A stretch of the imagination
I used to be obsessive about doing long train journeys from start to finish. I'd travel from London to Inverness, Scotland; Buenos Aires to San Salvador de Jujuy, Argentina; and Moscow to Beijing, testing myself on the longest trips available in the country or continent I was visiting. It's probably a male thing, but that doesn't make it any easier to overcome.
So I flew to Adelaide, Australia, feeling a bit guilty, as I was joining the storied Indian Pacific train part way along its 4,350-kilometre route from Sydney to Perth. My schedule didn't allow for the full monty. Instead of three nights, I'd be doing just two, and missing the stretch through the Blue Mountains. On the upside, I would, I hoped, be seeing lots of arid plain and big skies - archetypal Australia - with a decent chance of big red kangaroos and twitchy emus en route.
The journey started off in almost comical luxury, with a welcome cocktail and lots of socialising in the bar. I had a private room with a shower and loo attached, and there were only half a dozen people sharing a whole carriage with me. At dinner time, we had allotted times to be at our tables and were served gourmet food and wines from Adelaide, Margaret River and the other great vineyard regions. I had a delicious steak and robust shiraz the first night, and chatted to an expat mining executive and his wife also bound for Perth. But I had no sense of the great wilderness, or that the arduous journeys people used to make across the massive hinterland were the stuff of history books.
By the next morning, we had entered the Nullarbor Plain, the vast, treeless (as its name indicates) limestone plateau that stretches across the bottom corner of southwestern Australia. One of the guards told me it had been raining, and pointed out flowers bursting out of the flat earth. But there were heavy clouds hanging over the sky, and there was still a moodiness and melancholy to the immense plain.
I saw no big reds or emus, and was soon at lunch again, eating a kangaroo meat starter in the stylishly retro-fitted dining car, sipping on a gently oaked Chardonnay, and starting to feel I had arrived in the epic nothingness of my dreams.
In the afternoon, I retired to my cabin, staring out or peering navel-wards, listening to the rhythm of the bogies below and watching the light change slowly on the plain. I had with me a great novel (Tim Winton's Cloudstreet, about Perth), a notebook for scribbling down random ideas and an iPod full of tunes. There was also a handy little onboard newspaper called Far Horizons, which filled me in on the stops we were passing through, the history of the line and the nature we might see, or hear, or imagine.
As this was my first time in Australia, I was delighted simply to be seeing - and sensing - the scale, sameness and scrubbiness of the Outback and to be doing so from the very comfortable vantage point of a private compartment. Trains and big landscapes are made for each other, and luxury trains make the best possible case for slow travel.
Work on the Indian Pacific railway was begun in 1920, but it evolved in slow stages and was completed only in 1970. It took so long because of conflicting gauges adopted by different regional governments, and it was only when the Cockburn-Broken Hill section was finally completed at the end of the 1960s that a train could travel from Sydney to Perth on a standard gauge line (1,435mm between the inner heads of the tracks). Although still kept busy with cargo trains - mainly for the freighting of mined ores - the Indian Pacific line is no longer a vital link for passengers because of the cost and frequency of air travel. Since 1997, the train has been run as a tourism venture by Great Southern Rail - the firm that also runs the famous Ghan train from Adelaide to Darwin and several other luxury rail services.
The trains are '70s rolling stock, built after an American model, with stainless-steel silver carriages, and compartments ranging from Platinum (spacious with a sort of mini lounge area) to Gold (private shower and loo for each two-berth cabin) to Red class (sleeper or seats, with no meals included).
The coast-to-coast trip takes just over 66 hours. Those passengers who had come through from Sydney had visited the National Wine Centre during a three-hour stopover in Adelaide, and they had only praise for the whistle-stop tour of the city.
The next stop of any significance was Cook, a remote, two-dingo town in the middle of the Nullarbor Plain. Everybody got off to breathe in some fresh air.
Inside the station was a souvenir shop touting middle-of-nowhere memorabilia: postcards, calendars, tea towels and fridge magnets. A sign above one shelf read, in capital letters: 'Any arsehole that steals from this camp will be gut shot and left for the eagles to feed on.'
Two tough-looking local women in their 50s took the cash and answered passengers' questions:
'Do you like it here?'
'It's all right. We've got dogs.'
'What do the men do?'
'What do men do anywhere?'
'Do you get bored?'
'The trains keep us busy.'
Trains arrive at Cook maybe 20 times a week - two passenger trains from each direction plus the cargo trains. The engines stay at Cook only as long as it takes to refill the massive water tank. We had half an hour; it was enough.
I got back on and realised the compartment had become a sort of temporary home. It was familiar, littered with my stuff and - thanks to the natural 'television' of the windows - more diverting than any stop.
That evening we arrived in Kalgoorlie, a mining town. With three hours to kill, I headed for a pub where some miners were drinking. Outside, Kalgoorlie looked a bit like a film set, thanks to some early 20th century facades on hotels and saloons and the fact that a few blocks away was the desert. The town was sleepy for a Friday night - but then, I never made it to the brothels. The train crew told me they were always busy.
The next morning we should have arrived in Perth. But I woke up to discover a cargo train had derailed in front of us. At breakfast we were informed that there'd be a delay and that for the time being we were stranded on the fringes of Western Australia's wheat belt. We were allowed off the train to stretch our legs (and to prevent an insurrection). No one, however, complained much. You don't take long-distance trains if you're in a hurry. With plenty of time to read, the story in my Tim Winton novel suddenly shifted to the wheat belt - art and life merged as the sun rose high in the sky.
By the time we finally rolled into Perth, it was dusk. An orange glow lit up the sky behind the hills fringing the suburbs. The train seemed to speed up, as ever on a train journey.
I hadn't done the entire east-west journey, but I'd done 3,115 kilometres, which was plenty, and I felt some satisfaction at having seen one of the world's biggest countries at a pace that allows that immensity to be comprehended. I adore long rail journeys for their own sake, and also because they make arriving so thrilling (with or without delays). The lights of a new city gathered round the train as night finally swept over the western sky and I began to pack my suitcase.
A 'day-nighter' reclining seat on the Indian Pacific from Adelaide to Perth, with shared bathroom, costs A$485 (HK$4,050). Food and drink are extra. The Platinum service, in a luxury compartment with a full-sized shower, panoramic windows, plus meals (continental breakfast to your berth), from Adelaide-Perth, costs A$2,409. See www.gsr.com.au and www.australia.com.
Three other great train journeys Down Under
The Ghan: Adelaide to Darwin via Alice Springs. This is arguably the archetypal Aussie journey, penetrating the heart of the country and taking in the tropical Top End. Distance: 4,352 kilometres
The Southern Spirit: the latest luxury service, linking Brisbane and Adelaide via Sydney and Melbourne. Ideal for making excursions to lovely beaches and botanic gardens, and wine tasting in the Hunter Valley. Distance: 2,801 kilometres
The Overland: the Melbourne-Adelaide train pioneered inter-capital rail travel in Australia in 1887, and visits rugged scrubland, crop farms, open plains and rolling hills. Distance: 828 kilometres
Great Southern Rail (www.greatsouthernrail.com.au) operates all the long-distance trains in Australia. Chris Moss