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Transcontinental grandeur: Australia’s iconic Indian Pacific rail journey

By Liz Ginis

June 23, 2022


A train trip unlike any other, the iconic Indian Pacific shoots across the Nullarbor and straight into your heart.

There’s a whole lot of nothing that amounts to something exceptional… That’s the conclusion I drew after crossing the Nullarbor aboard the Indian Pacific recently. It’s a sentiment shared by the iconic train’s Service Operations Manager, Renae Walter, who has run the rails between Sydney and Perth, and back, for nine years now. In her RM Williams striped shirt and moleskins, she beams as we watch the saltbush-dotted plain rush by outside, bathed in the golden beams of a waning sun. “It never gets old,” she says. “This time of day, the colors of the Nullarbor. No matter how many times I make the journey, and that’s a lot – we get a week’s R&R between trips – it’s always breathtaking.”

Renae and I have ventured to the last pod on the caterpillar of carriages to watch the day’s end unfold and snatch a glimpse of the train in its entirety (27 carriages) out the window. En route we passed through the gold-class passenger quarters and then the staff digs, where signs remind us to go quietly because off-duty crew “are catching their zzzzs”.

It’s March and the outside temp sits around 30 degrees – a crisp dry heat that made for desiccated conversations when we stopped in Cook earlier in the day (but more about that later).

“After school, I was looking for a job that combined my love of travel and people,” Renae says. “I’d have been a flight attendant if I hadn’t come aboard the IP [the affectionate abbreviation used by the train’s 35 staff]. After a few years riding these rails she enjoyed the ex-pat life in the United Kingdom, a right of passage for many young, adventurous Aussies, before returning home and re-boarding the IP. “It’s a particular lifestyle,” she says. “The crew is your family – you have set rosters and routines with them. You’re happy to see one another after you’ve had a break, and you’re also happy to wave each other goodbye, and into the arms of your ‘other’ families, when you’re done.”

Indian Pacific, Terana Valley near Lithgow.

Happy Days

This IP journey is particularly significant for Renae and her family, on-board and otherwise. Since the pandemic began in 2020, only 15 return journeys out of the 100 scheduled have run – and this is the first trip into Western Australia after the state government reopened its borders on 3 March this year.

On the platform in Adelaide the air is electric with anticipation, guests intoxicated by the welcoming champagne, canapes, live music and ear-to-ear smiles of the crew. Outside the Adelaide terminal on the platform, two long tables are elegantly set – white tablecloths, fine china, native flowers – a warm welcome to the 161 guests who will soon climb aboard the silver rail cars that stretch along the track beside us. We sit and before long the conversation is flowing, much like the wine, and we’re serving each other roast vegetables and succulent steak from communal platters.

Sitting to my left is Paul O’Neill. It’s his first time on the IP. A former Northern Territory national parks ranger has the easy manner of a man you want to know more about. He’s spent three decades caring for country in the Top End and retired a few years ago with his partner, Mignon, to the coastal hamlet of Encounter Bay, SA.

“We spend the summer there and head north, back to Darwin, for the winters,” he says. “Like migratory birds chasing the warmth. We mostly drive, sometimes through the heart of the country, and other times we head west, through WA. And we’ve taken The Ghan too.”

Paul shares tales of his adventures, from tangoing with saltwater crocs and dancing with brolgas to working alongside the Traditional Owners. He’s a natural raconteur, so adept at spinning a yarn that everyone within earshot is mesmerized. And then there’s his three-month stint on a remote island off the northwest WA coast. “We were driving back from SA to Darwin and stopped at Cadney Roadhouse, where we met a couple and got talking. They were caretakers at Troughton Island and were looking for someone to replace them for a bit. It’s just you out there, so you need to be self-contained, handy and resourceful. We thought, yes, why not.”

The island is a service port for the oil rigs further west in the Indian Ocean and it’s only other inhabitants are crocs, turtles, snakes and seabirds aplenty. “It was an extraordinary time,” he says. “I’ve seen my share of sunsets but nothing quite like out there. Sublime.”

After the three-course dinner is done and dusted we board the train, directed to our cabins, with beds already turned down for the evening. I’m in a Gold Cabin – the second of four categories, topped by Platinum – and turn in for the evening in my bunk bed (I try the top bunk the first night and the bottom the following), which is dressed with crispy white sheets and a doona. There’s an en-suite that’s surprisingly spacious and a picture window that allows me to watch the rising sun from my bed each morning as we shoot through the landscape – ochre sand, salt pans, blue-grey mulga and early rising ‘roos; quintessential outback Australia.

