From ocean to ocean, via a land's desert heart

TRAVEL AUSTRALIA : Three days in the outback could drive you mad, but this railway journey helps unify a nation. Robin McKelvie samples the Indian Pacific experience

"She's the biggest train journey in the world, mate, and what's more she's ours, 100 per cent pure Australian!" beams Bruce Tann, a car salesman from Sydney.

For trainspotters, who would probably point out the "she" is, in fact, only the second-longest railway journey in the world after the Trans-Siberian, she may be just another notch on their bed posts, but to Australians the Indian Pacific occupies a sacred place in the national psyche, alongside Ayers Rock and Bondi Beach. The 2,461-mile ride through the desert heart of the country connects not only the two great oceans of its name, but also the metropolis of Sydney with Perth on an odyssey that is far more than just a rail journey.

Although it is a national icon as synonymous with Australia as Paul Hogan and Vegemite, the Indian Pacific is a relative newcomer. It was not until 1970, 200 years after Captain Cook's discovery of Australia, that the service made its maiden journey. The construction of the line was bedevilled by the British infighting that marred Australia's early development. It was a bit like a joke involving an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman, and not a very funny one.

In London William Gladstone, then Minister for War and the Colonies, first advocated the imperial standard gauge for the railway line, but in 1849 an Irish engineer persuaded New South Wales that the broad gauge of his homeland was the best option. Victoria and South Australia agreed and ordered their rolling stock. But there agreement ended, New South Wales sacked their Irish engineer over a wage dispute and replaced him with a Scotsman, who incensed the other states by returning to the British standard gauge. Western Australia capped the confusion when it built its own railway on a narrow gauge.

It was not until 1969 that the first truly trans-Australian line was completed with funding from the national government. On the evening of 23 February 1970 the first Indian Pacific passenger train eventually pulled out of Sydney's Central Station, and 62 hours and 20 minutes later the carriages, packed with dignitaries and journalists, rolled into the Perth terminal, ripping aside welcoming banners to the cheers of the 10,000- strong crowd. As former National Party leader, Ian Sinclair, later reflected: "It was a symbolic moment. The Indian Pacific brought Australia together in a way that the Constitution could never do."

Booked solid for six months after the inaugural trip, the Indian Pacific came to signify that Australia was no longer a jumble of cosmopolitan cities clinging to the edges of the oceans and cut off from each other and the rabble of outback communities inland by thousands of miles of desert. For many urban Australians the journey became a rite of passage to be savoured on retirement, to others a lifeline in the desert. The Indian Pacific has, above all, unified Australia's rival states, and in a nation where Perth activists demand secession from the eastern states, this is a crucial role.

Today at Platform One of Sydney's grand old Central Station, easily the most impressive in the land, passengers are eased towards their compartments by neat, uniformed staff. The well-heeled enjoy spacious first class sleeping berths, while budget travellers crowd into the chiropractic nightmare of the coach class seats. At 2.40pm exactly we set out on our trans-continental adventure, leaving behind moist-eyed relatives, curious friends and jealous trainspotters.

For the first hour we struggle to shake off the sprawl of the Sydney suburbs. After Emu Plains we begin the ascent of the Blue Mountains, the peaks that form the New South Wales section of the great dividing range that runs the length of Australia's east coast. Not particularly elevated by European standards, the thick bush-clad slopes formed an insurmountable barrier to many escaped convicts, who died in search of the freedom that they believed could be reached in China.

Today's first class passengers enjoy a more comfortable mountain crossing. Trains and quality restaurants may sound mutually exclusive, but somehow the Queen Adelaide restaurant - no mere buffet car, this - pulls it off. Passengers enjoy three evening meals, two luncheons and three breakfasts on board. Admittedly everything seems on the verge of collapse, with pirouetting waiters balancing as many as half-a-dozen plates dodging by diners' tables, and all manner of clanking and banging emanating from the kitchen. Fresh vegetables and fruit are taken aboard on the way, and the chefs perform minor miracles. But ironically, on a train which prides itself as an alternative to the airlines, much of the food is pre-prepared by the national airline Qantas.

Our first evening meal, savoured with the sun setting over the Blue Mountains as a backdrop, is an Epicurean delight. An entree of duck pheasant timbale with wild rosella salsa, or the standard Aussie fare of pumpkin soup, prepares the way for a main course of beef steak, flounder paupiettes or chicken rendang.

French pastry rings laced with coffee cream or apple strudel make up the dessert, before the after-dinner coffee and handmade chocolates are served. The train's dining car offers a surprisingly enjoyable culinary experience, and as one fellow diner noted: "If you get bored of the food there's always the scenery outside."

