Taking the Indian Pacific Train Across Australia: PART ONE

by Nora Dunn on December 27, 2010

Indian Pacific

The Indian Pacific: My Plan of Attack

In reflecting on my three-day adventure riding The Ghan from Darwin to Adelaide, I was surprised at how quickly the time passed. I had figured that, despite my love of long-distance train travel, riding a train for 3,000kms (followed shortly thereafter by a further 1,000km by train from Adelaide to Melbourne and a few hundred kilometres of commuter trains after that) could devolve into a lackluster experience; translation: it could get boring.

But to my surprise and delight (and almost disappointment), my time on The Ghan flew by. Between the well-timed whistle stops in Katherine and Alice Springs and the always-lingering conversations over mealtimes, I disembarked the train with very few of my pre-determined “train projects” complete.

So this time, I needed to challenge myself: I wanted to construct a train trip that gave me more than enough time to do everything: to take in the vast and changing landscapes of Australia, to meet interesting characters on the train, to read, to write, to sleep, and just possibly, to experience boredom.

I actually wanted to see if it’s possible to become bored on a train.

With this (somewhat misguided) motivation in mind, I became the architect of a train trip that most people wouldn’t dream of – neither in their fantasies nor their nightmares. In fact, on announcing my itinerary to even the staff working on the Indian Pacific (being people who I’d figure could best understand my passion for train travel), one girl responded initially with a blank stare indicating a lack of comprehension, then a flicker of both admiration and confusion accompanied by the comment “Boy, you really do like train travel, don’t you?”

Yes, yes I do.

My plan of attack? To take the overnight train from Melbourne to Sydney (11 hours, and 1,000kms). After a couple of days catching up with Sydney friends, I would board the Indian Pacific in Sydney and ride it the 4,000kms to Perth (stopping enroute in Broken Hill, Adelaide, Cook, and Kalgoorlie). After a whopping 24-hour stop in Perth (with a whirlwind tour aided by a fellow travel writer), I would re-board the Indian Pacific and ride it all the way back the 4,000kms and four days to Sydney to arrive in the morning, spend the day in Bondi with a friend, then board the last of my overnight trains back to Melbourne to complete my train journey that, after all is said and done, nears 11,000kms by train in 11 days.

If boredom can elude me in 11,000kms over 11 days, then I will have met my match in trains.



This Series

This Indian Pacific series is intended to give you a sense of what it’s like to travel on the Indian Pacific; from the people you meet, to the scenery you pass by, to simply living life on a train. Long-distance train travel is much less about the destination, and much more about the journey (which is how I justify spending only 24 hours in Perth; something I’ll explain later).

So without ado, please enjoy this multi-part series about riding the Indian Pacific train across Australia (and back)!



INDIAN PACIFIC: DAY ONE

Day One

Settling In: Red Sleeper Cabin

I settle into my digs for the first part of the journey from Sydney, which is a Red Sleeper cabin; a twin cabin (which I happen to have to myself, as is generally arranged for passengers if there’s enough room on the train). This cabin gives me a chance to get horizontal in a comfortable bed for the night, and enjoy some private window-gazing time during the days. Meals for all Red class passengers (whether they are staying in sleeper cabins or in the Day/Nighter seats) are ordered a-la-carte in the buffet car, which offers a decent enough selection of relatively innocuous, moderately priced foods.

Red Cafe car

Passengers who have Red Day/Nighter seats can upgrade to sleeper cabins on-board the train for an extra $150/night (based on availability); this is less than you would pay to book the journey outright in Red Sleeper class, especially if you have a rail pass like the Ausrail pass which entitles you to a Day/Nighter seat on a huge range of Australia’s trains for relatively little money. Although the Day/Nighter seats resemble a business class flight seat with lots of room to recline and legroom abound, I am much happier to have a sleeper cabin and real bed to enjoy, knowing that I am on this train for eight days.

I’d like to be bored, but not sore.


Red Lounge Car

Next, I explore the Red Lounge car; a blessing for the Red Sleeper passengers, and a saviour for the Red Day/Nighter seat passengers if you ask me. For $10/day or $25 for three days, Day/Nighter seat passengers can get access to this lounge car (cabin passengers have automatic access), which includes comfortable seating, views out of both sides of the train, plenty of places to plug in laptops, free tea and coffee, and afternoon tea. Drink a couple of cups of coffee each day, and you’ve basically paid for access to this train carriage, which in turn gives Red passengers extra space to spread out for the long journey.

