Rolling Through the Outback on
The Indian Pacific's Christmas Train
Story and photos by John Blanchette
t was mid December and a heat wave had embraced the country. Record
setting temperatures were searing the land from high 90s in Sydney
and Adelaide to blast furnace heat in the great Outback. Fires were
raging throughout the country.
But we were cool, riding the air-conditioned Indian
Pacific railway across the southern expanse of Australia to the west
coast city of Perth, a four-day transcontinental tour through the vast,
endlessly changing and sparsely populated plain of central Australia.
The landscape took focus through the large windows on
the train, beginning with the thick Eucalyptus canopy draped over the
valleys and gorges of the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney through the
undulating hills and farmlands of the Great Dividing Range and the starkness
of the salt lakes and sand dunes of central South Australia.
Millions of stars revealed themselves in the pitch dark
night skies, illuminating the wild and untouched, but wondrously and
naturally manicured expanses, amazingly clean and as well laid out as
a deliberately planted city park. The journey ended with a straight
shot passage of rail, the longest in the world at about 300 miles, across
the arid and infertile Nullarbor Plain and into the green zone of Perth
on the west coast.
One of the isolated stops for the Indian Pacific
in the great Outback
In addition to regular riders and vacationers, aboard
the half-mile long train were 25 journalists, Brian McFadden, one of
the country's top recording artists and a popular TV figure, and a well-known
visitor from the North. We were on the Christmas Train, stopping in
remote towns and railroad depots to bring Santa, toys and entertainment
to the children and families that work the isolated ranches and mines
in this great stretch of land.
Youngster eagerly awaiting Santa in one of the remote
mining towns along the Christmas Train route
The train was also raising awareness and funds for the
Royal Flying Doctor Service which brings much needed medical care to
remote areas of central Australia.
TV stations had sent camera crews and there were newspaper
and magazine reporters from all over Australia on board, along with
a journalist from the London Times and yours truly, the sole American
covering the annual event.
The Indian Pacific journey ranges over 2,700 miles from
coast to coast and began operating in 1970. The train is one of the
great rails of the world with sleeping cars and wide windows that expose
the magnificent vistas which unspool like a documentary film as you
travel the country. The night was deafeningly quiet and the gentle rocking
of the train encouraged deep sleep.
Each berth had its own sink, toilet and shower facilities.
Regular updates and travel commentary on the ever changing landscape
were reported on the cabin speakers and optional music was also available.
Along the way large groups of kangaroos and emus were
visible through the windows as well as an occasional camel, lots of
sheep and cattle, a menagerie of birds including galah, beautiful pink
throated, white and grey feathered cockatoos, the magically fluting
magpies with their enchanting songs, the joyous squawking of the starlings,
and the trains logo, the wedge-tailed eagle soaring above the scorched
earth with a massive seven-foot wingspan and an eye for native fauna
as well, including rabbits and other small creatures that scuttled along
the flat lands.
Other welcome amenities on the train included the club
lounge and dining car, the Queen Adelaide, where the drinks and gourmet
meals were served. They were included in the travel package and enjoyed
fully by the journalists, especially the club car, which was a favored
site for imbibing and viewing. Chefs prepared the meals on board in
the specially designed kitchens and seasoned staff served in elegant
Elegant dining car
It's like train travel from an earlier, more gentile
age. Costs range between $1,600 and $3,500 (the Australian dollar is
on par with the American dollar) depending on the level of service.
In the peak months of August to December there are two trains a week
and about 70,000 ride the rails each year.
Outside of Sydney, Adelaide and Perth, the Christmas
train stopped in the town of Broken Hill, where children from the Assumption
School sang Christmas carols with Brian then on to several tiny whistle
stops in the Outback, including the town of Cook, with a population
of four. Santa was greeted and known as "Ho Ho" in a remote
stop near an indigenous settlement.
Ho Ho makes friends with the locals. When asked
the age of the baby
the answer was "O."
The last stop in the Outback was the mining town of
Kalgoorlie, with a checkered history of dance halls and debauchery,
but this year it provided the largest turnout on the tour. Along the
way parents drove their children hundreds of miles to meet the train
at the various depots to celebrate the holiday.
Children of Kalgoorlie welcome Santa and Brian McFadden
For information on the Christmas Train, the Indian Pacific
and other rail tours available in Australia, from north to south as
well as east to west, visit the Great
Southern Rail website.
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John Blanchette is a freelance travel writer, television
producer and owns a public relations company in Santa Monica, California.
South Wales, Australia; New
Zealand - No Worries; South
Island, New Zealand; Stewart
Island, New Zealand