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Across Australia on the Indian Pacific


Flights from Perth to Sydney can be found for under £200, and take around five hours. The same journey on the Indian Pacific Railway costs around the same for an airline-style seat (sleepers and private compartments can be had for a price) but takes three days. For much of the trip, the view outside the window is of a flat, grubby desert. Why would anyone choose to go by rail, when cheap flights do the job so much more efficiently? After all, three days spent on an uncomfortable train are three days that could be spent in Sydney pubs, or buying a campervan to start a hedonistic pilgrimage up the east coast.

But travel is not always about packing the most amount of fun, into the smallest amount of time, for the least amount of money possible. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if you’re going to understand Australia, you need to understand its emptiness – its outback.

The train – one of those big, noisy, solid engines that make you feel excited as soon as you see them – leaves Perth around midday twice a week, chugging out through suburbs and into rough countryside. It reaches its first stop, the mining town of Kalgoorlie, around midnight, and stays there for around three hours. Kalgoorlie was a gold rush town, built in the late nineteenth century, and still has the feel of the wild west about it. Its 30,000 inhabitants have never stopped looking for gold, and other metals – modern day Kalgoorlie is a centre for the mining industry and one of the largest urban centres in Western Australia.

With only three hours to spare, we hot-footed it into town in search of beer. The town’s colonial buildings have wide verandahs and elaborate towers, which in the darkness looked slightly unreal, as if we’d got lost in a theme park after closing time. We found one of the town’s famous ‘skimpy bars’. They look just like an ordinary pub, but the bar staff are female and topless, save for the legally required nipple covers. Middle aged couples and groups of men (the population of Kalgoorlie is male-dominated) chat and drink largely obliviously – the skimpies don’t put on a show, they just happen to do their jobs half-dressed.

All the excitement of the Nullabor desert

The next morning was spent speeding along the longest straight stretch of railway track in the world, the 477 kilometres through the Nullarbor Plain. The view is unrelenting – vast, burning sky over a vast, flat plain. Look at a map of the railway line, and you’ll see places listed. They aren’t there. They exist only on paper, marked perhaps because the emptiness is so big it’s impossible to accept it.

Every so often, the train does stop at the nearest thing to the settlement out here – an old farmer standing with his dog by a beat-up truck, his skin the same brown as the earth he lives on. It drops off groceries to these isolated cattle stations that are often the size of small European countries, and days of travel from any kind of village.

Later that day, we stopped at Cook. This was once a proud little desert town, built to support the railway, refuelling its trains and providing a home for a bush hospital. Now, it has an official population of four elderly women who run a gift shop in the former schoolhouse, opened only for the brief half hour’s stops the train makes here. The little rows of houses rot in the sun, their neatly marked out gardens being overtaken by the bush. That night, I ate a microwaved burger from the buffet car, drank a beer and watched as the sky disappeared and everything turned the kind of black you can’t stop staring into.

We pulled into a rainy Adelaide the next morning. I had a brief wander through its grey streets, but. after the vastness of the Nullarbor, being in a city centre at rush hour seemed alien, even for a committed Londoner like me.

Most people leave the train here, either exploring the city and getting another train on to Sydney a few days later, or changing on to another to take them up north via Alice Springs to Darwin, or south to Melbourne. We were pushing on to Sydney, where family and a home-cooked meal were waiting. From Adelaide, the train’s route takes it through pretty, green countryside and then back into the brown, dusty outback to Broken Hill.

A mining town with a population of less than 18,000 Broken Hill is known by some as ‘the capital of the outback’. Like any other outback town, it’s a collection of buildings holding back the desert, somewhere people come to stock up on supplies, drink a cold beer and perhaps have a walk in a green park before heading back out into semi desert.

We reached Sydney via the mist wrapped Blue Mountains, then sinking down into the city in heavy rain. It had been a fantastic three days, during which I’d eaten some terrible food, slept in an uncomfortable seat, and seen very little except thousands of miles of desert. I’d loved it. I’ve never lived anywhere but a city, and when I’m travelling, tend to plan my trip as a series of city-hops, wanting to see museums, temples, palaces – to marvel at the things humanity has built. They have a tangible beauty, things to point at and photograph. The Nullarbor has nothing but red dust and brittle scrub, its beauty is not something you see, but something you feel – a feeling of total awe and humility.

Author Bio
Paul Joseph is a London-based writer and author. He has travelled extensively across North and South America, Israel and Europe. He also works for diyflights, where users can compare flights to Australia and destinations across the world.

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