At nearly 4000 kilometres across, Australia truly is a wide brown land, and a couple of weeks back The Bloke and I were privileged to ride across it as guests of Great Southern Rail on the iconic Indian Pacific.
Taking this trip has ticked a big item off my bucket list and the experience was every bit as splendid as I’d hoped for. The accommodation is comfortable, the food and drink is of exceptional quality, and the staff are as much a part of the experience as the journey itself.
For now I want to share with you the daily off-train experiences which break up what could be a slightly tedious three-day journey and which show off some of the remarkable features of our collective home.
We boarded the Indian Pacific in Sydney on a Wednesday and, after a friendly, welcoming get-together on the platform, the train took off, gently rolling up through the gloriously lush Blue Mountains and headed for the first stop – Broken Hill. The train arrives at Broken Hill just after 6am and those who care to are up, dressed, caffeinated and ready to board excursion buses that will take us to either an exhibition of the region’s favourite son at the Pro Hart Gallery or the deeply moving Line of Lode Miners Memorial and Visitors Centre.
We opted to visit the latter, a striking and unique site which sits on top of a mullock heap and commands exceptional views of the town which the industry fathered. The memorial includes a list of more than 800 miners who lost their lives on the job. Each loss is commemorated with the name, age and cause of death of the individual. The youngest among these is a 12-year-old boy – a sobering reminder of why the city embraced trade unionism to protect its workers. After enjoying a resuscitating cuppa and snack in the Visitors Centre café, we had a brief tour of the slowly-waking town, before boarding our ride again and heading straight for the breakfast table.
With nothing to do but relax, the day passed lazily, with the train rolling through South Australia, past Peterborough, which was once one of the busiest railway stations in the country with more than 100 trains pausing there every day. We ride on past the green winter slopes of the Southern Flinders Ranges and shortly after lunch pull up at our next stop at Two Wells, where some of us again board a bus. And again, there is a choice of excursions, with some passengers staying on the train until Adelaide where they will disembark for a walking tour of the city.
This time we are bound for a region more familiar to me – Seppeltsfield Winery and Maggie Beer’s Farm Shop in the Barossa Valley.
At Seppeltsfield we are taken through the historic barrel hall on the way to the private trophy cellar – a spot the general public rarely has access to. Here we learn about their prize – the oldest continual port collection in the world, an unbroken collection that dates from 1878. Guests are offered tastings of some of the premium fortified wines and it is possible to purchase tastings of your birth-year vintage. We go from there upstairs to the newly refurbished tasting cellars and have a wander through the Jam Factory, home to various crafts-persons, before boarding the bus again.
Our next stop is the look-out at Menglers Hill, which usually offers a magnificent view of the Barossa Valley but was shrouded in fog and rain on the day of our visit, then on to another South Australian icon – Maggie Beer’s Farm.
Greeted with wine and delicious nibbles made from Maggie’s and other local produce, we settle in for a cooking demonstration in one of the most famous kitchens in the country. Maggie is not cooking today, but her stand-in does a fine job of showing us how to use one of their best known products – Verjuice – before ushering us into the on-site function centre for a generous three-course dinner, served with premium Barossa wines.
Stuffed to the gills with some of the very best South Australian food and wine around, we rolled back onto the bus and into Adelaide to meet up with the Indian Pacific. The Bloke and I sleep extra-soundly that night and wake up on Friday morning quite literally in the middle of nowhere.
With no break in our travel planned until later in the day, I finally get to curl up in a corner of our cabin and alternate reading with gazing out at the challenging desert landscape – wondering what on earth possessed those pioneers to head out there in the first place.
After lunch we make a brief stop at Cook, once a remote railway town with a small, but active population, a school and a hospital. These days it is a ghost town with a permanent population of four, whose job it is to service the trains that pass through.
Five or so hours further along the longest straight stretch of railway in the world the Indian Pacific comes to a stop at Rawlinna Station railway siding – the largest sheep station in Australia at around 8000sqkm. Here we disembark for what must be the most extraordinary and exclusive remote-region experience anywhere in the world.
The passengers alight from the train onto the sandy soil of the western edge of the Nullarbor, under the inky desert night sky. Next to the tracks the trees have been dressed in fairy lights, fire pits glow, long tables have been set up with hurricane lamps and a performer stands off to one side strumming his guitar and singing Aussie favourites. Great Southern Rail staff offer us drinks and escort us to seats, before serving the tables with huge, generous share platters of barbecued lamb, pork, roasted vegetables and all the necessary condiments.
It’s not long before we are all alternating between eating the delicious food and singing along and, just when we decide we can’t eat another thing, the depleted platters are exchanged for steaming chocolate puddings for dessert. Wine flows like, well – wine, the congenial party atmosphere has plastered every single face with a wide, beaming smile and I can’t help but be grateful for the opportunity to be part of such a wonderful adventure.
Eventually we all pile back on the train to head into the night through to the western edge of Australia. With these experiences, the Indian Pacific offers guests a unique glimpse of our great southern land. One that will send the internationals on board away with great stories to tell about this huge continent and which will have locals glowing with a more intimate insight of our home.
South Australian writer Amanda McInerney writes about travel and food on her Lambs’ Ears & Honey blog. She visited the Southern Flinders Ranges as a guest of Regional Development Australia, Yorke and Mid North Region. She was a guest of Great Southern Rail for the trip on the Indian Pacific. 2016-17 prices for Sydney-Perth Indian Pacific: Gold class starts at $2529 per person; platinum class starts at $3919 per person.
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