Little Salmon Bay was all mine until the visitor with the claws arrived. The crab on the rock was as orange as hellfire, as hefty as a house brick and – when I noticed it – a couple of metres away from my toes. I sprang up, scrabbling for my shoes. The crab stayed put, possibly smirking. In Australia, as if I needed telling, nature can put you in your place.
I was on Rottnest, a small island around 20km off the Perth coast in Western Australia. There’s not much of the country left when you come out this far. Looking west, it’s next stop Madagascar. Before the approach of my crustacean interloper, I’d been dangling my feet into the Indian Ocean, watching a lemon sun sinking in the sky and reflecting on the trip ahead of me. I was soon to embark on the country’s – and the southern hemisphere’s – longest rail journey, a time-zone-hurdling, three-night, ocean-to-ocean epic from Perth to Sydney. They call it, aptly enough, the Indian Pacific.
Crossing a country as big as Australia is always an eye-opener. Even on a plane, it just keeps going, hour by hour, state by state. Land, land and more land. On a train, where the distances are amplified and the scenery closer at hand, I was hoping the experience would be a return to travel as it should be. In an age of instant gratification and pack-it-all-in itineraries, what price 72 hours on the rails?
I left the Rottnest cove and got back on my hire bike, pedalling through the pine-scented evening to the ferry dock. I passed two quokkas – little marsupials with soft fur and raisin eyes – grazing at the roadside. The animals are found only in coastal pockets of the west; my end destination of New South Wales was, evolutionally, a world away. Across the water I saw the city towers of Perth come into view. The mainland was waiting.
“You’re doing what!” said the taxi driver. We were driving through central Perth, and he’d just asked what had brought me to Australia. He slowed and looked round at me. “Why aren’t you flying? You know we’re closer to Bali than we are to Bondi Beach, right?”
He had a point, although I’d be lying if I said the fact didn’t give me a thrill. Perth is a fun place to spend time these days – a hipper, livelier city than it used to be – but I was hankering for the off. The itch was heightened at East Perth Station the next morning, when I saw the train for the first time: 29 carriages of ridged chrome, all bearing the curves and gleam of a 1950s refrigerator. Each carriage was embossed with the outline of a wedge-tailed eagle, a symbol of the distance the train was about to cover.
Despite the bemusement of my taxi driver, my route to Sydney was far from an eccentric choice. The mass of people and suitcases on the eastbound platform was evidence that while I might be spending the next few days without wifi and TV (praise be!), I certainly wouldn’t be alone. The station was awash with old-timers in bushranger hats. I remembered something I’d been told months earlier when confirming my booking: there’s good reason why it’s popular.
Half an hour later, I was on board. My cabin was wood-panelled and large-windowed, with a tight en-suite bathroom and a long seat that would convert each evening into my bed. For the next three nights, this was home. My belongings were spread all over the place within minutes. I had time to clock a few statistics from the on-board magazine – Sydney was 4,352 kilometres away, the train was 774 metres long, the kitchens went through 22,000 bottles of wine a year – before, with a whispered creak, and at 10am on the nose, the carriage eased into the morning.
It’s now more than a century since the first trans-Australian railway line was completed in 1917. The last stretch to be finished was that which linked Kalgoorlie and Port Augusta, spanning the inhospitable expanse of the Nullarbor Plain and incorporating what is still the world’s longest section of straight railway track: an audacious 478-kilometre ruler-mark across the wilderness.
But while it’s been 100 years since teams of sun-scorched labourers managed to create a coast-to-coast rail corridor, it was only in 1970 that it was possible to make the journey on a single train. Thanks to rather woolly-headed administration, the initial track made use of a variety of different gauges – or track widths – which meant that at one time passengers required six changes of train to cover the full east-west transcontinental breadth.
Today’s passengers have it easy, in more than one respect. The Indian Pacific is the only commercial train to serve the entire route, and it’s very much a pleasure ride. There’s no bog-standard, inter-city alternative. If you want to travel by rail from one side of Australia to the other, you do so with soft bedding, good food and a well-drilled phalanx of twinkle-eyed stewards. The train includes a few scheduled stops, too: chances for everyone to pile off and see the places they’re passing through in more detail.
You pay for all this, of course – but trust me when I say that even if you’re pining for a stripped-back experience, having cooked breakfasts and cold beer on demand doesn’t get tiresome. It’s maybe best to see the journey as a treat rather than a rite of passage. And it’s some journey.
Leaving Perth, first up were the steep banks and waist-high grass of the Avon Valley, followed by the Darling Range, in November a scarp of yellowed slopes and spindly eucalypts. Within a few hours, the landscape opened. “Wheat country,” said the retired history lecturer I sat with at lunch. He prodded his knife at the broad tawny fields outside the window. “By tonight, we’ll be in gold country.”
