Touring Australia’s Outback by Train

  • Desert and scrub over 70 percent of Australia.

    Desert and scrub over 70 percent of Australia.

  • The Indian Pacific takes visitors through the Australian outback.

    The Indian Pacific takes visitors through the Australian outback.

  • The Indian Pacific crosses Australia from Perth to Sydney, covering more than 4,000 kilometers.

    The Indian Pacific crosses Australia from Perth to Sydney, covering more than 4,000 kilometers.

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Crossing Australia from Perth to Sydney along more than 4,000 kilometers of track, the storied Indian Pacific provides a stylish window onto the outback

By Penny Watson
Illustrations by Simon Pemberton

As the train pulled out of the station this afternoon, my eyes and ears took in the minutiae of Perth’s eastern suburbs: the ding ding ding of railway crossings, the faded picket fences through which dogs ran the short stretch alongside the track, and the endless grassy green eucalyptus-shaded knolls—a terrain of joggers, dog walkers, and backpack-toting school children.

This evening, the scene through my window has metamorphosed into something different. Somewhere along the way, we crossed the line between the busyness of Australia’s fourth-largest city and an increasingly uninhabited landscape, a seemingly peopleless place, an alternate reality. Out here stars populate the skies like lonely diamonds and the sun sets so big across the horizon that it’s possible to observe the curvature of the earth. As Australians are fond of saying, this is awesome.

The enormity of Australia is both alluring and daunting. The continent’s broad sweeping canvas of multifarious landscapes appears to have been plucked from a topographical scrapbook collated by an eccentric geologist. Subtropical rain forests, ancient grasslands, yawning canyons, and the world’s biggest coral reef can be found in the north. Forested mountain ranges and alpine terrain run like zippers down the east coast. There is fertile river country and lush pastoral flatlands in New South Wales and Victoria, where about half the population lives, though with just 2.8 inhabitants per square kilometer, Australia’s population density is among the lowest in the world. And in the center of it all is the outback, a vast, harsh environment of desert and scrub that covers 70 percent of the country, making it the flattest and (with the exception of Antarctica) driest continent on the planet.

This is the Australia that I have come to see. My mode of transport is the Indian Pacific, which offers one of the few truly transcontinental train trips in the world, traveling between the Indian Ocean (at Perth) on the west coast and the Pacific Ocean (at Sydney) on the east coast. Over the better part of four days, the 4,352-kilometer journey passes through three states and time zones, with brief stops at places that offer their own quintessential snippets of Australian history: Kalgoorlie, a rough-and-ready pioneer town that now dominates Western Australia’s gold mining industry; Cook, the ghost town of the Nullarbor Plain, with its endless blue skies and views across nothing but spinifex and saltbush; Adelaide, a city of pretty sandstone churches and manicured rose gardens; and the isolated mining community of Broken Hill, nicknamed the “Capital of the Outback” and the former home of the legendary landscape artist Pro Hart.

It is possible to traverse this massive stretch of country by car, and many wanderlusting Australians consider the road trip a rite of passage. But a crossing on the Indian Pacific enables passengers to appreciate a spectrum of outback landscapes in style without having to leave the comfort of their seat, or even bed.

While the Indian Pacific can trace its roots back to the early 1900s, it was not until 1970 that the train completed its first unbroken journey from Sydney to Perth. Even so, it has earned itself a reputation as an Australian treasure, and together with its sister train The Ghan, which crosses the continent north to south between Adelaide and Darwin, ranks among the world’s greatest rail journeys. Its enormous length—our train has 28 carriages and stretches for 614 meters—brings to mind a shiny metallic snake slithering across the red landscape.

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