Long rail journeys such as the trek across the Nullarbor Plain used to be something one had to “suffer” to travel throughout Australia.
It now takes about 41 hours (including stops) on the Indian Pacific to travel the 2669km between Adelaide and Perth across the amazing wilderness that is the Nullarbor Plain.
Until more recently, that journey was somewhat “adventurous” and much more uncomfortable.
It’s now one of the world’s more famous rail journeys and annually draws in thousands of tourists.
Before 1970, the Sydney-Perth train trek was a messy affair, so the Indian Pacific was launched with flair and triumph after decades of planning to bring together a unified rail link across the nation.
My friend Chris Souilijaert, who at the time was a TV cameraman with the ABC, shot film for the Four Corners program that gave Australia its first look at what it was like to travel the Nullarbor Plain in much more comfortable conditions.
And it’s a trip you would most likely do for the experience as I did. And I did it both ways, just to have a double dose of the sights. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime journey better undertaken in the cooler months.
My journey started with a pre-departure dinner in Adelaide on Thursday May 31.
A huge part of the journey is sharing the experience with other travellers. My adventure got off to a most delightful start with the very first person I starting talking with.
He introduced himself as Brian and we got talking about various things. He was obviously a decade or so older than me and retired, so I asked him what he did in his working life. Turns out he was for about 20 years the Roman Catholic Bishop of Rockhampton, so immediately we had a connection and many shared connections to the city.
It was immensely satisfying to talk about faith with Brian Heenan; a most gracious and amiable gentleman. We actually travelled in the same cabin and I got to speak with him on several occasions during the journey.
The start of the Nullarbor Plain
Was awake early on the first morning and began to take in the vastness and the changing South Australian landscape. The hills gradually give away to the start of the flatness of the Nullarbor Plain.
Sheep stations abound so our woolly friends are the first creatures that add to the visual feast of the bush.
Breakfast means meeting new people. My companions were all from Perth; a couple named Mike and Sharon and an adventurous retiree named Shirley who’d just turned 70. Mike and Sharon had just returned from a lengthy stay with family in New Zealand; Shirley had joined the Indian Pacific after having flown to Darwin and travelled on The Ghan to Adelaide; another must-do rail journey.
Just over 1100km into the journey the train stops at Cook and it is there you really get to appreciate the flatness of the Nullarbor and the isolation of a settlement in the “middle of nowhere”.
Cook was established because of the railway and it became the base for maintenance crews. At its peak about 200 people lived at Cook; but now only a handful are required to help “re-provision” the Indian Pacific on its trek.
A 40-minute stopover allows passengers to get out and wander around the remains of the town.
Rawlinna by night
About five hours later, the train stops again at Rawlinna for an evening experience. It’s too cold in winter for a meal under the stars but hot drinks are served and fires burn while an entertainer plays his guitar and sings. Some of the passengers get up and dance fuelled in some cases by more than tea and coffee.
Rawlinna is part of a working sheep station. After a couple of hours the train leaves and when we are again in sunlight on Saturday morning, the sparseness of the Nullarbor is replaced by the trees, and cultivation interspersed with salt pans. The rich colours of the West are ever in view as we head towards the hills and then begin the descent into the Avon Valley in the final few hours of the journey.
I had Saturday breakfast with a retired mariner named Danny from Tasmania and a brash American named Bobby. Danny, who obviously has some health issues, was physically sick which brought a most uncomfortable end to our conversation.
We arrived in Perth about 3pm and I said my goodbyes to various people I’d met and arranged to visit my new-found friend Shirley at her church the next morning.
My brother Evan took me to the airport where I picked up a hire car for the week I would spend in Perth.
Ready for the return journey
Just over a week later I was back on the same platform ready for the return journey to Adelaide. The first person I spoke with was an 80-something lady from Perth named Colleen who’s in the same carriage as me.
Met several others including a fellow named Barry Slattery from Rockhampton and his wife who are travelling with another couple of ex-Rockhamptonites named Jim and Bronwyn Bosomworth. Brownwyn went to Allenstown school at same time my Aunt Helen was there; and to Rockampton High School.
Had breakfast with a Welshman named Barry who travels a lot and lunch with a retired Texan aircraft engineer named John. Did the night tour at Kalgoorlie which was a waste of time in the dark because you can’t see that much.
Early Monday morning we stopped at Rawlinna which, of course, was a night experience on the way to Perth. Nice to see it in the daylight hours and had a good walk around. Introduced John the aircraft engineer to Jim the retired Cathay Pacific pilot and they had a nice chat.
Back in the carriage I was talking with Colleen and discovered she actually grew up at Cook which is the next stop back along the Nullarbor. Colleen’s done several crossings by train (including steam) as well as road (in the days it was mostly dirt), so she’s seen lots of change.
The remainder of the afternoon and evening slipped by after the Cook stop; another meal, more conversations and then to bed.
Awoke to a rainy Tuesday and the final run into Adelaide where my double crossing of the Nullarbor Plain ended.
Back to the more mundane but comfortable seat of my Mazda for the trip back to Victoria.
Now, do I spend some more money and take a trip on The Ghan?