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Articles Blog

Australia's Railroads

Karyn Planett

“Alllll Ah-BOARD!”

So booms the stationmaster’s baritone voice. Along the platform jostle ticket holders eager to cross the Australian hinterland by rail. Ahead is a chapter of this nation’s history and thousands of kilometers of rails. A puff of diesel smoke wafts on the tropical air, the whistle blows, and powerful locomotives lurch forward. In tow, gleaming carriages filled with train buffs and veteran travelers alike. Their adventure is about to begin.

Indian Pacific Railway, Sydney To Perth

Guests will travel 4352 kilometers aboard the world’s first transcontinental railway. They’ll slip from one time zone to the next, crossing three in total, as they clickity-clack along for the next two and a half days. It’s like hopping aboard a Pullman in Istanbul and stepping down in London!

En route is a trained staff aided by scores more along the way. This silver city of wheels costing millions is thought to be the most comfortable of the world’s long-distance rail journeys. Surely the air-conditioned cars are a huge bonus for the rumble through the parched Outback.

What Lies Ahead

First the Blue Mountains, 40 miles from Sydney, that once were a formidable barrier for early settlers. Powerful locomotives chug mightily for the gradient is 1 to 33 making it the country’s greatest rail incline. Once over this hurdle, the train slips toward the horizon with heaps of sheep in view. To the left and right are settlements like Molong, Manildra, and a spot called Cookamidgera.

Guests settle into cozy compartments where space is a luxury and wise design crucial. Beds are comfy and the night sky entertaining. The Southern Cross serves as their guide as the train’s rhythm rocks devoted insomniacs to sleep.

A New Day Dawns

Travelers awaken to a scrubbier, horizonless, red landscape. Kangaroos hop about. Wayward camels amble by. Soon, they’re in Broken Hill. Though unassuming, it’s a vital link between the payloads of lead, silver, and zinc and the outside world. We’re not talking trinkets, but over $50 billion in precious metals. Once visitors step down to the platform they understand the sacrifice made by local miners—the heat is historic.

Adelaide And Beyond

Adelaide’s the stopover city for the Indian-Pacific route as well as the departure point or terminus for the Ghan Train (more on the Ghan later). With good reason, it’s Australia’s “most livable community.” It was settled in 1836 by religious people called “free settlers”, much like American Puritans, who wished to live away from the convict settlements. The countryside and southern seas provided a bountiful life and Adelaide flourished.

Leaving Adelaide behind, Indian-Pacific travelers soon spot the Flinders Ranges. Burly men known as fettlers walk the line ensuring everything is in order. They are reminiscent of early settlers who built this railway when everything was packed in by camel—grub, water, even sleepers to shore up steel rails. They placed 1000 miles of tracks in only five years. The last spike was driven in 1917 to much celebration.

Next, the uninviting landscape of the Nullarbor, a vast swath of “no trees” six times the size of Belgium. Ahead is 300 miles of the world’s longest railway without a single turn, straight as an arrow.

Meanwhile, cooks announce they’ll serve 1300 pounds of fish and meat, 2000 eggs, 900 sausage links, and enough bread to feed an army during this run.

Another starry night hypnotizes. At daybreak, reality descends that the crossing of this mighty continent is drawing to a close 65 hours since stepping aboard in Sydney. Perth appears on the horizon. Behind them, one of the most dramatic chapters in Australia’s early history of rail travel.

Back to The Ghan

A shortened name for the line’s previous nickname “The Afghan Express”, The Ghan travels 3,000 kilometers south to north from Adelaide and Darwin. It’s so named for the line traces the route carved by Afghan camel caravans that, before the railroad, trekked this barren landscape. Afghani camel drivers had been brought here with their animals to open up the nation’s uncharted interior.

This all began in 1878 when a short stretch of rail line was laid from Port August to Oodnadatta. Fifty years later, it reached Alice Springs. Before that, travelers were forced to journey the last leg by camelback.

The original Ghan was retired 30 years ago, replaced by newer trains. In 2001, the last stretch from Alice Springs to Darwin was begun with the first traveler reaching Darwin February 4, 2004. This rail line now links the Great North with the rest of the country opening up opportunities for commerce, tourism and travel by train buffs bent on riding all the world’s rails. And, as a nod to one of the country’s most celebrated personalities, a locomotive was named for the late “crocodile hunter” Steve Irwin, a native son.