Food and wine masterclasses, sky going on forever and the feeling of space you only get in the outback … this is a train journey you will never forget
You don’t take the 4,352 kilometre Indian Pacific Railway journey to get from Sydney to Perth (or vice versa). It’s a train you take to discover southern Australia – a vast place of contradictions: hostile and welcoming; at times bucolic, then barren.
The three-day train journey is already a hugely popular tourist trip among “grey nomads” in Australia, but the operator, Great Southern Rail, is now set on attracting a wider range of clientele, with spruced-up carriages and renovated lounges, additional off-train excursions along the route and a new food and wine menu on board that showcases the best of Australian cuisine.
The food and wine is sourced from some of the greatest produce and wine regions in Australia: the Hunter valley in New South Wales; the Barossa and Adelaide Hills in South Australia; and Margaret River in Western Australia. No surprise perhaps then that the journey was widely praised in 2015; its plaudits included being named by Gourmet Traveller as one of the “top 100 Australian culinary experiences”, by Condé Nast Traveler as among the world’s best train food, by Britain’s Daily Telegraph as one of the “world’s tastiest rail journeys” and in Good Food’s “30 Australian food adventures you must have”.
The Indian Pacific leaves Sydney every Wednesday afternoon and arrives in Perth on Saturday lunchtime throughout 2016-17. I arrive at Sydney’s Central station not really knowing what to expect, excited by romantic notions of train travel but also a little bit scared to be stuck on one train for three nights and four days – will I be bored?
On arrival, I’m shown to my private “gold class” cabin. It is compact but smart. A big window with adjustable blinds fills one side. A bench seat will later become my bed. The bed is surprisingly comfortable and the linen is five-star hotel quality. I’ve had worse bathrooms in three-star hotels.
My amazing host – who looks after me for the full four days – offers to bring me a hot drink and I accept, although there is a well-stocked kitchenette just down the corridor that all gold-class guests can access at any time. Food and drink is all-inclusive in gold and platinum classes and I intend to make the most of it. As soon as the train starts moving, I head to the lounge for welcome drinks.
The lounges (there are several among the 30 carriages) are full train-carriage size and include a staffed bar area, plush couches and tables, as well as a bookshelf and games corner. Sparkling and still wine, beer and spirits are served to guests on request all day long. It’s easy to make friends in the lounges and the delightful Australian bubbly sets the scene for the terrific opening-night wine masterclass with the wine critic Jeremy Oliver.
The masterclass is informal but informative. We try chardonnay from the Hunter valley Adelaide Hills and Margaret River, before moving on to shiraz from the same regions. Then we move into the Queen Adelaide restaurant – a classic railway dining car with four-seater leather booths separated by cut-glass partitions and set, always, with white linen – for a seven-course “showcase dinner”.
Before I got on the train, I thought the cost was high (gold class starts at $2,529 a person and platinum class is $4,359 a person from Sydney to Perth), but it’s not even the end of the first night and I can already see the value in this once-in-a-lifetime holiday.
Little details – such as including a pâté from Maggie Beer’s renowned Pheasant Farm, where we’ll visit in an off-board excursion the next day – make the journey more than just a train trip with good food. I fancy myself a foodie and I feel as though I’m learning something. The self-saucing chocolate pudding served with mandarin salsa is amazing. And I will never, ever forget the taste of the 2013 Cloudburst chardonnay from Margaret River – and since it retails for about $250, I don’t expect to ever drink it again.
That night the rocking of the train puts me to sleep immediately but the track feels bumpy as we journey through western NSW, and my sleep is disturbed on the first night.
The train arrives late in Broken Hill on Thursday morning and we miss our sunrise tour. We do, however, manage a bus trip to the Living Desert Reserve and Sculpture Symposium. As we drive out of town, our local driver explains the brush we now encounter is a regeneration area that surrounds the town on each side to suppress the red dust, before cheerily announcing it is full of the world’s deadliest snakes, including the king brown, inland taipan and tiger snakes.
“If you get bitten by one of them you’ll be dead in an hour without medical treatment,” comes an announcement over the bus PA.
Broken Hill is beautiful country, though, alive with kangaroos. The red earth of Australia’s interior is a magnificent sight and, back on the train, I soak up the view. Gnarled gum trees stud the expansive desert. The horizon is broken by a tree line. We see plenty of emus as we eat our hot breakfast. (I have poached eggs with Harris Smokehouse salmon) in the Queen Adelaide restaurant. Galahs greet us in flocks and there are plenty of sheep to keep us company. The dark green scrub and red earth go on and on, but it has been raining so we also spot some puddles and the odd stream.
After a post-lunch nap, I awake to find the world almost verdant. Sheep watch lazily as the train meanders past (it averages 85km/hour, which seems ridiculously slow until you’re on it and appreciate the pace). The speed allows us to appreciate the Australian landscape in a way that’s impossible by any other mode of transport. There are smooth green slopes and tree-covered hills on the horizon. Grey clouds bring the promise of rain.
A neat station goes by – a home with a windmill, a wide veranda, sheds, water tanks and what appears to be a long, tree-lined drive. There is a llama among the sheep, and wattle trees line the railway’s edge.
This is anything but boring.
The gums eventually give way to oak trees, the yellow paddocks of canola pop up more frequently among the rich green of young wheat and barley crops. It is misty by the time I get to lunch, which today takes place in the lounge – transformed into a dining car with long tables (still set with crisp white linen). I choose the yabby and blue swimmer crab meat in lemon myrtle-infused soup (again, amazing).
