'You're not from around here, are ya?'', asks a bloke in a grubby stetson, jeans and thongs, a stubby grasped firmly in his right hand. ''Can't be, not lookin' as clean as that!'' He guffaws away with his mate as I look down at my all-white ensemble, as yet untouched by the red dust swirling around us. I have to laugh along with them.
They're right – I'm a long, long way from home. It's taken me 50 hours to get from Sydney to remote Rawlinna in Western Australia. There's not much to see here. A sandstone station house. A few jackaroos lounging in slivers of shade. One lone, skinny palm attempting to wave away the raw heat of the day.
I've arrived on the iconic Indian Pacific, the Great Southern Railway train that runs coast-to-coast, 4352 kilometres from Sydney and Perth in three days. We're nearing the end of our journey and this is our second stop on the vast, arid and famously treeless Nullarbor Plain.
Of course, all-white seemed perfectly appropriate when I boarded the Indian Pacific at Sydney's Central Station. From the moment I was greeted on the platform by Jos, the train's tall, elegantly mustachioed hospitality manager who ushered me gently through to my Gold Service sleeper cabin, I felt as if I was being transported back to a more gracious, elegant age of travel.
The cabins – dinky but refined spaces featuring wood panelling, mirrors etched with cute vintage pastoral motifs and large windows through which to gaze, slack-jawed, at the passing scenery – were given amakeover in early 2012 as part of a $22million refurbishment of the train. There's new patterned carpet and fabric upholstery, upgraded mood lighting, a five-channel sound system through which beams the ever-chipper journey commentary, and surprisingly comfy upgraded bunk beds that are stowed away during the day to make way for athree-seater lounge. Most impressive are the completely revamped, white-tiled bathrooms, which are stocked with complimentary toiletries and now have fixed (rather than fold-down) toilets, sinks and showers that make washing oneself while travelling at 85km/h a slightly more sophisticated experience.
The train's cosy, club-like lounge and restaurant carriages were also given a bit of a spruce-up in the March upgrade. The Outback Explorer Lounge (think polished wood, rich in velvet and brass) is the place to park your bottom and, gin and tonic in hand, gaze at the awe-inspiring scenery as the train rattles its way through the lush eucalypt forests of the Blue Mountains, the shimmering salt plains of South Australia, the scrappy beauty of the grey-green mallee scrub and the vast emptiness – save for a few emusand kangaroos – of the baked desert interior.
You can ogle at the awe-inspiring plains from the on-board Queen Adelaide Restaurant, too, but once you're there, eyes are generally fixed firmly on the a la carte menu (also upgraded), which offers mouth-watering produce sourced from the regions through which the train passes. Blue swimmer crab from Western Australia, Spear Creek Dorper Lamb from South Australia and an unforgettable creme de menthe tart are just a few highlights.
From 2013, as part of a range of proposed changes to the service that will take place about April, the food and wine will be co-ordinated with the regions the train is travelling through at that time of day, so passengers will be able to link the environment they're seeing outside the dining car windows with the food on their plate. But not even a $22 million upgrade can change thefact that the true highlights of the Indian Pacific are those found outside the carriages, at some of the major pit stops the train makes along the way. For me, they included strolling down the deserted main street of Broken Hilljust after sunrise, flanked by charming, old-fashioned shops and Federation hotels. Exploring Cook, the ghost town of the Nullarbor, with its abandoned swimming pool, population of four and views across the endless scrolls of spinifex and saltbush. Zipping about Adelaide on a whistle-stop tour, taking in its picturesque churches, gorgeous colonial architecture andperfectly manicured rose gardens. And, of course, discoveringthat no true-blueAussie would ever dare wear white tothe desert, in a little town namedRawlinna.
The writer was a guest of Great Southern Rail.
2012 marked the 12th annual Indian Pacific Outback Christmas Train event, which each December welcomes twospecial guests — Santa Claus and anotable musician (this year, Brian McFadden; in years past, Jessica Mauboy, Human Nature and Jimmy Barnes) — who perform for local communities during the three-night journey across Australia. It's a way for Great Southern Rail to thank communities for their support, and to raise money for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Changes on the way
As of April 1, the full journey (Sydney to Perth or vice versa, excluding return flights) will increase to $2420 for a Gold Service twin ticket and $3890 for a Platinum Service ticket. The Gold Service single ticket price will not change. The fares will include all beverages (wine, beer, spirits and soft drinks are currently at additional cost), and wayside ''explore and discover'' tours (also currently at additional cost). Guests booking six months or more in advance will also receive a 25 per cent discount off the full Gold Service fare.
Later next year, there will be a GPS tracking the train's progress that guests will be able to view in the lounge car, a webcam on the front of the train to show guests where the train is travelling, and wi-fi on board. An app is also in development, which will allow guests to experience virtually the areas, towns and sights along the way.
The Indian Pacific leaves Sydney for Perth on Wednesday each week year-round, and on Saturday between September 1 and October 27.
A Gold Service single ticket is $2178; holiday and celebration packages are available.Partial trips and other classesare available. 13 21 47, greatsouthernrail .com.au for a full listing of fares and timetables.
Go west ... clockwise from main, the Indian Pacific; sleeping Gold Class; a musical interlude at Broken Hill; making a whistle stop at Cook.