Australia is big and empty. It’s so big and so empty that most Australians fly from place to place, ignoring the emptiness as if it were an embarrassing relative.
Buses are not cheap. They’re slow, cramped and pretty unpleasant for long journeys. Airplanes are expensive and so fast that you see little of the country and lose all sense of perspective. Trains on the other hand, although not fast, have large reclining seats, plenty of space to walk about, plus lounge and dining cars, showers, toilets, a smoking compartment and they can be very, very affordable.
There are three classes of rail travel: Gold Kangaroo class with a private cabin, shower, separate restaurant facilities and bar; Red Kangaroo class with a private cabin; and Red Kangaroo class seat only. Foreign nationals in Australia can buy a Great Southern Railway Pass (GSRP), which is a ticket allowing six months unlimited travel (seat only) for AUD$ 590 adult (US$ 470) or AUD$ 450 (US$ 360)for students.
My rail journey from Sydney to Adelaide, to Perth in Western Australia, back to Adelaide, on to Alice Springs in the desert heartland and back to Sydney, covered about 8,700 miles (14,000 km). The route follows the southern coast of Australia from east to west and then up north to the “Red Center” in the heart of the country.
The cheapest ordinary fare for this was AUD$ 1,493 (US$ 1,191) and the rail pass saved me AUD$ 1,108 (US$ 884). You don’t get a sleeping berth when you travel with a rail pass, only a recliner called a “day/nighter” seat. They’re bigger than economy airline seats and there is substantially more legroom, but let’s not pretend that this is a really comfortable way to travel a 66-plus-hour journey from Sydney to Perth.
To travel this cheaply you must expect some lack of comfort. If you want luxury, then travel gold class and pay for it.
The train does what its name says — it’s called the Indian-Pacific and it goes from Sydney by the Pacific Ocean to Perth by the Indian Ocean. It is an impressive sight, 18 carriages of bright shining aluminum, slightly weather-beaten in places, with a hefty locomotive at each end.
It appears that pasty, overweight, elderly passengers wearing shorts, with more luggage than they can carry, are restricted to the Gold class carriages, whereas passengers in Red class are ordinary Australians and the rest of humanity.
You can get off at any of the stops but there won’t be another train for a few days. However, this is the chance to see Outback towns and the great emptiness.
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