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The Indian Pacific Great Train Journey across Australia

It was my first great train journey dream, and one that took more than twenty years to go from making our booking to getting on board.

Back when I was at university my mother decided that we would do something really special together and go on the Indian Pacific.

I remember being so excited when my parents and I arrived at Sydney’s Central station on the big day, but our excitement was to be short lived. There had been a derailment on the tracks and the Indian Pacific couldn’t get through. So instead we were told we were being flown to Adelaide.

No offence to Adelaide but the destination wasn’t the thing we were most looking forward to. We had been dreaming of taking to the tracks on one of Australia’s great trains and it was heartbreaking to have our dream holiday ripped away from us.

In the years to come I would do the Ghan, the Sunlander, the Spirit of the Outback, and the Spirit of Queensland here in Australia, while overseas I’d cross Canada on The Canadian, hop onboard the Hiram Bingham luxury train to Machu Picchu and take my ultimate train journey, the Venice Simplon Orient Express.

Then finally came the day when my parents and I went back to Central Station and stepped onto the train that got away. And this time we were going all the way to Perth.

Indian Pacific train at Sydney central station

Why the Indian Pacific is such an Aussie train legend

It’s just over 100 years since the first rail line linked Australia’s east and west coasts, but back in 1917 when it first opened there was a bit of a mish mash of different tracks with different gauges, so if you wanted to go from one side of the country to the other you had to change trains up to five times to make it all the way.

The first uninterrupted rail track between Sydney and Perth opened in 1969, and one year later the Indian Pacific train made her first journey.

Today the average speed of the Indian Pacific 85km/h with the maximum speed only reaching 115km. So it’s much more gentle pace than some other trains I’ve been on such as the new Eurostar E320 that can reach speeds of 320km on some stretches between London and Paris.

It may not be the fastest train but every year the Indian Pacific covers the same distance that it would take to travel around the world 13 times. While it can fluctuate depending on how many carriages she has, the average length of the train is 774 metres and the two locomotives cost around $100,000 to operate.

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The train was named after the two oceans that she connects, and having grown up on the East side of the country, where most Australians can be found, part of me wondered why she wasn’t called the Pacific Indian in a nod to the westward journey. It turns out there was a competition to let the public name the train and the owner and founder of the Independent Oil Company, Henry Roach, won with his Indian Pacific idea. As he was from the Western side of the country that obviously worked better for him, and I’ll have to admit it does sound better of a name.

And while the Ghan has a camel and rider as its emblem, the Indian Pacific has the wedge-tailed eagle, with the 2.3m wingspan on Australia’s largest bird of prey symbolising the ‘spanning of a country.’

Crossing Australia on the Indian Pacific train

While you can get off at Adelaide in either direction, I highly recommend doing the full Indian Pacific experience. This four day and three night journey crosses the entire continent, covering 4352km from Sydney to Perth and vice versa.

Perth and Sydney street signs in Cook, on a stop on the Indian Pacific

As the times you travel through parts of Australia is different depending on which direction you’re going, there are different excursions and stops along the way depending on which way you go.

I was impressed when I talked to a few people on our train who were going to have a single night in Perth, then turn around and do the train back again so they could see and do it all. That sounded great to me and one day I’d love to do the Eastbound journey as well, but this time I got off in Perth and saw some of the city before heading on to Singapore.

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Doing Sydney to Perth is a wonderful way to see the Aussie landscape change. The views outside our window changed from the rainforest of the Blue Mountains through farmland in the west, across the long flat Nullarbor Plain before coming into the farmland of Western Australia.

Indian Pacific train makes its way through NSW farmland

There’s something meditative about seeing those long horizons and oh so flat land on either side of you going by for hours on end. My parents have crossed the Nullarbor a few times in their RV and they said this was a much more relaxing way to see that scenery without worrying about driving. We could play cards, have a drink and chat to people in the bar, do some reading, or even take a little nap.

Excursions on the Sydney to Perth Indian Pacific trip

As I mentioned earlier, the Indian Pacific excursions are different depending on which way you’re going, and when you do Sydney to Perth that first day is quite a busy one.

The first excursion starts at 630am in Broken Hill, and as the first night is also the roughest stretch of track on the journey I wasn’t the only one who didn’t have the best of sleeps.

It may have been an early and slightly sleep deprived start, but it was great to be in Broken Hill and it was the first time I’d had a chance to see the Pro Hart gallery.

