Desolate beauty rolls by from iconic train

Rebecca Le May
The Indian Pacific train provides Australia's longest rail journey, crossing 4352km

The contrast of seeing the vast, desolate Australian outback from the comfort of the Indian Pacific is the most striking experience on the nation's longest train journey.

About 230 travellers took part in the recent 50th anniversary of Australia's first direct coast-to-coast rail crossing, and while we'd prepared ourselves to be gobsmacked by the colossal 4352 kilometre expanse, it was the alien beauty of "nothingness" in the middle that left the biggest impression.

The red dirt against the blue sky, the silvery-sage low scrub, the brutally inhospitable environment that only a few creatures can exist in, was mesmerising to behold as the slowly changing landscape rolled by.

The first "unbroken" transcontinental train trip from Sydney to Perth in February 1970 was particularly momentous for Western Australia, which was finally linked to the rest of the country.

It had been possible to cross the nation by train from 1917 with the opening of the Trans-Australian Railway, but the journey involved various gauges, changing trains multiple times, and was an exhausting undertaking.

These days, the seamless four-day journey is a far more comfortable experience, with the ditching of "cattle class" - which involved non-reclining seats - in 2016.

Fierce competition from budget air travel meant the train's operators Journey Beyond had to reposition the brand, focusing solely on the high-end market.

Gold class became the minimum standard, with bunk-style sleeping in compact twin cabins. Platinum class, available since 2008, offers double beds.

The anniversary journey route was the inverse to the first, starting in Perth then stopping at the historic gold-rush town Kalgoorlie, where the usual excursion to the massive Super Pit mine was replaced with a concert at the beautifully preserved Boulder Town Hall, built in 1908.

After witnessing a breath-taking Nullarbor sunrise, passengers disembarked at the remote WA railway siding Rawlinna, which borders the largest sheep station in the southern hemisphere and is home to only three residents.

Pastoralist Nicole Gray, who traded the Sunshine Coast to live at a cattle station 150km from Rawlinna with her husband Greg Campbell three years ago, greets passengers with tea and coffee twice a week.

It's a six-hour drive to Kalgoorlie, which is the nearest town, but fortunately the train regularly drops off supplies and mail.

She said the couple was still reeling from the loss of about one-quarter of their cattle from drought.

"We've had a lot of loss these past 12 months ... it's hit us hard," Ms Gray told AAP.

After Rawlinna, the train bumped comparatively more gently along the longest stretch of dead-straight railway track in the world, a whopping 478km between Loongana in WA and Ooldea in South Australia.

Along that line lies the ghost town of Cook, which is home to a population of four but once housed around 400 when it was a railway support town, complete with a school and a hospital signposted "if you're crook, come to Cook".

The town was effectively closed in 1997 when the line was privatised and the Indian Pacific was sold to Journey Beyond, but is still used for refuelling and restocking water, and provides overnight accommodation for train drivers.

Some of the buildings are condemned and the pool is filled in with gravel, but for caretaker Allan Sunman, it's a serene although sometimes eerie home.

Like Ms Gray and Mr Campbell, he said the main attraction to living in such isolation was spending as much time as possible with his beloved partner.

Swatting away countless flies amid 46C heat, Mr Sunman said he didn't believe in ghosts before he lived in Cook but changed his mind after a spooky encounter in the office quarters.

"We were cleaning it one day - my wife has seen her. She said 'who's that?' and before she said that I had the biggest chill and eerie feeling up my spine.

"And she swears to me it was an old woman in old clothing."

He still goes into the room, saying the apparition has never done any harm.

A morning stop in Adelaide was followed by Broken Hill, where many opted to see a drag show at The Palace Hotel, which featured in the hit 1994 movie Priscilla, Queen of The Desert.

Passengers on the special trip looked set to miss the final stop in the Blue Mountains due to a landslide across the track between Katoomba and Leura, caused by much-needed rain following devastating bushfires, but it was cleared just in time.

As the train approached the heritage-listed Mount Victoria railway station, the rolling green hills of the Central West were abruptly replaced by blackened trees as far as the eye could see.

Scorched metal signs gave a stark indication of how fierce the blaze had been and all aboard fell silent or murmured quietly as they contemplated the loss of life and property, but the sight of fresh green buds amid the charcoaled trunks gave hope.

Long-haul train travel is not for everyone - especially non-chatty light sleepers - but it's a must for those who want to take their time to properly comprehend the epic Australian outback in-between our cities.

IF YOU GO:

The Indian Pacific travels from Perth to Sydney, or Sydney to Perth, with each journey lasting four days and three nights. Passengers can also disembark in Adelaide.

Expect top-notch, locally-sourced cuisine and wine in white-linen dining cabins and bar areas, where guests are encouraged to socialise.

Bring sunscreen, insect repellent, walking shoes and a hat for off-train excursions (you may even want a head net hat for the outback destinations where flies are plentiful). Also consider bringing a lightweight travel towel as provided bath towels are not regularly freshened.

Pack your luggage compactly, given limited space to stow it in your cabin. Large luggage can be checked in but cannot be accessed during the journey.

For more information, visit www.journeybeyondrail.com.au