Eat. Drink. Be merry.
A fitting proverb for an iconic train journey.
Ask me again in three days.
Apart from the occasional commute on the tube, I’m unfamiliar with the railroad.
But I’m about to embark on my first real train trip and it’s massive – Sydney to Perth.
I have no idea what to expect.
I will most certainly eat and drink, but will I be merry after three days and three nights on a train?
Sixty-five hours in a cabin smaller than my wardrobe?
The train is the Indian Pacific to be specific – so named for the oceans at its origin and terminus.
It’s so long, before it can shunt into the railway siding at Sydney’s Central station, it must split in two.
It’s usually about 800 metres in length, but subject to carriage configuration, it can stretch to a kilometre.
I’m leaving from Central Station, Australia’s busiest rail hub, with 11.5 million passenger movements each year.
Only a couple of thousand of those are journeys from Sydney to Perth on this 30-plus-carriage mega-train.
On an unremarkable Wednesday afternoon in early Spring I make the trip.
I’m rather excited as I trundle my luggage towards the pointy end of the train on Platform One. I’m about to embark on one of the true transcontinental rail journeys.
An epic odyssey that captivates imaginations and fills bucket lists the world over.
Australia is rather spoilt; two of the world’s great train trips bisect this sunburnt land.
There’s the north-south, Adelaide to Darwin ‘Ghan’ – an honorific to Afghan camel drivers who came 150 years ago to explore Australia’s vast, untamed interior.
And the east-west Indian Pacific, which runs weekly from Sydney to Perth and then back again.
The beginnings of the track connecting New South Wales with Western Australia can be traced back to 1917, but the Indian Pacific didn’t make its first unbroken journey until February 20, 1970.
When it arrived in Perth five days later, over 10,000 people were there to greet it.
A one-way trip originally took 75 hours but line efficiency and general improvements have shaved 10 hours off the travel time.
That’s 66 hours including a 60-minute contingency buffer advised by Indian Pacific’s operator, Great Southern Rail.
But I arrive on time clutching my Gold-Class ticket Charlie Bucket-style.
The sense of space conveyed by the marketing material is conspicuously absent.
My private cabin is comfortable but compact.
I am somewhat relieved the photographer caught cold.
I try to imagine two people sharing this space.
There’s a plush bench seat, which converts into a bed, and a pull-down bunk above for the ‘plus one’.
A panoramic picture window with adjustable blinds floods the tiny cabin with light.
I stretch out on the bunk – all 183 centimetres of me are remarkably comfortable.
There’s white linen with just the right amount of crisp and freshly plumped pillows.
So far so good.
Keyboard warriors hand-bag the bathroom facilities mercilessly so I brace for what’s behind the tiny, mirrored door.
But at first glance the minuscule wash space seems adequate.
It’s a shower over toilet arrangement with a compact sink.
I’m no contortionist but I’ll manage.
Then, with a distant purr and a slight jolt, the Indian Pacific inches slowly into its first kilometre.
Only 4,351 to go.
The two engines – one forward and one aft – in a push-me-pull-me arrangement soon have the 1500 tonnes of steel trundling through Sydney’s Inner West at a leisurely pace.
The carriages: a confection of lounges, luggage cars, sleepers, sitters, crew quarters, kitchens and restaurants choof along comfortably and ascend the Blue Mountains effortlessly, quickly reaching their cruising speed of 85km/h, while I catch a few z’s. But immediately next to my cabin is the Outback Explorer Lounge car, so my snooze is short-lived as a gaggle of baby boomers muster for the welcome drinks.
I wrangle my bed hair and join them.
Food and drink is all-inclusive for all Gold and Platinum class guests, including beer, wine and spirits.
The train carries about 200 Gold-Class passengers and 20 Platinum-Class passengers per trip. Economy, or Red Class as it was known, was cancelled in June 2016 after the removal of a Federal Government subsidy. Only a small portion of the journey (between Melbourne and Adelaide) known as the Overland remains available to economy class passengers.
