Craig Tansley takes to the track for the best train journeys to see the best of Australia…
There’s something about travelling by rail – it invokes a bygone era, when folk wore jackets to dinner, and spent days sipping G&Ts while waiting on high tea. Australia is perfect for train travel. A big country to see: driving around is exhausting, flying across it means you miss the best parts, and doing it by bus will test your sanity. We look at the four best train journeys you should take to see the best bits of your country…
Everyone told me to bring a book, or five. The Ghan is an epic 3000-kilometre, three-day/two-night rail journey through the dead heart of Australia – from Adelaide to Darwin (or the other way round… you choose). I was warned there wasn’t much to see. So I brought a Kindle with 50 books but there was too much going on outside my window, I didn’t read a word. There’s a lot more out there than desert – there are termite mounds taller than the train, there are wedge-tailed eagles circling the skies, and there seemed an awful lot of sunsets and sunrises in a few days. Oh, and there’s the sky itself. Funny how you spend three days staring at it and it never looks the same twice.
This is one of the world’s most famous train journeys. A part of it (Adelaide to Alice Springs) has existed since 1929 (the second half – Alice Springs to Darwin – was completed in 2004). You’d love the journey even if you didn’t even step off at all – passing the day meeting fellow passengers over South Australian wine in the Queen Adelaide restaurant car, or at the Outback Explorer Lounge – but you’ll spend plenty of time off it.
The train stops at Coober Pedy for a meal underground and a look at the opals that make this place famous, and you’ll have a stop at Alice Springs for an outback barbecue dinner at the old Telegraph Station, and there’s Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge to take a boat cruise down amongst freshwater crocs (and the odd saltwater croc too should you come at the end of the wet season). You can extend your trip too and stay on where the train stops, or book everything from scenic flights over Nitmiluk Gorge to camel rides in the desert. You might also opt to do just half the trip (Adelaide to Alice Springs or vice versa, or Darwin to Alice Springs or vice versa).
Explore more: For April 2021 onwards departures, book a Gold Service twin cabin from Adelaide to Darwin (2 nights) from $2149 per person. See journeybeyondrail.com.au.
The Indian Pacific
If you thought The Ghan was a long train ride, then add another half that distance again and there’s The Indian Pacific, one of the few truly transcontinental train journeys on Earth. It starts beside the Indian Ocean at Perth, and travels 4352 kilometres east to the Pacific Ocean at Sydney (or the other way round). For this journey, you might be best bringing that book to read along the longest straight stretch of train tracks on Earth (478 kilometres without a single curve) through the Nullarbor (it’s Latin for no trees, you won’t experience a more barren landscape unless we all work out how to get to Mars).
Though this train journey only began 50 years ago, you’d swear it harks back centuries. There’s the retro-Edwardian décor in the dining car, and the wooden surroundings of your sleeper cabins (they did away with upright seating on the service a few years back, now there’s just Gold and Platinum Service – with your own cabins).
This train’s so big (29 carriages) it takes 1.5 kilometres to stop. The views outside – aside from the Nullarbor, a 200,000 square-kilometre wilderness the size of two Englands – never stay the same long. You’ll cross through desert, goldfields and savannah and pass through the Blue Mountains across four days and three nights. There are stops along the way at iconic outback towns like Kalgoorlie where you can stand on the edge of a 3.6-kilometre-long open-cut gold mine, or Broken Hill to catch a drag show at the pub where they filmed Priscilla: Queen of The Desert. And there’s the Blue Mountains too, and Adelaide. Four days passes pretty fast amidst all this old-world splendour and the views you’ll have through panoramic windows. The meals are worth the trip alone: the best Australian produce and the finest local wines come with silver service in a dining room you’d picture a royal in.
More: For February 2021 onwards departures, book a Gold Service twin cabin from Sydney to Perth (3 nights) or vice versa from $2899 per person. See journeybeyondrail.com.au.
The Spirit Of Queensland
Not every rail journey in Australia has to come with a hefty price tag. Think of The Spirit of Queensland as the budget take on The Ghan or Indian Pacific – there’s no private cabins – you can even travel in an upright seat – or book a chic-looking RailBed seat which looks and feels just like a Business Class plane seat – but for $389, not $10,000. Contained within its own shell, it has an entertainment system and transfers into a fully horizontal bed. Another bonus with this journey is Queensland’s traditionally been less affected by COVID outbreaks, although some states, or cities, still aren’t allowed in.
The great thing about this journey is it’s only 25 hours (covering 1681 kilometres from Brisbane to Cairns) but if you book The Stopover Fare, you can get off anywhere you like along the way. In fact, you have 12 months to use it once you start your journey – so go live with the whales in Hervey Bay (from Maryborough), or steal away on a yacht in the Whitsundays (from Proserpine) for six months, or get wrecked on Great Keppel Island (from Rockhampton). It’s an easy transfer to Queensland’s most popular tourist destinations like Airlie Beach and Fraser Island – either by coach, or tilt train, which can either be purchased with your ticket or added on as you make your mind up where you want to go.
This train’s the most modern of the lot – it goes at 160 kilometres per hour and is as smooth as it comes: think of it as our answer to Japan’s bullet trains. You’ll have 24-hour access to the Galley Car, where you’ll be served local paddock-to-plate cuisine and fine Queensland wine. And the views out the window are as diverse as you can imagine – from the green of coastal rainforest to the dry, dusty red earth of Queensland’s cattle country, just west of the Great Dividing Range. You’ll wake up to kangaroos bouncing by your window, and toast the sun going down in cattle country where Brahman bulls are the only creatures tough enough to survive the landscape.
Explore more: Prices start at $221 Brisbane to Cairns (or vice versa) for an economy upright seat, or $389 for a RailBed. Opt for The Stopover Fare if you’d like to get off along the way. See queenslandrailtravel.com.au.
This is Australia’s newest epic train journey – and you’ll get to see a totally different slice of Australia than the other two big interstate journeys – The Ghan and the Indian Pacific. This journey takes you from Adelaide to Brisbane across three days and two nights, or from Brisbane to Adelaide across four days and three nights. Because it uses the same carriages as The Ghan it only operates from December to January each year when it’s too hot for The Ghan to go.
So you’d better be quick: very quick. What’s more, because of COVID-19, the company has had to revise its itinerary to leave Victoria out of the journey (despite Victoria’s case numbers falling back to zero).
Great Southern has all the old-world grandeur of The Ghan and Indian Pacific – with its yesteryear vibes in the dining car and bar – but it’s as much about what you’ll see off the train as what you’ll see on it. It stops at all the best spots along the way, and has just added NSW outback towns, Broken Hill and Silverton (now Victoria has been taken out of the itinerary). Broken Hill is the capital of the NSW outback, there’s a pub on every corner full of characters ready to share a beer.
While Silverton is where they filmed movies from Mad Max 2 to Mission Impossible 2, its dusty streets are full of colonial buildings though oddly, it’s an epicentre for artist galleries. You’ll also get out for a beachside dining experience in Coffs Harbour, on NSW’s north coast where mountains that house the likes of Rusty Crowe and Jack Thompson drop right into the ocean.
You’ll also have a wine tour in Canberra’s Murrumbateman Food and Wine Region, and (just north of Newcastle) you’ll get to explore Port Stephens’ famous waterways where dolphins are everywhere.
Explore more: For January-February 2021 departures book a Gold Service twin cabin from $1889 per person for Adelaide to Brisbane (2 nights) and $2389 for Brisbane to Adelaide (3 nights). See journeybeyondrail.com.au.
NOTE: Check all websites for latest information on how COVID-19 affects operations.