On the second day of the journey east, passengers wake up to the outback. In the gentle light of dawn the Indian Pacific passes the salt expanse of Lake Hart, near Woomera, SA.

Cook connection

There are only two stops on our cross country sojourn, and Cook is the first. Established in 1917, it’s a blink-of-the-eye settlement on the Nullarbor with a collection of historic buildings – general store, bush hospital and jail cells – as well as a functioning phone booth, just in case you’re in need of one when lighting the locomotive that rides the rails of the longest straight stretch of railway anywhere on Earth, 487 kilometers to be exact.

Once a bustling little hub, Cook is now largely deserted aside from three couples who work a rotating roster – two weeks on, one week off – to service the IP.

I meet Taryn and her partner as they’re collecting linen from the train. “We’ll launder it and make sure it’s ready for collection when the IP makes its return journey from Perth,” she says.

Surrounded by desert, buzzed by blowies and with temperatures that top 50-plus degrees in the summer, Cook would lack appeal for most, I muse to Taryn.

“I grew up here,” she says. “I went to school here when it was a town, my dad worked on the railway – it holds a special place for me.”

So much so that pair have worked here for two years now, and the other two couples seven and five years respectively.

“It’s a really relaxed lifestyle and you know, we’re doing something that not a lot of people do. Here you never know what’s going to happen.”

And when they’re not in Cook, the duo head ‘home’ to the Yorke Peninsula. “It’s a 1000km drive – 13 hours; we do it in a day – but it’s worth it. If the weather’s nice we get five days of fishing.”

Another ‘local’ of Cook is train driver Brett Smart; it’s his home away from home when working the IP. He’s engaged by Pacific National to “hook and pull” the IP and The Ghan carriages.

“IP owns the carriages and Pacific National provides the locomotion,” he explains as we stand in the shade of the engine car in Cook, swatting flies.

Limited to 12 hours of driving in any one shift, Brett is stopping over here after joining the IP in Port Augusta in the early hours of this morning. “I remember most people think driving [the train] across the Nullarbor is pretty simple, it’s flat and straight, but before you get to there, there’s a lot of curves, uphill and downhill – there’s actually a lot more to it than just pushing the big red button.

“We have to do it all manually, there’s no autopilot, although they’re working on one, but that doesn’t see camels in front of you – every year there’s a heap of camels and roos and cattle that get cleaned up. And then there’s the freight trains; about five on average a day pass the IP, and more on weekends. It’s a bloody good job, but it keeps you on your toes.”

Rawlinna

Back on board the IP and we’re hurtling towards early evening and the highly anticipated trackside dinner at Australia’s largest sheep station, Rawlinna.

I head to the Outback Explorer Lounge for a sundowner and find it teeming with guests and chatter. The social hub of the train, it’s where we gather before breakfast, lunch and dinner to wait for a table in the supremely elegant Queen Victoria Restaurant car, which harks back to the golden age of train travel with its ornate fixtures and fittings. The food philosophy here, however, is all Australian and reflects the regions we pass through, like anise myrtle, which was used by Traditional Owners as a vitalising medicinal tonic, and bush tomatoes (katjerra), which grow wild across the desert center of Australia .

We arrive at Rawlinna just after dusk, the sky a bruised mauve save for the last vestiges of orange on the western horizon. Lanterns line the railway track, the light reflected off the silver carriages, as we pour out of the train and make our way to long, rustic wooden tables and bench seats. Firepits blaze, music tumble from speakers, wine glasses clink and laughter rises to bounce off the infinite blanket of stars above.

Nicole Gray organizes the shindig here for the IP, ably assisted by her husband Greg Campbell. The duo own Kybo Station, 200 clicks down the dusty road from Rawlinna. “It’s the middle of nowhere, but it’s our nowhere and we love it,” says Nicole, explaining “we” includes their horse, a camel, three sheep and a ‘roo shooter “who lives out the back”.

To say Nicole and her merry band have missed the IP is an understatement as vast as the Nullarbor itself. “The staff that come through on it are like family,” she says. “We look forward to seeing them each week and meeting the guests. It’s been a very lonely stretch without them.”

Service Operations Manager Renae Walter couldn’t agree more. “The IP has a bit of a soul that burrows into your own,” she says. “We’re all so happy she’s back.”

Find out more at Journey Beyond.

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