Red Lounge


Meeting Characters

Interestingly though, not all passengers – especially people in the Day/Nighter seats – are traveling all the way through to Perth. Joe, for example, is simply taking the train the one night from Sydney to Adelaide, as he’s doing a reconnaissance mission in preparation for a move to Sydney. I meet a few other people who are only using the Indian Pacific as a commuter train of sorts between Sydney and Adelaide to visit family or do business. I’m told that new passengers will also be getting on in Adelaide for the long haul to Perth.

In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any one theme that defines the people who are accompanying me in Red class from Sydney to Perth. There’s Armand from France: a 20 year old backpacker taking a break from university; and Manuel from Germany, who is a 36 year old engineer and taking a four month career break (something that he does regularly) to travel through Australia and New Zealand.

There’s 29 year-old Mark from the States on a lightning-fast Aussie vacation to attend a friend’s wedding in Perth, an Australian couple in their 40s relaxing on vacation, and a couple in their 70’s who are from different countries and enjoying their rare time together on the Indian Pacific. I will get to know some of these people better (as will you) as the trip goes on.

And of course, not all characters are friend-material, which makes the ride even more interesting.

At one point before dinner, I make a trip to the Red Lounge car with my computer and camera, setting up at one of the available tables with power points. While my computer is loading, I turn around to get a shot of the lounge car with my camera. The woman seated just to the left of my shot lets out a little scream.

“Not in my direction! I’m sensitive to cameras,” she says in a sour tone, as she gets up to move behind me and my camera, face pursed the entire time.

“You weren’t even in the shot. I don’t tend to take portraits of people I don’t know,” I respond, immediately feeling defensive given this woman’s tone, but trying to remain cool.

“You should read more about EMFs. They’re very bad,” she starts, telling me that only once it becomes a problem do we realize how badly EMFs affect our lives. In an attempt to gain some sort of common ground, I respond by demonstrating an understanding of what she’s referring to by discussing the earth’s magnetism, the presence of harmful waves in technology and urban development, and how our bodies respond to it all. “Oh. Well, I’m not talking about the earth’s magnetism here. I’m talking about EMFs”.

Right. I must be thinking about the other electro-magnetic fields she’s referring to.

Moving on, she surveys my electronic domain. “I’m sensitive to that stuff too,” she says with a leering gesture towards my laptop. “Are you planning on staying there?”

As I’ve obviously already staked a claim of sorts in this corner of the train next to this delightful woman, it seems is a rhetorical question.

“Um, yes, as you can see, it was my plan to work here. But if you are sensitive, would you like me to move to the other end of the car? Would that help you?”

In the end, apparently moving my operation to the other end of the car (where, incidentally, there are no power points) is what this sour woman wants. I find it annoyingly ironic when I catch her no more than 15 minutes later….with a camera in her hands.

This woman doesn’t ruin my day, however. Instead I revel in how the differences between people make this world such an interesting place. I celebrate the connections I’ve made already on the train in such a short period of time; some of which I expect to nurture into deeper relationships as we journey across the Australian outback together.

At the end of my first day of riding the Indian Pacific, I’ve not even seen an inkling of the boredom-monster; in fact as usual the time has passed a little too quickly while I’ve gazed out over the Blue Mountains outside Sydney, chatted with fellow passengers, and even written a few small articles.

I go to bed excited for my trip to la-la-land, inspired by the gentle canter of the train.



Editor’s Note: I received a complimentary Ausrail pass from Great Southern Rail, and a free upgrade to sleeper class.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Buzz December 28, 2010 at 11:56 am

All good.

But I gotta say, seeing how you like long train trips by going Ausrail is rather cheating isn’t it? ;-)

This series isn’t complete until you’ve reported from India! May I suggest Delhi – Bangalore? 2nd Class.

Reply

Joost December 28, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Hi Nora, the ultimate no-flying trip is from Singapore to Fairbanks, Alaska. And this is the itinary:
1) Singapore – Kuala Lumpur – Bangkok by train
2) Bangkok – Phmon Penh by train/bus for Cambodian section
3) Phmon Penh – Saigon by train/bus for Cambodian section
4) Saigon – Hanoi by train
5) Hanoi – Beijing by train
6) Beijing – Moscow by Transsib
7) Moscow – Cologne by train
8) Cologne – Brussels – London – Southampton by high-speed trains
9) Southampton – NYC by boat, the Queen Mary 2. Operator Cunard Line. Travel time 7 days
10) NYC – Toronto by train, the Maple Leaf train
11) Toronto – Jasper by the Canadian transcontinental
12) Jasper – Prince Rupert by the Skeena train
13) Prince Rupert – Whittier by the Alaska Marine Highway
14) Whittier – Anchorage by Alaska Railroad
15) Anchorage – Fairbanks by Alaska Railroad

Yours, Joost :)

Reply

Joost December 28, 2010 at 3:43 pm

But a trying how long you can take the train without boring is no cheating, it’s a good experience between you and yourself. After all, could you remember you once had a settled life and job?

