellers who wrinkle their noses in disgust. In fact quite a few of them wandered down into Red Class which is the part of the train where you get a seat for three nights instead of a bed and wrinkled their noses up at that. This is train travel, but not, I hasten to add, as I know it.
Most of the other passengers were well into their retirement years and I was somewhat of a novelty though thankfully, being out of Asia, hardly got quizzed at all and only one marriage proposition was suggested – this to 79 year old Pat because he flies business class to Ireland. I landed up having quite a few meals at the same table as Pat and he was certainly an interesting guy. He first came over to Australia in the 50’s by boat on a £10 ticket for which his mother leant him the money. His mother was Catholic Irish and he didn’t meet her until he was sixteen as he was born out of wedlock and so left in an orphanage in Liverpool until it was respectable to bring him over. When he arrived in Australia he lived in a hostel in Sydney before eventually making his way to Perth where he ran a window cleaning company that had the contract for every sky scraper in the city. Oh did I mention he was also in a POW camp in Germany at one point? Still not going to marry him though.
I hadn’t realised when I booked that the food was included so three times a day you sit down to a three course meal – even breakfast has three courses! – in a dining car with white linen table cloths and polished silver cutlery. The food was absolutely exquisite and I also undertook a thorough sampling of the wine list and report it to also be excellent. Every time you returned from a meal someone would have popped in and either made or unmade your bed. The only time I had to do it myself was when I needed an afternoon nap.
On the first day the train sets off from Sydney at noon and travels at a leisurely 85kms per hour across the first section of the Nullarbor Plain – a vast flat semi-desert area that stretches across much of Southern Australia and has little on it bar salt bush and the odd emu. The views are breath-taking and the sunset was spectacular viewed from my little room through the huge picture windows.
That evening we stopped at Kalgoorlie which is a huge gold mining town. It was after 11pm but they had laid on a coach tour to drive us around the sites and up to the main attraction – Superpit! This is an enormous open cast gold mine nearly 5kms long and 500m deep. Even at this hour there were trucks winding their way very slowly up the terraced slopes to take the ore out for crushing. The mine only has about 4-5years left in it and it will be interesting to see what happens to the town after that.
The next site was a little town called Forrest – name after an explorer rather than its trees of which there were none. The maps list a number of what you assume will be town but turn out to be sidings that if you miss if you don’t happen to be looking up at the moment you pass them. Forest, Cook and Tarcoola, the three biggest settlements we passed all day, each had two permanent residents. We were due to stop for a walk about in Cook – I had bumped into Pat in the lounge car earlier in the day all ready to go out in his shorts, camera in hand – but were given the unhappy news that the Indian Pacific going in the other direction was running five hours behind schedule and was currently at Cook. This meant that for us to get off we would need to cross a track to get to the town and that just could not be allowed for health and safety reasons. There was bitter disappointment. I was having lunch with a Chinese couple who did not speak English and their daughter. “They are very sad,” she said more than once, pointing at her parents. At Cook we stopped to anyway to stare at the other train and slightly pitied those poor passengers who were so badly delayed. Little did we know.
We didn’t get off again until the next morning when we were served breakfast in bed and then hustled off the train for a whirlwind tour of Adelaide. Back on the train it was another day of beautiful views before we stopped in Broken Hill for a bit of wander. I was desperate for a good walk around and set off at pace, shaking off my potential pursuers, on a heritage trail around the town. A lot of the original buildings from the early gold rush days still exist and there are photographs of ‘before’ street views that give you a real sense of what it must have been like. Rather amusingly the streets are all named after various minerals found in the area – bromide, sulphide, cobalt etc.
We returned to bad news – ahead of us on the track a maintenance car had derailed and so it was going to be at least three hours before we would be able to set off. Luckily there was yet another delicious dinner to distract the tetchy and though we did leave by midnight we were six and half hours later on arrival in Sydney – particularly annoying for those among us whose schedule of coffee based catch ups was severely disrupted. Some people also missed their flights.