In late October I had the wonderful opportunity of joining Tim Richards, Travel Writer, on a train journey across Australia. I’ve crossed the Nullarbor once before, when I was moving from Canberra to Perth. That was by bus and I don’t have very fond memories of it. I can’t even recall the landscape, though I seem to be able to remember the back of the seat in front of me, because I stared at it for three days.
The first leg of the trip was the overnight XPT from Melbourne to Sydney, courtesy Destination New South Wales. I like taking the overnighter to Sydney.
Sleeping on a train is a slightly odd sensation, but the train leaves from the middle of Melbourne and arrives in the middle of Sydney. Cutting out the airport – the getting to and from, the having to be there early, all the security brou-ha-ha – is surprisingly relaxing.
It’s also unexpectedly charming to have this little cocoon of time away from the usual frantic activity. You can kick back in your compartment (shared, usually, so travel with someone who you like, or at least doesn’t snore) and read, look out the window, contemplate your sins or, if you’re me, all of the above while also plotting a new book.
If you have time to travel overnight, it’s a more calming way to both leave and enter a city. And of course rail retains the romance of being a 19th Century mode of travel that is more flexible, more relaxing and more pleasant than either flying or driving.
In case you can’t tell, it’s quite my favourite mode of travel.
After a few days in Sydney (and more on that in some other post) we lobbed up for the journey across Australia to Perth, via Broken Hill, Adelaide, Cook and Rawlinna – the latter two a ghost town and a sheep station respectively.
Great Southern Rail hosted us on this journey, and launched us in style with cocktails and live music on the platform.
Sleeping on trains, with its unexpected rocking cradle motion, still takes a bit of getting used to, but I tell you now, I adapted right away to just being on a train sliding through the landscape.
If you think the journey’s better done by plane, you’re probably missing the point of this version of travel, which is all about the getting there, not the arriving.
There’s always something liminal about being on a train, especially at night, and especially in unfamiliar territory. That feeling of being separated from time and space is both strange and soothing.
It’s an opportunity to contemplate; or to strike up conversations with strangers. In this time of constant connectivity, I really enjoyed having long periods of time to focus on some books. Tim and I also caught up on a few episodes of Game of Thrones.
I of course spent time gazing out the window. Australia is a vast country, varied it’s true, but also vast stretches of land that doesn’t change for hours.
The Nullarbor itself is almost hard to look at, especially for this city dweller. I’m used to having objects that interupt my line of sight constantly. It’s never just a smooth plain to the horizon. But the Nullarbor is just that – a vast expanse of red dirt and low shrubs, that goes on and on and on and on and on… it induces an almost horizontal vertigo.
Not all the scheduled excursion stops were possible – wet weather is not always your friend – but a trip to Hahndorf in Adelaide, a stop by the ghost town of Cook and dinner under the stars at Rawlinna were all fantastic, and part of that sense of just mooching along and enjoying the sense of time and space expanding out from our little bubble of forward motion.
Speaking of dinner, the food was endlessly excellent, using local ingredients where possible, and these two vegetarians were very well nourished from start to finish.
I enjoyed the XPT, but I absolutely adored the Indian-Pacific. The journey gives you three and a bit days of quiet but not solitude; of contemplation in motion. There’s time to talk, to listen, to think.
You can look at a far horizon across land so very flat that you can feel how you are sitting on the disk of the Earth.
Or you can have a really nice nap before the next glass of champagne and fascinating dinner conversation with a stranger.
For those three days, you may be living in a smallish metal tube that’s hurtling across the landscape, but you are also living unfettered by your established routine and out of your usual environment, so you can cocoon or commune as your heart sees fit. There’s nowhere else to be, after all.