On we rolled. He was right, although at dusk when we pulled in at Kalgoorlie, a desert town founded during the 1890s gold rush, a vicious storm had ripped through 24 hours earlier. All was eerie darkness. Roof sheets and fallen boughs strewed the roads. By contrast, the town’s so-called Super Pit – a gargantuan open-cut gold mine visible from space, and mesmerising to peer into – was lit up like a West End show. Trucks beetled up and down its huge sides. Even in the face of natural disaster, it seemed, gold wouldn’t wait.
As a feat of man versus nature, however, the pit was as nothing compared to the following day’s star turn, that six-hour, arrow-straight crossing of the empty Nullarbor Plain. The 19th-century explorer Edward John Eyre called the Nullarbor “a blot on the face of Nature, the sort of place one gets into in bad dreams” – although in his defence, he did have to walk across the thing. Its name comes from the Latin ‘nul arbor’, or ‘no trees’, and the plain itself is twice the size of England.
“The Nullarbor? You can’t miss it,” I overheard a steward patiently tell a passenger. “It’ll be outside all day.” I sat in the lounge car, the better to absorb the views on both sides, and stared. The horizon yawned off in every direction, limitless and almost perfectly flat, a pale green infinity under cavernous skies. Troops of tousled white cumulus looked down on us in the heat. Hours and the occasional stunted acacia floated by, but nothing changed.
Every so often we passed a scattering of sun-bleached animal bones. The train, which had seemed so big and emphatic in Perth, now felt tiny, a needle threading through the sweltering outback. Outside, you could almost see the curvature of the Earth. We stopped at Cook – population 4 – and gasped at the fierce temperature and the prospect of living somewhere so lonely, then re-boarded, humbled.
Improbably, there was wildlife astir. Eagles wheeled in the blue. The passage of the train sent a red kangaroo bounding off across the plain, and later I spotted two emus striding laconically south. But where they were heading to out there, in the place where Australia shimmers into nothingness, is anyone’s guess.
We rumbled on. Around 45 hours after setting off, the train began veering south towards Adelaide. I rolled up my blind at 5.45am to see crop bales and gently undulating farmland. Gazing out of the windows had by now become a form of willing hypnosis. Over morning coffee in the dining car, an Australian lady remarked, to no one in particular: “There’s a lot of country out there.” Murmurs of agreement came from those sat near her, all their faces turned to the glass.
The nation’s indomitable band of ‘grey nomads’ made up most of the onboard passenger list, but by no means all of it. I met at least half a dozen Brits, a German, two Americans and a Belgian, all of whom brought the average age down considerably. The journey clearly drew a different demographic internationally than it did among Australians. Maybe those older Aussies, with the time and money to spare, heeded the call of the rails as a way of reminding themselves just what an unknowably vast country they lived in.
Meals came and went. The menus reflected the areas we were passing through – Avon Valley pork, Murray River cod, McLaren Vale reds and so on – and were agreeable affairs. Meanwhile, the train’s two final stop-offs of Adelaide and, ten hours later, the mining town of Broken Hill both came with optional excursions. In the former, I joined a tour of the cricket ground, just weeks before England were marmalized there; in the latter, I opted for a drag show at the fresco-daubed hotel featured in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. It was a hoot.
But these, really, were details. The magic was always in the scale and shift of what was outside the window. New South Wales arrived in a spread of saltbush scrub, distant hills and heat-jellied horizons. I spotted wallabies, and emus with chicks. Colossal farms appeared in sepia snapshots of stubbled fields and ageing windpumps. I spent hours in my cabin watching it all slide by while recordings of short stories burbled from an onboard radio channel – wry tales of bush life from long-dead writers, words that belonged to the land.
On the final morning, I woke into a land of plenty. The countryside around Bathurst was rumpled with deep valleys and dotted with tree groves. Black cattle chewed the cud. Pink cockatoos flew overhead. By the time the Blue Mountains rolled into view a few hours later, we were parallel to a highway, complete with hotel signs and Sydney-bound traffic. The crossing was nearly done.
Disembarking at Sydney Central Station, I stopped to look at the locomotive that had brought me there, a 132-tonne blue and yellow engine covered in steps and valves. Its front was spattered with a continent’s worth of bugs and dust. In around four hours’ time, it would be heading out west again.
Sydney in the Australian summer is always a jolt to the senses. Thronged pedestrian crossings, shiny towers and blue harbour panoramas, all washed in bright East Coast sunlight. I found a café and, seeing as I’d now picked up the habit, sat and stared some more.
I had a task to attend to the next day. The ferry from Circular Quay to Manly must surely represent the best bang for your buck in Australia, a peerless public transport trip from the Opera House to the northern beaches. It also takes you that much closer to the sea. I left the boat and walked out to Shelly Beach, where I found a rock, took off my shoes and dunked my feet in the Pacific Ocean, putting symbolic end to my journey. The seawater was deliciously cool. Somewhere three time zones away was a crab that couldn’t reach me, and somewhere between us was an expanse of land with dimensions I could barely quantify. Nature? In Australia, it can put you in your place.