Kevin “Pro” Hart’s gallery has a wide selection of his paintings with some signature pieces across his different styles, and there are also sculptures he created in metal and stone, a mix of creations he made in his back shed, and some of his cars are also on display, including the 1973 Silver Shadow Rolls Royce that he painted in 1999.

As my parents had already visited Pro Hart’s gallery they opted for one of the other excursion options that morning: a trip to the Broken Earth Miner’s Memorial that sits on top of the highest point of the Line of Lode mullock dumps around the city.

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From October to March a trip to the Living Desert Sculpture Site is another tour option, with sandstone artworks from artists from around the world.

As much as I loved the chance to do the tours we did, I have to admit I was a little jealous when I heard that one of the Broken Hill options on the Perth to Sydney excursion was a nod to Priscilla Queen of the Desert, with a visit to the Palace Hotel that featured in the movie with its painted walls and drag show thrown in.

Mind you that one does work a lot better in the evening than at 6.30 in the morning, though I have seen a few impressive drag shows around that time over the years.

The Broken Earth Miner's Memorial and Indian Pacific train at Broken Hill

After lunch on the train we arrived in Adelaide where we had four tours to choose from.

My parents and I decided to visit the pretty Adelaide Hills town of Hahndorf, which is Australia’s oldest surviving German settlement and has a great village feel about it.

We’d visited more than 20 years before on Indian Pacific trip that went wrong and loved it then, and it was lovely to see the town again. The only downside is that when we were there almost all of the shops were closed so I could only press my face up against the windows of places wishing I could go in.

It seems like a very strange move to not open your shop for an hour or so when you have guaranteed tourists coming through, but I also respect people who respect their time off so that’s fair enough.

The tour did include a visit to the Beerenberg Family Farm to try a range of rather delicious jams as well as a choice between visiting cheese and cider producers or going to an artisan chocolate maker, and we went with the sweet option with a visit to Chocolate @ No.5 before heading for dinner at Bavarian themed restaurant.

All of the excursions between Sydney and Perth and vice versa are included in the fare. A city tour of Perth is the only optional extra one that you could choose to pay for, and cost $52.

As the tour options and that optional extra price may change it’s worth checking the latest options, which you can do on the Indian Pacific’s excursions page.

A Ghost Town and Dinner Under the Stars

And while they weren’t actually tours, we had another two stops worth a mention.

The first happened as we travelled along the longest straight stretch of rail track in the world, the 478-kilometre span between Ooldea and Loongana.

In the Middle of Nowhere, also known as Cook, Australia

Along the way we pulled up in the Nullarbor town of Cook, which was once a busy outpost with a population of around 200, a school, hospital, swimming pool and more, and is now pretty much abandoned with a population of four.

Cook is where the Indian Pacific refuels and it’s where guests have a chance to get off the train to stretch their legs and look around the ghost town.

The other stop to remember was for dinner under the stars.

At 2.5 million acres Rawlinna Station is the largest sheep station in Australia and has its very own train station, which is where the Indian Pacific pulls up for this special dinner.

The Indian Pacific train stops for dinner under the stars at Rawlinna station

One of my favourite memories of the trip is watching a beautiful sunset reflected off the silver side of our train as the smell of wood fires in 44-gallon drums filled the air. As the on-board entertainer sang a range of country songs we dined on roast lamb and vegetables, and when the sky turned dark I pointed out the Southern Cross to fellow passengers from the Northern Hemisphere who had seen it on our flag but never in the sky before.

Australian Flavours on-board the Indian Pacific

Roast lamb may be an Aussie classic but throughout the journey we had a chance to try a range of Australian ingredients and flavours, including some that I’d never tried before.

While I’d had some things on the menu like Quandong (a wild Aussie peach) before I hadn’t heard of Muntries before. Thankfully our menus had little explanations for some of the lesser known ingredients so I could find out that Muntries are also known as Emmy apples or native cranberries and are native to Australia’s southern coast.

It turns out they have four times more antioxidants than blueberries and taste a bit like a spicy apple. So of course I had to try the apple bread with apple and muntries relish and double cream for breakfast. All in the name of research and I can happily report they are delicious.

