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The Indian Pacific: Your window across Australia

GSR logo GSR 14/09/2017 Tom Birts
© Great Southern Rail

The best cup of coffee within 1200km is hurtling through the Nullarbor at around 100km an hour. That's a lot more civilized than it sounds, not thrown from the cabin of a battered motorhome, but served hot in the lounge of a cross-continental train. It's early morning — nature-spotting hours — and despite the speed it's easy to see the laconic red roos and skittish emus that call this stretch of Australia home.

Prospective first-time travellers think they know the Indian Pacific. Maybe they can quote the fact that it runs between Perth and Sydney, carrying travellers across the continent. If they've done their homework they might be confident with the numbers — an average length of over 750 metres, a journey length of over 4000km, and an average weight of 1400 tonnes.

But to take the journey itself is to be constantly, wonderfully, surprised.

© Great Southern Rail

Our first stop after leaving Perth is Kalgoorlie and the mining town is familiar to most of us, in name at least. Boarding buses in the dark, we see the Super Pit at night — something you'd normally need to work there to experience — then head for The Australian Miners and Prospectors Hall of Fame. We're met with a performance (in Kalgoorlie! At 11pm!) from a local acting troupe, the story washed down with a warming glass of port outside. The train departs at midnight.

Rawlinna, our next stop, is the biggest sheep station on the planet, with over 50,000 animals calling it home. We stop in the siding for a morning walk and hot coffee, accompanied by house troubadour Andy on guitar and vocals.

© Great Southern Rail

After leaving Rawlinna, the Indian Pacific sings and hums its way East, towards the South Australian border.

Unlike driving, crossing the country on rails means being a part of the communities along the way — and not just by stopping and stretching your legs, but by travelling with the people who deliver mail and groceries to some of the most remote places in the world.

We're truly in the outback now, the only people outside the train waiting in ones and twos for their deliveries.

But for passengers, leaving behind your comfort zone doesn't mean leaving behind comfort. Gold Class cabins are well equipped, with power points for the laptop you won't open and the phone that will stay blissfully silent. Bathrooms are en-suite, and stocked with the kind of toiletries you see in boutique hotels.

© Great Southern Rail

The food on-board, served in the legendary Queen Adelaide Restaurant, is exceptional. Native ingredients like wattle seed and saltbush add interest to already tempting dishes, and wines from Margaret River, the Clare Valley and the Hunter are there to pair as you wish. It's just another thing that pulls you closer to the 'real' Australia as you roll onwards.

After a brief tour of Cook — population 4 — we wake the next day in Adelaide. Like the other longer stops, passengers are given a choice of excursions.

We choose the Adelaide Oval's 'Inner Sanctum' experience. It's conducted by an ex-umpire, and cricket tragics will wonder what they did to deserve a tour of the opposition dressing room (complete with Graeme Swann's graffiti) and a look inside the historic scoreboard. You even get a chance to crank the numbers.

© Great Southern Rail

The evening is spent in Broken Hill, with another choice of excursions to make. For us, it was an easy one. The Palace Hotel, immortalised in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, hosts drag shows for passengers passing through — and it's fair to say that after a glass of wine or two we got to see our fellow travellers in a different light. One thing the Indian Pacific doesn't have is a dancefloor. It felt like we had to leave Broken Hill too soon, but you won't mind returning to the train. Dinner will be waiting.

Our final surprise comes 100km out of Sydney, in a national park around the size of Northern Ireland. Despite the name, the Blue Mountains aren't really blue — Eric, our tour guide at Scenic World, explains that the haze that gives the area its name is a trick of the light caused by sun rays shining through eucalyptus oil in the atmosphere.

© Great Southern Rail

Aside from this and other interesting details, the area is about superlatives. Before boarding the tallest cable car in the Southern Hemisphere, we take the world's steepest railway down to the longest boardwalk south of the equator. Even the lift between floors in Scenic World is a record breaker —– the smallest storey in the world is just 90cm.

The Blue Mountains experience will be rolled out to all Indian Pacific passengers in late 2017 travelling eastbound from April 2018. Future passengers will have the option of exploring Scenic World and the trail to Echo Point, finishing up in The Lookout with refreshments, and a view to savour before reboarding the train for the final leg to Sydney.

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