Hmmm. A $49, four-hour flight from Melbourne to Perth? Or a $220 (concession) three-day, two-night train journey from Melbourne to Perth across the Nullarbor? One requires sitting in a chair for four hours, the other requires sitting – and sleeping – in a chair for three days. Guess which one I picked? Yep. Some people have a dream about crossing Australian in a train. I didn’t. They have grand visions of one day travelling the width of the Nullarbor Plain, of travelling on the longest stretch of straight train track in the world (478 kilometres). I didn’t. It was pretty obvious that for most of the other passengers – retiree couples finally becoming ‘grey nomads’ and tripping around Australia – this was the trip of a lifetime. I simply needed to get to Perth and decided that the 10-hour Overland train from Melbourne to Adelaide, combined with the six zillion-hour train journey from Adelaide to Perth would be an experience not to miss. I exaggerate. It’s 38 hours from Adelaide, or 69 hours from Sydney.
Are we there yet?
The Overland was a breeze. Victoria’s yellow canola fields turned into the amazing Adelaide Hills before I could even say ‘are we there yet?’ It only runs during the day, but there ain’t no stopping unless you’re disembarking. An announcement at the start of the journey suggests that the 10-hour trip is a great way to commence a smoke-free life, and even follows this message with the Quitline number. After I boarded the silver slither of the Indian Pacific in Adelaide, Trevor yelled out the rules to the plebs in daynighter class. “NO sleeping in the dining or lounge carriages. We will wake you up. NO using the provided towels as blankets — they are for use for the showers only.” I looked at the people around me and realised that we’d all be eating together, sleeping together and breathing the same air for nearly three days. Some of the guys on board looked frightening. It’s not just international travellers with rail passes or ‘grey nomads’ on the Indian Pacific. Since Western Australia took first place in the resources boom, people are heading to the mines in droves to make some moolah. One thin, slightly whiffy, hard-living Aussie bloke started on the VB as soon as we boarded. Pretty soon he was debating the likelihood of the only (other) single woman on the train being harassed at her Kalgoorlie destination (a town where every pub has ‘skimpies’ — barmaids who don’t wear much, and the three brothels are on the tourist bus circuit). “Nahhhh luv. You’ll be fine. Are ya being picked up when ye get there?” he drawled, his head practically buried in her chest. She nodded. “Well, you’ll be right then.” The train stops twice, once in Cook – population seven – and then at WA’s middle-of-nowhere golden town, Kalgoorlie.
For $25 you can go on a bus tour through the wide streets (built wide for the Afghan camel trains that used to pass through) to the ‘Super Pit’. Here, four smaller gold mine leases were turned into one gigantic pit (3.5km long x 1.5km wide and 400metres deep). It’s mined 24 hours a day and it’s a tourist attraction. The viewing platform is about to be relocated — there’s gold under them there signs — so before it is, BYO shovel. The commentary is slightly mind-numbing, and people usually fall asleep (the tour starts at 10pm, when the train gets in), but stay awake for infamous Hay Street. In Kalgoorlie it used to cost more to swim at the local pool than visit a prostitute – double, in fact. These days it’s more like $350 an hour. Not sure how much a swim is though. Plus, you get the added bonus of walking out of the brothel to find a tour bus full of people watching you. Lovely. During the tour, the driver, while trying to keep us all awake, drove us past an ex-brothel. “This used to be a brothel, but now it’s a backpackers. Some say there’s not much difference.” Of course the whole bus of grey nomads giggled. Hey, at least backpackers don’t have to pay for it. Back on the train, the name ‘daynighter’ really means that you will be awake during the day and night. Yes, the seat reclines slightly, but not many people were able to sleep. There’s only one daynighter carriage, and you can wander to the lounge and cool art deco diner carriages (but no sleeping, remember). But the real joy of this trip is what’s on the other side of the windows.
Nullarbor not plane
I was completely mesmerised by the stars over the Nullarbor Plain. Just as I was about to give up on seeing a shooting one, one flexed across. Sunset and sunrise gave a new light to the red earth and miles and miles of saltbush and nothing. The nothing goes for a whole day. The Wedge-tail Eagle, also the Indian Pacific’s logo, is out there, as are camels, smaller birds of prey and, bizarrely, sparrows. The third day, or fourth if you’ve come from Sydney, involves waking up to find the train slowing down through the suburbs of Perth. Watching commuters impatiently waiting in their cars for the train to pass and the boom gates to lift, all I could think of was: gee, I just crossed Australia (all 4352 km of it) by train. The grey nomads are right; it is the trip of a lifetime. The damage: Melbourne to Adelaide on The Overlander costs $59 (with concession card) or $89; Adelaide to Perth on the Indian Pacific costs $244 (with concession card), or $395 (without). A special offer until 24 Dec is $199 one-way (which allows travel until 31 March). The details: For more information about http://www.gsr.com.au/[Great Southern Railway] and bookings, Ph: 13 21 47 .
The full Indian Pacific journey – named after the two oceans it carries people to – from Sydney to Perth is 4,352km and takes 65 hours. The other great Australian train journey is on the Ghan – a train named after the many workers from Afghanistan who helped build the track. The train takes 48 hours to travel the 2,979km between Darwin and Adelaide, via Alice Springs. By contrast the infamously epic Trans-Siberian railway extends an incredible 9,228km from Moscow to the sea of Japan and takes roughly about 13 years.
Since you’re not allowed to use the towels as a blanket, bring your own blanket and pillow or warm clothes. Hang out in the diner/lounge carriages. As well as smelling fresher than the daynighter carriage, they’re where people go to chat and chat up. Main meals in red kangaroo class (daynighter and sleeper) are around $10 each and beers are half that. It’s mostly microwaved stuff and you’ll get sick of it quickly, especially if you’re a vegetarian. While you can’t consume your own grog on board, they don’t mind you bringing food. Stack up on fruit, muesli bars, corn chips, dips and juice at the supermarket before you leave. Pack what you’ll need for the two/three days into a small bag and check the backpack in.