In a rare quiet moment, I choose to sit in the lounge car to watch the world go by. This car is often full from mid-morning till after dinner. I notice glasses of bubbly being poured before lunchtime, and why not? The corner of the car stocked with books and boardgames is studiously ignored as lifelong friendships are made all around me. But for a moment, I am antisocial enough to just stare out the window.
We journey past fertile green fields and into the Adelaide plains, which would be desert if it were not irrigated. Italian migrant families have made a fortune planting olive trees in the plains, and tomatoes and nuts still bring the region great wealth.
At Two Wells we hop off the train and on to a bus to Maggie Beer’s Pheasant Farm, where we enjoy a walking tour with Elli Beer who then accompanies us to the Apex bakery.
It’s here we begin to understand that the secret to the Barossa’s success has a lot to do with the collegiate relationship between the region’s producers. Marco Cirillo comes along to the bakery to greet the train’s guests and brings with him a grenache and shiraz from his estate for us to try. The wine is accompanied with fresh baked salt loaf and pretzels, using a recipe that came with the Salesians who settled the area in the 1800s. The Apex recipe isn’t likely to change any time soon; owner Corey Fechner vows to stay true to the recipe his grandfather worked to when he started at the bakery back in 1926 as a 12-year-old.
Fechner also vows to keep alive the tradition of the Friday open lunch. If you have an open mind, you’re welcome to bring a bottle of wine and $5, crowd around the 90-year-old Scotch oven, and share a few stories while the owners bung some meat in the burner and bake bread fresh for the taking.
We peel ourselves away from the fire and get back on the bus to Seppeltsfield, which has the oldest continual port collection in the world. With an unbroken lineage dating from 1878, a new attraction to the cellars is the offer of a tour culminating in a tasting of your birth-year vintage (included for platinum class ticketholders). As an added extra, you may opt to try the 100-year-old vintage.
This 100-year-old vintage is thick and dark. If you come from a port-loving family, as I do, you’ll be leaving with an order form for the anniversary specials. What better birthday gift than a bottle of port from the year your loved one was born?
If it weren’t for that superb 1977 glass of port and a sip from 1915, dinner at Hentley Farm would be hard to beat as the standout experience of the trip. The chef takes the time to explain each course, talking us through the locally grown and seasonal produce he’s used to create the menu. He uses as much produce from the farm as possible, and we taste mushrooms he’s grown, as well as wild garlic and oranges from his parent’s property.
After the huge meal and more glasses of wine than it’s polite to report, I can’t wait to get back on the train and into my lovely bed. Sleep comes easily and the rocking and bumps of the track that had disturbed me on the first night now only bring comfort, depth and many pleasant dreams.
I awake on Friday to find we’re finally in the middle of nowhere. We pass a town called Pimba and between there and Cook (population four) I spot some sheep and a lonely magpie. The vast scrubland leads to a distant mountain and the red desert is back again.
If you’re the type who likes looking out windows, this is the trip for you. On the brief downtime between meals and on- and off-board activities, my planned reading is constantly interrupted by the changing scenery outside.
I can’t believe we’re still in South Australia at mid-morning – I know, of course, that Australia is a huge, mostly unpopulated country. But here I see it, right in front of my eyes and its sheer vastness is extraordinary.
The beguiling landscape may not be home to much but it gives you the impression that’s how it should be. The mangy trees that line the railway corridor seem to be saying, much like the people who live here, “We’re alone out here and that’s just the way we like it.”
We stop off in Cook, which exists solely to service the railway. It once had a school and a hospital but now the sound of crickets is all that comes from the abandoned buildings. I know why the four people still live here, and I don’t blame them for it, although I can’t help but wonder if the solitude would drive me crazy.
From here, the railway line is straight – the longest stretch of straight railway in the world, actually – and the land is flat. The Nullarbor plain lives up to its legend of unimaginable flatness. The horizon is almost a fairytale and I’m glad I’m back on the train when an urge to just walk into it overwhelms me. Is there anything more beautiful than that red dirt?
Lunch after Cook is impressive, with a Western Australian marron and truffle starter making me very excited about the food to come on the coast. The jewfish is succulent, which I feel is an achievement considering the limitations of train kitchens.
On Saturday morning, the world has changed again. Trees have returned, I see a lake, paddocks of wheat and vibrant purple shrubs. The window frame is now coloured in blue and white and green and yellow; flocks of birds fill the frame. There are fields of green as crops grow again and the red earth has been replaced with a sandy yellow soil.
A masterclass by the Aboriginal chef Mark Olive in the lounge car seems an appropriate culmination of the lesson in Australia I’ve undertaken on this trip. He introduces us to the native herbs, spices and fruits of this island continent and then we taste them with kangaroo, emu, crocodile and barramundi. We wrap smoked emu around tart quandongs and dip thinly sliced kangaroo in a warm pepper berry sauce. The crocodile is great with muntry berries and the barramundi is better than I’ve ever tasted with a sprinkling of lemon myrtle. In fact, lemon myrtle is now becoming hugely popular with chefs around the country – it was the infusion of it in the yabby bisque that transformed an otherwise good soup into a superb and memorable dish.
My fellow guests and I are more subdued on Saturday after three days of eating and drinking, and perhaps it’s just as well because the scenery of the Avon valley is worth taking the time to ponder. Rolling hills are cut by valleys as the Avon river chases the train all the way to the Swan river in Perth. I’m ready to reach it and also sad to be saying goodbye to my brief little home on the Indian Pacific Railway.
I arrive feeling full and happy and with a deep love and respect for this great southern land.
2016-17 prices (for Indian Pacific Sydney to Perth)
Guardian Australia was a guest of Great Southern Rail