A sprightly octogenarian celebrated his birthday in inimitable style on board the Indian Pacific last month, along with his delightful wife and a dozen family and friends. The attentive waiters made a huge fuss of him, bringing out a cake with candles and all the trimmings. As I gazed at the happy, animated faces, I thought to myself what a splendid way to celebrate a significant birthday or anniversary ... or even a wedding. Gather together a group of good friends or family members, take over an entire train carriage and have a party on rails, with gourmet food and drinks, luxurious accommodation, superb service, and fine entertainment, all provided. Not to mention thrilling off-train excursions, and the dramatic, ever-changing Australian landscape from the windows of your private cabin or lounge.
With our daughter’s wedding on the horizon, I began to fantasize about the romance of such a setting... and the photo opportunities. White dress, terracotta landscape, sunset on the Nullarbor Plain, the sleek silver Indian Pacific in the background with the wedge-tail eagle emblazoned on the carriages. The wedge-tail is Australia’s largest bird of prey, and its 2.3m-wide wing span symbolises the four-day, three night 4352km train journey that spans the continent from Perth on the Indian Ocean to Sydney on the Pacific Ocean.
There’s even a shiny vintage Bakewell S542 steam locomotive from a by-gone era on display at the East Perth station where we boarded the Indian Pacific at the start of our epic journey. What a stunning backdrop for a bride and groom.
Fantasies aside, the Indian Pacific is the ultimate in old-fashioned romantic travel. The whole experience is leisurely, luxurious and indulgent from the low-key check-in process at the train station where we were welcomed with a lavish morning tea and live entertainment, to the relaxed, congenial atmosphere in the lounge and bar, the magnificent meals in the elegant restaurant and the comfort of one’s own salubrious, private cabin. The absence of pressure, stress, decisions and deadlines took a while to adjust to but after a few hours, I slipped into daydream mode without a care in the world, beyond what to order from the mouth-watering menu and which of barman Brendan’s inspired cocktails to try next.
There was no WiFi on the train so I eventually switched my iPad off which would never happen at home. The techno-detox was highly therapeutic, deeply relaxing and restorative. It also resulted in train carriages full of people engaged in quaint, old-fashioned behaviour – conversing, reading novels, playing cards and board games. The convivial atmosphere was conducive to making new friends and indulging in stimulating, in-depth discussions on all manner of topics.
In the evenings, sans TV, guitarist Mattie strummed well-known tunes that seemed to transcend all age and national boundaries. We sang and danced in the aisles, even the 80-year-olds. There was a touch of magic in the air, especially just on sunset when the red landscape glowed, casting a warm radiance on faces young and old.
Even the pace was leisurely, a sedate 85km/h, reminiscent of an era when getting to one’s destination was part of the excitement, an experience to be savoured and enjoyed, rather than a process to be endured and dispensed with as fast as possible.
The 65-hour trip was broken by excellent excursions along the way - a tour of the Super Pit gold mine in Kalgoorlie-Boulder on the western fringe of the Nullarbor; a sunrise breakfast at the Outback settlement of Rawlinna; a refuelling stop at the ghost town of Cook on the Nullarbor; breakfast at the Oval in Adelaide, Australia’s capital of festivals and the arts; art galleries and a live Drag Queen show at Broken Hill, Australia’s oldest mining city and film set of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; and hiking in the magnificent Blue Mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage area.
A considerable amount of time was also spent eating ... in style, with starched white tablecloths and fine silverware and china. The cuisine was utterly sublime with three or four choices at each of the three or four courses. Especially memorable were the Australian saltwater barramundi in lemon myrtle-infused bouillabaisse; succulent Hunter Valley beef fillet; slow-cooked lamb shoulder in Kangaroo Island honey and black vinegar; and Port Lincoln hiramasa kingfish with Kinkawooka mussels. There were divine desserts like cherry clafoutis and blood orange meringue tart; and cheeses galore served with muscatels, strawberries and fig walnut paste. Goodness knows how the chefs managed to produce meals of such variety and panache in so small a space.
For those looking for an intimate dining experience or a special-occasion banquet, Platinum Service guests have access to the private Platinum Club carriage.
'...the main attraction of the train is the travel experience itself, and the chance to see Australia from a unique perspective'
One morning, when barman Brendan had a rare spare moment, we had a chat.
Not only was he a brilliant cocktail mixologist, he was a great source of information. A former teacher who is studying for a master in social work, he had a great way with people.
“Why is train travel so popular?” I asked him.
“I think the main attraction of the train is the travel experience itself, and the chance to see Australia from a unique perspective,” said Brendan.
“A lot of our guests are working through ‘bucket lists’ and these train journeys are way up there on their must-do’s.”
Most of the Indian Pacific passengers are Australian but New Zealanders also feature prominently, along with travellers from Europe, the US, China and Asian nations, he said. The average age is 60+ but he sees people of all ages from 10 to 100.
“Long-haul train trips like the Indian Pacific and the other train I work on, The Ghan, from Darwin to Adelaide, are popular with large tour groups who sometimes take up a whole carriage (16-18 people) or two. They have a lot of fun.
“Train travel has always been a marvel in my opinion. It has opened up long-distance travel to everyone and reminds us that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. If a place is worth seeing, why would you look down on it from the clouds? If I’m going to see a country, it’s the rocks, trees, earth, mountains and streams that make it unique. The landscapes, people and small towns really tell the story of a land,” he said.
“I love my work, getting to know my passengers, listening to their stories, watching new relationships develop and creating special memories in what is really a unique atmosphere. Everyone arrives as strangers and leaves as friends.”
I can vouch for that!
Between times, I spent hours just gazing out my cabin window, entranced by the colours and textures of Australia as we traversed the continent from west to east, crossing three states and time zones. I never tired of the landscape - the green Avon Valley near Perth, the golden Western Australian wheat lands, the immense, flat, treeless Nullarbor Plain, the strange rock formations of the South Australian desert, and the sandstone escarpments, cliffs and waterfalls of the Blue Mountains. And the sunrises and sunsets in the desert were mesmerising.
When I disembarked in Sydney, the most common questions I faced were: “Did you ever get bored?” and “Would you do another long-haul train trip?”
My replies were: “Here’s my novel, still in its wrapper ... and I’m booked on The Ghan next month ... and the Orient Express next year peut-être?”