At the welcome aboard mixer, there’s bubbly and canapés and the opportunity to meet the host (Caleb) and fellow passengers.
Small talk with kindred spirits invariably leads to, “why the train”?
Margot and Ewan from Melbourne are celebrating their 28th wedding anniversary.
Ewan, a retired airline pilot, has wanted to make the trip all his adult life.
Margot has not.
Ewan looks delighted.
Margot looks constipated.
“I can’t imagine anything worse,” she says with a Toorak drawl, washing down her displeasure with three fingers of méthode champenoise.
She surveys the carriage with disdain and drains her glass.
“Two nights on a train,” she says, shuddering for effect.
“Three,” I say as I chink their champagne glasses with mine.
“Happy anniversary,” I say.”
She hates me.
A passing waiter tempts us with something delicious skewered on a pick. “Crocodile, pan-fried in butter and garlic,” he tells us on his return sweep. I grab another. Margot disappears behind her napkin faux choking.
Ewan tells me they flipped a coin to decide their holiday destination and Margot’s luxury, over-water bungalow in the Maldives now has to wait until their 29th year.
“So it’s the train to Perth and a few days in the Margaret River,” says Ewan.
“Same as me,” I point out.
“Oh are you in Platinum Class too?” Margot asks as she beckons a waiter for a refill.
I want to stab her with my tooth pick.
But the train emerges from a tunnel and as the mountain-scape unravels before us Margot falls silent.
But just for a moment.
“How long have you been a journalist?” she asks sweetly.
And as I pause to tally the years, she finishes me off with a killshot.
“Is this a complimentary trip? I hear the wages are a scandal.”
We stand caressing our champagne flutes, taking in the Great Dividing Range.
It’s spectacular but Margot’s lips are pressed together in thin lines of disapproval.
She confirms what I have long suspected.
Train rides are not for everyone.
Margot air kisses her husband and heads back to her Platinum cabin to dress for dinner.
Ewan seems immune to his wife’s prickly brand of small talk and while he and I exchange pleasantries a while longer he suggests that really Margot’s “loving the trip”.
I’m not so sure.
And later in the dining car at dinner, as she pushes morsels of swordfish through her still tightly-pursed lips, I remain unconvinced.
Dining on the Indian Pacific is a precarious game of diplomacy, deftly played out in the hands of the host.
The logistics of feeding everyone on board means that invariably, you share your table with a stranger or two.
It is the host who decides who dines with whom.
But as I dress for dinner, I inadvertently dodge this bullet.
Showering in such a tiny space proves more challenging than I imagined and by the time I have freed myself from the shower curtain I am the last to dine, which means I score a table for one.
And that suits me just fine. I’ve plenty of research to do.
I’m not overly hungry but curiosity leads me first to the swordfish and then to the cheese platter.
Smells divine but neither dish delivers beyond the nostrils, however they are not bad for micro galley grub and tucker.
Between mouthfuls I thumb through the train’s twice-yearly publication ‘Platform’.
It’s a mix of Australiana, recipes, travel, trivia and all things rail.
Among the many superlatives, the narrative is peppered with countless references to the ‘epic,’ the ‘iconic’ and the ‘romantic’, which seems appropriate for a trip that starts at $2,529 a person for Gold Class and $4,359 each for Platinum Class.
After dinner, a handful of guests continue carousing in the lounge car.
I distinctly hear “Professor Plum in the library with the candlestick,” from a jolly grey-haired group nipping single malt in the games corner.
But like me, many guests prefer to just turn in.
Doing nothing all day can be exhausting.
Day two begins as day one ended, with the trundle and sway of the carriage.
Dawn breaks over the vast emptiness of the Australian outback.
Desert ochre and crimson sunrise converge, and the vast expanse of nothingness burnished by the morning sun is just as spectacular as the host said it would be.