Passengers awake the first morning having already travelled further than the entire length of Britain. The verdant bush of the mountains has vanished overnight, leaving only a post-apocalyptic landscape of frazzled red dust and withered scrub. Rising out of the dust the town of Broken Hill, dubbed Silver City by the locals as it sits on top of one of the largest deposits of silver in the world, is the first chance for coach class passengers to stretch their legs since Sydney.

Back out in the desert, the conductor somehow contrives to make "roos and emus" rhyme as he announces that the animals are making a cameo appearance. Eyes and camera lenses bulge against the windows and are immediately rewarded as a towering kangaroo props himself up on his tail to stare at the train. There's another, and then a whole herd covers the horizon as we cruise by. Emus prefer to limit their appearances to solo performances, kicking up swirling clouds of dust as, one by one, they trundle across our mobile cinema screens.

We spend the whole of day three plugging on across the Nullabor Plain, one of the most remote and inhospitable regions on the planet. Forty million years ago this part of Australia was submerged beneath a vast sea, but today there is only treeless limestone desert. For the entire day nothing outside the train windows in any direction is bigger than knee high - no trees, no houses, no roads, no hills, no water, nothing. We are, however, in the presence of a world record holder: the double steel highway on which we are travelling is, at 287 miles, the longest stretch of dead straight railway track in the world.

Cook, the self-styled Queen City of the Nullabor, couldn't be further removed from the life of Australia's urbanites. With only one road, and one road sign that points to Sydney in one direction and Perth in the other, you can hardly even call the minuscule blip of Cook a town, never mind a city. Passengers descend on hastily positioned steps for the other- worldly "Neil Armstrong experience" as one crew member puts it. One startled passenger blurts out an apposite sound bite: "I expected there to be nothing, but not this much nothing."

The tiny community relies entirely on the train for its survival, but the locals are a resilient bunch determined to make the most of their surroundings. They have built their own hospital, a school, a swimming pool and even a golf course. Admittedly the links are a bit short on lush fairways and water hazards, but the slag-and-oil greens play surprisingly well.

Cook's hospital sums up the fortitude and caustic humour of the outback. Complaining of poor patronage, the state government is trying to close the hospital down, but the locals are determined to find enough ill people to keep it open. British passengers used to spiralling hospital waiting lists are baffled with the track-side sign soliciting for patients: "Our hospital needs your help. If you're crook come to Cook."

The Indian Pacific has never been a big money-spinner, but today it faces special financial problems of its own. The state-owned railway operator, Australian National, has debts running into millions of pounds. These days the train is too expensive and slow compared to the four-hour flight for most travellers, indulgent tourists aside. Many Australians do choose to travel on the train, but they are usually backpackers in coach class or retired people who are eligible for substantial discounts that often don't even cover the running costs of the heavily subsidised service.

Any attempt to kill off the Indian Pacific, though, will undoubtedly incense an Australian public which is never shy of telling its politicians exactly what it thinks. As we pull into Perth after three days and nights clacking across the nation, the passengers are in no mood to let an integral part of the national psyche slip into history. "That was the best journey of my life," declares Bruce Tann "she's a part of Australia. They can't chop this one or there'll be a bloody riot!"

FACT FILE

Getting there

Air New Zealand's comfortable "Pacific Class" (ie economy) has low season fares to Sydney starting from pounds 717 return. Apex fares including stopovers in the South Pacific are available from pounds 773. If you book before 31 August for next year's low season (16 April-30 June) you can fly London-Sydney with only one stop and have two free domestic tickets on Ansett Australia for pounds 717. Direct fares for September/October cost pounds 974/pounds 991. Call Air New Zealand Travel Centre on 0171-839 1604. Austravel (0171-734 7755) are offering return fares to Sydney from pounds 549 if you depart between now and 31 October and return on a charter between 1 and 21 November.

Indian Pacific practicalities

It is advisable to book well ahead for the Indian Pacific as it can be full at all times of year. The agents in the UK are Leisurail - tel: 01733-335599. Costs are A$378 (pounds 179) for a coach class seat, A$763 for an economy sleeper, rising to A$1172 for a first class sleeper.

Bungle Bungle

Pumululu National Park lies 190 miles south of Kununarra in the Kimberley region of north-western Australia. You can reach Kununarra from Darwin (the nearest international airport) by Greyhound bus (10hrs).

There are basic campsites in the park but access is definitely 4WD-only - and the park is closed for much of the wet season (Dec to Mar). Mark Mann travelled with Halls Creek and Bungle Bungle Tours (tel: 0061-891- 936 802), who have their own comfortable "safari camp" inside the park. A two-day fly-in tour from Kununarra costs A$655.

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