“You’re not from around here, are ya?”, asks a bloke in a grubby stetson hat, jeans and thongs, a stubby grasped firmly in his right hand. ”Can’t be, not lookin’ as clean as that!” He guffaws away with his mate as I look down at my all-white ensemble, as yet untouched by the red dust swirling around us. I have to laugh along with them.
They’re right – I’m a long, long way from home. It’s taken me 50 hours to get from Sydney to remote Rawlinna in Western Australia. There’s not much to see here. A sandstone station house. A few jackaroos lounging in slivers of shade. One lone, skinny palm attempting to wave away the raw heat of the day.
I’ve arrived on the iconic Indian Pacific, the Great Southern Railway train that runs coast-to-coast, 4352 kilometres from Sydney and Perth in three days. We’re nearing the end of our journey and this is our second stop on the vast, arid and famously treeless Nullarbor Plain.
Of course, all-white seemed perfectly appropriate when I boarded the Indian Pacific at Sydney’s Central Station. From the moment I was greeted on the platform by Jos, the train’s tall, elegantly mustachioed hospitality manager who ushered me gently through to my Gold Service sleeper cabin, I felt as if I was being transported back to a more gracious, elegant age of travel.
The cabins – dinky but refined spaces featuring wood panelling, mirrors etched with cute vintage pastoral motifs and large windows through which to gaze, slack-jawed, at the passing scenery – were given amakeover in early 2012 as part of a $22 million refurbishment of the train. There’s new patterned carpet and fabric upholstery, upgraded mood lighting, a five-channel sound system through which beams the ever-chipper journey commentary, and surprisingly comfy upgraded bunk beds that are stowed away during the day to make way for athree-seater lounge. Most impressive are the completely revamped, white-tiled bathrooms, which are stocked with complimentary toiletries and now have fixed (rather than fold-down) toilets, sinks and showers that make washing oneself while travelling at 85km/h a slightly more sophisticated experience.
The train’s cosy, club-like lounge and restaurant carriages were also given a bit of a spruce-up in the March upgrade. The Outback Explorer Lounge (think polished wood, rich in velvet and brass) is the place to park your bottom and, gin and tonic in hand, gaze at the awe-inspiring scenery as the train rattles its way through the lush eucalypt forests of the Blue Mountains, the shimmering salt plains of South Australia, the scrappy beauty of the grey-green mallee scrub and the vast emptiness – save for a few emus and kangaroos – of the baked desert interior.
You can ogle at the awe-inspiring plains from the on-board Queen Adelaide Restaurant, too, but once you’re there, eyes are generally fixed firmly on the a la carte menu (also upgraded), which offers mouth-watering produce sourced from the regions through which the train passes. Blue swimmer crab from Western Australia, Spear Creek Dorper Lamb from South Australia and an unforgettable creme de menthe tart are just a few highlights.
From 2013, as part of a range of proposed changes to the service that will take place about April, the food and wine will be co-ordinated with the regions the train is travelling through at that time of day, so passengers will be able to link the environment they’re seeing outside the dining car windows with the food on their plate.
But not even a $22 million upgrade can change the fact that the true highlights of the Indian Pacific are those found outside the carriages, at some of the major pit stops the train makes along the way. For me, they included strolling down the deserted main street of Broken Hill just after sunrise, flanked by charming, old-fashioned shops and Federation hotels. Exploring Cook, the ghost town of the Nullarbor, with its abandoned swimming pool, population of four and views across the endless scrolls of spinifex and saltbush. Zipping about Adelaide on a whistle-stop tour, taking in its picturesque churches, gorgeous colonial architecture and perfectly manicured rose gardens. And, of course, discovering that no true-blue Aussie would ever dare wear white to the desert, in a little town named Rawlinna.
The writer was a guest of Great Southern Rail.
More Informationhttp://greatsouthernrail .com.au
The Indian Pacific leaves Sydney for Perth on Wednesday each week year-round, and on Saturday between September 1 and October 27.
A Gold Service single ticket is $2178; holiday and celebration packages are available.Partial trips and other classesare available. 13 21 47, greatsouthernrail .com.au for a full listing of fares and timetables.