Paul Cowling is stopped in his tracks – literally – by the vastness of Western Australia
23 May, 2019 — By Paul Cowling
The Indian Pacific stops in Rawlinna
AROUND 250 miles east of Perth, Western Australia, the half-mile-long Indian Pacific train slows to a brake-shrilling halt. Then the crew inch it into a siding called Southern Cross, safe enough away from a bush fire, which threatens to burn a hole in our holiday.
Ahead of us a cloud of smoke envelops the otherwise cyan sky. My partner Michele and I have just started out on our rail trip across Australia – but already it’s been halted in its tracks.
Around a half of our fellow passengers accept a refund offered because of the delay. But we decide to stick with the train.
So the next morning there are only about 100 of us passengers on the now rather empty long train as it pulls out of East Perth station to start all over again – 48 hours behind schedule.
Because of the delay, it’s going to miss out Sydney, and turn round in Adelaide to enable the service to resume its normal timetable.
Great Southern Rail, the company that runs it, uses 58,000 litres of diesel, and pays £40,000 on each return journey between Perth and Sydney just to use the tracks.
So the fares in the most luxurious Platinum Class between Perth and Adelaide cost from about £1,500 per passenger, depending on when you go. It costs even more to Sydney.
For that you get a pull-down double bed with a lounge by day plus access to a private dining car.
We’re in Gold Class – cheaper, but our low-season fare still costs £800 per person.
A bustling Nullarbor Plain
Its two-berth carriages evoke the spirit of long-distance sleeper trains: there are bunk beds, a toilet, shower and sink.
In Gold, a walk leads to the Queen Adelaide restaurant which offers a changeable regional menu and dozens of Australian wines.
I met Michele, my age and a widow, online a year before, and one of the first things we did was book a berth in Gold. Departure day was our first anniversary.
At meal times during the prolonged train ride we meet 11 different couples, and share tables and stories in a kind of dinner speed-dating. Most passengers are Aussies heading home from visiting family in Perth. Others are retirees from Britain or the US on extended tours of this enormous nation.
From the Indian Pacific’s restaurant tables and carriage seats, we see the green rolling fields of the Avon Valley – its lush patchwork soon giving way to the dusty red ochre of limestone.
Strikingly, the bush fire has scattered its ashtray contents across harsh scrub, and smoke still billows in the distance
Eventually, 350 miles east of Perth, we get to the first of three excursions – the goldfields of Kalgoorlie. The town sprang out of the 1880s gold rush and to this day most of its people still work in or service the mining industry.
At dawn the next day, we pull into Rawlinna – a remote outpost little more than a sheep-shearing station, preyed on by feral dogs. Rolls and coffee are served on the platform, but we are far more interested in Tilly, the greying boxer who spends her twilight days as a sheepdog.
Paul and Michele
We are now within the beige-coloured Nullarbor Plain. From space, it looks like a giant pasty set out from the flaming earth that surrounds it and through its 300 miles runs the straightest, longest stretch of rail in the world. Nullarbor is Latin for no trees – and the scorched plain is true to its name.
It’s an area of craters gouged out by meteors and blasted by atomic bombs – Britain conducted seven tests in nearby Maralinga in the 1950s.
Our final stop is Cook, which once boasted a bush hospital but now just four people live here and they are there to service the Indian Pacific as it takes on the 30,000 litres of water required for the 29 carriages on each return journey.
Five hours further east is Forrest. The train slows to allow Forrest’s two residents to pick up supplies. And then we head for night-time, as our bunks come down for our final sleep before Adelaide. “The gentle rhythm should soon have you dreaming,” says the train’s guidebook though our reverie is broken by what sounds like derailment. In fact it’s just the train picking up speed as it hurtles towards Adelaide.
We get in an hour late, but it’s a chance to see the city before we head for new discovery with a flight to Tasmania.
By then, the Indian Pacific has set off for Perth again, with a new group of passengers on their own journeys of a lifetime.