Criss-Crossing Australia on the Indian Pacific and the Ghan.

(The following is the first part of a story I wrote for the Dallas Morning News relating my experiences on Australia’s two trans-continental trains.)

As early as the mid-1800s, Australian railroads hauled grain and ore to seaports and carried passengers between state capitals. But it wasn’t until 1969 that tracks spanning the continent all conformed to one standard gauge. A year later, the Indian Pacific began running between Sydney on the east coast and Perth on the west and instantly became one of the world’s great transcontinental trains.

A second line, the Ghan, opened in 1929, rolling north from Adelaide on the Southern Ocean. But it stopped mid-continent at Alice Springs. Finally, in 2004, the route went the distance, stretching up to Darwin on the north coast.

Two great train rides and, taken together, they offer a full-credit course in Aussie 101.

 My three-night rail journey across Australia won’t begin for another two hours, but I’m on the platform at Sydney’s main train station early to get my first look at the Indian Pacific, an almost endless line of elegant stainless steel rail carriages.

Other passengers begin to appear and spend the time savoring the anticipation of the coming rail journey.

This legendary train operates twice weekly between Sydney and the city of Perth, 2700 miles across the continent on the Indian Ocean and, at precisely 2:55 p.m., it glides out of the station, rattling through a series of switches onto the main line. 
The lounge car is the social center of the train and it’s here the passengers have assembled 30 minutes later for a welcoming champagne reception. There are people from many different countries here, but all share the common bond of enjoying train travel and conversation flows easily.

I’ll be having diner at 8:00, the second sitting in the dining car, so there’s time to relax in my compartment and watch the passing scenery as the train climbs up into the Blue Mountains.

If my first experience in the Indian Pacific’s dining car is any indication, we are going to eat very, very well over the next three days. I start by choosing a zucchini, leek and blue cheese soup, then segue neatly to pork escallops on a potato-corn hash with carrots, yams and a prune puree. Desert is a generous slab of banana cheesecake topped with passion fruit sauce. 

The berth has been made up by the time I return to my compartment and, after a steaming hot shower in my private phone-booth-sized lavatory and an hour of reading, the rocking of the train lulls me and I drift off.