Reply

theprofessionalhobo December 28, 2010 at 7:45 pm

@Buzz – How on earth is it cheating? :-) Do you mean that by traveling by train in a western country, I’m cheating? Or by using the Ausrail pass? The Ausrail pass is the best – and cheapest – way to experience Ausralia’s rail system; for one price, you get unlimited access to the rail networks. That’s just good sense! :-)

As for Delhi to Bangalore in 2nd class, I’m not above that, by any stretch. But I hope you don’t measure travel stripes by uncomfortable hardships borne or the number of bugs accidentally eaten in your sleep…it’s a backpacker-elitist approach, along the lines of people suggesting who “real travelers” are by virtue of how far “off the beaten path” they get.

@Joost – Awesome itinerary! So far, I’ve done bits of it in pieces:
1) Singapore – KL – Bangkok
10) NYC – Toronto (I grew up taking this train every summer to visit my grandparents…it’s what kindled my love of long-distance train travel!)
11) Toronto – Jasper
12) Jasper – Prince Rupert

An in fact, there’s a ferry from Prince Rupert that travels up the inside passage to Skagway, Alaska. I’d be tempted to take this option instead; it’s cheap and apparently quite stunning.
(Then again, I’d imagine Alaska Railroad would be equally stunning. Have you done it?)

Reply

Buzz December 31, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Please don’t take yourself or me so seriously; like I said, “all good”.

You emphasized (in bold): “I actually wanted to see if it’s possible to become bored on a train.”

I was suggesting, and used a , that Ausrail might not be the best place to investigate that question. I took the Ghan a few years ago, and it was so nice I didn’t want to get off. A similar length trip I did in India was … “different”. It was physically not possible to disembark the train at times due to so many bodies being crammed in the aisles.

So as I said, I look fwd to your continued investigation of long train trips in all their variety.

Reply

theprofessionalhobo December 31, 2010 at 8:51 pm

@Buzz – I get it! Slight misunderstanding…sorry about that! Thanks for clarifying. :-)
I too, look forward to the next big train ride!
BTW: Happy New Year…

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Jools Stone January 6, 2011 at 1:25 pm

Sounds great Nora, can I ask please how much was your trip and what does the Auspass get you? Do you just pay a sleeper supp per night? I haven’t done either yet, but have read that the Trans Siberian can be quite boring if done without any stops. Quite monotonous scenery for most of Siberia I suppose.

I hope the sour woman got her commupence later!

Reply

theprofessionalhobo January 6, 2011 at 6:16 pm

@Jools – There are a number of different passes you can get, depending on the routes you want to take, the time period you’re working with, and your age. The prices range from $200-$900. You can check out the rail pass options here:
http://www.gsr.com.au/site/travelinfo/rail_passes.jsp

And yes, the pass only gets you a seat, so you pay a supplement to be in the sleeper.

As for the sour woman, I pretty much avoided each other for the rest of the journey, but we were at least polite to each other! :-)

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Darren October 19, 2011 at 12:58 pm

:) I thought it was going to be a travel guide – that’s great for people travelling through Australia, but I’m glad you focused on one of the characters.

It’d be good to hear a little description about that woman – an insight into her look and your thoughts on the reasons she acted that way. I’ve met many people like that – they impose their culture and expect it to be adhered to, without any consideration for yours. A little compromise would be nice. It’s interesting to study these people and also remain civil when they act like an imbecile. But meeting a variety of people, does make life interesting.

I was wondering, apart from the international travelling-folk on the train, what were the aussies like – sociable or not so? I talk from a British point of view; passengers sit with a ‘distraction-device’, such as a newspaper, mobile or book to avoid any eye-contact with fellow passengers. Nobody wants to interact, so it’s rather difficult to under the characters, except for making a sweeping judgement.

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theprofessionalhobo October 22, 2011 at 9:11 am

@Darren – I found that most of the passengers on the Indian Pacific – Aussie or International – were quite sociable. There’s a difference between sitting on a local subway behind a “distraction-device”, and sitting on a train like the IP, which for many who take it – IS the destination of sorts. When you’re on vacation, you tend to open up a little more easily I find.

Reply

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