I decide to spend an hour or two in bed with my dog-eared, thrift store copy of War and Peace, but I can’t tell my Bolkonskys from my Bezukhovs and the smell of double smoked bacon snaking through the carriage hastens my dressing and propels me aft, to the dining car.
The cooked breakfast is superb.
If you are what you eat, on this, day two of my bi-coastal odyssey, I am two eggs over-easy with a side of hollandaise and a flourish of baby spinach.
As I chase the last Swiss mushroom around my plate I am not entirely thrilled at the thought of another full day on the train but there’s definitely something agreeable about the soothing click-clack of the railway’s anthem that seems to be nurturing the wellness of my soul.
The languid monotony of train travel is forcing me to unwind.
And then I realise, for the first time in … forever, I am completely relaxed.
No phone. (No reception.) No computer (No charger.) No worries.
I have absolutely nothing urgent requiring my attention. Nothing pressing, except perhaps a cheeky flute of mid-morning bubbles.
With every passing kilometre, I am moving further and further away from the warp-speed humdrum and daily grind of my 9 to 5.
And I think I like it.
No sooner have I become accustomed to the lurching inertia of this juggernaut than the distant screech of railway squeal heralds our next stop.
We’re pausing for a scheduled off-train excursion.
A tidy, welterweight metropolis designed by Colonel Light.
If you don’t want to explore the Barossa Valley and sample the local fare for which the region is famous you can head into town.
Having done a stint in Adelaide and its environs as a student, I decide to stay on the train and chat to the host.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s a dream journey for everyone,” Caleb offers up before I’ve even picked up my pen.
“But nearly every passenger I speak to says they’re glad they came … no regrets … they’ve enjoyed the adventure,” he continues.
Caleb is 26 and loves his job. He is conspicuously handsome – like most of his colleagues.
But he wants to be a flight attendant and the Indian Pacific is providing invaluable experience for his second application attempt next year.
“I guess there’s a perception that flying is quite glamorous, but at the end of the day it’s the passengers who make or break a trip, whether it’s a train or a plane”.
“But I imagine it’s easier to hide on a train if you have difficult travellers,” he says with a wry smile.
“We get all sorts on board; I guess that’s the same with any customer service or client-facing role.”
“Take a walk through the lounges on any given trip and you’ll hear every accent imaginable,” Caleb says. It’s really popular. We get a lot of international press.
“Some passengers are absolute rail nuts who love the ‘Indian’ from the get-go, and others have a holiday romance and fall in love with the train while on board.”
“They’re my favourite kind of passengers,” he says.
“The ones who surprise themselves. The ones who think they’re not going to like the train and end up adoring it inspire of themselves.”
I find myself nodding.
This is me.
I am Caleb’s favourite kind of passenger.
The gradual melting of my rail-reluctant spirit is nearly complete and while not quite a train buff exactly, I’m close enough.
Caleb returns to work.
And I seize the opportunity to stretch my legs and circumnavigate the train.
Twenty-five minutes later I wheeze back to my cabin.
Later in the day when the day-trippers return loaded up with pate, pickle and port, we head off and I immerse myself in Tolstoy.
Later I decide it’s time to inspect the train’s interior and walk the length.
Not so easy in the narrow confines of the carriages while it’s moving.
But I’ve found my sea legs, so how hard can it be?
The rattle and sway of the carriages, combined with the narrow corridors make it a challenging undertaking.
And then somewhere between E Carriage, F Carriage and hell, I encounter Margot.
Passing fellow passengers on the Indian Pacific is at best an awkward slow dance between two strangers and at worst an unwelcome lesson in the art of frottage.
I fancy neither with Margot.
But she advances, eyeballing me mercilessly.
Crap. I duck into the refreshment booth (there’s one at the end of each carriage offering DIY tea and coffee). And then she’s gone.
Only the faint whiff of Chanel lingering at the doorway.
To be continued…