The Indian Pacific
It takes around five hours to fly from Perth to Sydney, which gives you an idea of how mammoth the train journey is between the two cities. The Indian Pacific is a true cross-continental epic, and if you’re going to take on the whole route in one swoop, it’s going to take around 65 hours of your life. That may seem like a hard slog, but there’s no other journey that will give you such a true, dizzying scale of Australia’s vast interior. Much of the route from Perth to Adelaide is across the intimidating Nullarbor Plain, where the changes in the barrenness are almost imperceptible. The world’s longest stretch of straight railway line – all 478 kilometres of it – is in this section. Perhaps the most enriching phase of the journey comes towards the end, however. Waking up on the last day as the train trundles across the spectacular ridges of the Blue Mountains is genuinely special.
The major stops on the route are Kalgoorlie, Adelaide and Broken Hill.
The Ghan – named after Afghan cameleers who used to plough a similar route - tackles Australia’s great deserts in the other direction. Running from Adelaide to Darwin via Alice Springs and Katherine, the train takes 48 hours to cross Australia from south to north. The track was only extended up from Alice Springs to Darwin in 2004, and now the Ghan journey clocks in at 2,979 kilometres. The first leg is a mammoth slog from Adelaide to Alice, but it’s timed so that the best parts of the desert scenery – the rugged Flinders Ranges and the vast plains of the South Australian outback – are traversed during the daylight hours.
Depending on which source you believe, Cook has a population of either two or four. Either way, it’s not exactly a metropolis. The Indian Pacific pulls into this South Australian Nullarbor settlement for around an hour. It’s a great stop for desert scenery photographs, but it’s the all sand golf course, empty school and hospital begging people to get sick so it can be used that raise the real smiles.
Also on the Indian Pacific route, this is the wild west in Western Australia. This rough-around-the-edges mining town is home to the Superpit, the biggest open-cut mine in Australia. It’s possible to take a look at it from a viewing platform right above the gaping chasm in the earth. Kalgoorlie is also famous for its behind the scenes brothel tours and scantily clad barmaids. It’s not a place for prudes.
Most take the Katherine stop on the Ghan as an opportunity to go for a cruise on Katherine Gorge. Understandably so – the ancient rock walls of the gorge are one of the Northern Territory’s most picturesque highlights. The town of Katherine itself isn’t quite as postcard-worthy, but it is home to one of the most fascinating insights into Outback life you can possibly find. The School of the Air in Katherine educates kids who live in remote Outback stations via live broadcasts on the internet – and visitors can drop by and sit in on a lesson.
An easy V-Line train away from Melbourne, Echuca is arguably the most appealing of the Murray River towns. It has plenty of life to it, while the sprawling, wooden Port Of Echuca has an entertaining old time feel. You can check out the secret tunnels under the Star Hotel where people used to drink on the sly when the pub was de-licensed in 1897, and go for a cruise on one of the restored paddle-steamers.