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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The carriage interiors, extensively refurbished in 2012, evoke the romantic days of early train travel, with carriages and restaurant cars fitted with wood-paneled walls, Art Deco lights and fittings, brocaded upholstery, and polished brass. I’m bedding down in Platinum class, a top-tier service upgraded just this past October to “satiate an increasing demand for luxury train travel.” It works for me. The lavishly appointed sleepers come with chauffeured transfers, champagne on boarding, in-cabin breakfasts, nifty toiletries kits, and a handy little service button that sees staff delivering cupcakes and tea in the afternoon, sugar-dusted Turkish delight in the evenings, and a Baileys or port before bed.

At guests’ behest the rooms can be reconfigured by day so that beds disappear into the wall and are replaced by respectable little lounge settings with front-row views of the passing scenery. I spend so much time looking through my window that I come to think of it as a movie reel, each viewing offering a new take on the evolving landscape.

When I wake on day two we’re just short of Rawlinna, on the western edge of the Nullarbor Plain, one of the journey’s highlights. Once a prehistoric seabed, this vast limestone escarpment stretches away from the shores of the Great Australian Bight in an otherworldly landscape of red earth and blue-gray tussock. True to its name, which is derived from the Latin nullus arbor, there’s not a tree in sight. The Yorkshire-born adventurer Edward John Eyre, who crossed the Nullarbor on foot in 1841, called it “a blot on the face of nature.” He might have better appreciated it had he traveled Platinum class like me.

The railway line runs for 477 kilometers across the Nullarbor, making it the longest stretch of straight track in the world. I’m told that dingoes and camels are common out here, though I don’t see any on my watch. I do spot old wooden telegraph poles where wedge-tailed eagles have built nests, and some scrubby peppercorn trees. But by midmorning even these are no longer to be seen, and the stripe of horizon running midway across my window is as flat and featureless as a tabletop.

As I slept through the train’s first stop last night—a midnight halt in Kalgoorlie, where restless passengers had the opportunity to visit the world’s biggest open-cut mine by starlight—I relish the chance to stretch my legs at our second stop, in Cook, a tiny blip on the map with a population of just five.

Before we pull up to the settlement’s lonely-looking station, I tune into the train’s in-cabin audio channel to learn something about the place. A chipper commentary informs me that the flat pastel limestone of the surrounding landscape provides an ideal background for spotting tiny meteorite fragments known as tektites, which apparently fall to earth here with regularity.

Cook is equally as alien to my citified eye. It is midday, and as we step from the carriage the sun beats down on us with almost physical force. Spindly eucalypts offer little in the way of shade, and the limestone terrain is glaringly white. Here and there, sun-blasted relics hint at an earlier heyday: a faded sign for a bush hospital long since closed; dilapidated tennis courts with grass sprouting through the service line; an empty public swimming pool. The place reminds me of a seminal Australian movie called Wake in Fright, about a school teacher in just such a small outback town who gambles his term wage, can’t afford the train ride back to Sydney, and spends his holidays being drawn into a crude and hard-drinking lifestyle on the cusp of reality. In fact, the film was shot near Broken Hill farther down the track, but the thought nevertheless makes me hotfoot it back to the train when the whistle sounds.

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