As well as having a chance to try some new and different things, there were more traditional options on the menu as well. For example lunch options included a miso caramelised fillet of Fremantle jewfish with bok choy and coconut rice, along with chicken Mignon or beef tenderloin. There was also a vegetarian option with every meal such as roasted vegetables with quinoa, and a wild mushroom, zucchini and chèvre filo rotolo.

Menu onboard the Indian Pacific in the Gold Class Queen Adelaide restaurant car

When I first did the Ghan almost ten years ago with my mother the meals were included but the alcohol was extra. These days drinks are also included on both the Ghan and the Indian Pacific, and there are some great Aussie wines and beers as well as a mix of spirits to enjoy without worrying about how much of a tab you may be running up.

While having an open bar didn’t lead to anyone getting out of control, it possibly led to a few more people singing along with the entertainer in the bar of an evening. But in the fun way.

And while we’re talking about the lounge car, I’d also like to do a shout to whoever programmed the music that played when the entertainer wasn’t taking requests and leading us in singalongs.

I loved the beautiful chilled mix that included tracks by Sade and the Sundays, and not even their big hits but lesser known ones that I hadn’t heard for a while. With Coldplay and some more mainstream ones in the mix as well. Perfect for reading books, playing cards and watching the world go by.

The different ways to travel on Indian Pacific

Another thing that has changed in recent years is the different ways you can travel on the Indian Pacific.

There used to be a seated option known as Red Class, as well as the sleeper option Gold Class, and then in 2008 the most luxurious way to travel, Platinum class, was introduced.

But in 2016 they stopped the Red Class option so now it’s all Gold and Platinum, and the Single Gold Class carriages have recently been updated so they feel quite sleek and modern inside. They also have a big new shared shower space with a great shower at the end of their carriage, which I preferred using to the one in the Gold Twin.

And no, I didn’t sneak into someone else’s shower. You see as I was travelling with both of my parents I had the chance to try travelling in Gold Twin on the top bunk one night and bottom the next and then Gold Single on the last night, so I got to not only try both beds but both showers.

Gold Twin bunk beds on the Indian Pacific

While I quite liked them all and could happily travel in either, for some reason I find sleeping with my head at one side of the tracks and feet at the other as you do in the Gold Twin a bit more comfortable than lying in the same direction as them as you do in Gold Single.

Also as the single beds are quite narrow if you are a larger person you’d be better off in gold twin where the beds are wider.

The only thing is if you are travelling as a couple and choose the twin you do need to get up the ladder to the top bunk, so if neither of you would be comfortable doing that then it’s best to go with the two singles option so you can both have a lower bed.

Or better yet, if you can afford it, go for Platinum.

Platinum cabins are almost twice the size of a Gold Twin and rather than having two bunks on top of each other at night you have a spacious double bed to share or sprawl out on solo if you’re travelling alone.

I was able to have a sneaky tour of their carriages and saw one of the cabins when the double bed was made up and it looked like a little piece of heaven on the rails. By day the beds are converted into a private lounge space with comfy seating, a table and two ottomans.

Platinum class has its own dining car as well, which is more modern, but I actually preferred the old school glamour of the Queen Adelaide restaurant car in Gold Class. Mind you if you’re platinum you can dine in either, and can of course also visit the different lounge cars where people play cards and read books and swap travel tales over a few drinks.

The Queen Adelaide restaurant car on the Indian Pacific is open to gold and platinum travellers travelling between Sydney and Perth
The romance of rail in the Queen Adelaide restaurant car on the Indian Pacific between Sydney and Perth

If you are travelling with family or friends one thing you need to make sure of when you book is that you’re in the same section of the train. At first I thought that just because my parents and I were all travelling gold class we’d be able to dine and hang out in the lounge together.

Luckily when I spoke to the people at the Indian Pacific they explained that there could be two dining and lounge cars, so if your cabins are in different sections of the train you’d be assigned to different restaurant and bar cars.

So when you’re booking, and especially if another friend wants to join your same trip later on and books separately, just talk to the lovely folks at the Indian Pacific and if there’s still space available they’ll be able to help you out.

And if you’ve been dreaming of doing the Indian Pacific like my parents and I had been, don’t leave it for 20 years like we did. Do it as soon as you can and then spend the next 20 years with great memories and maybe even some new friends.

Amanda Woods travelled as a guest of Journey Beyond Rail Expeditions and the Indian Pacific but as usual all opinions remain her own.

The Indian Pacific train stops for dinner under the stars at Rawlinna station

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