All aboard the hype train – Michael Portillo is back with another TV series of intrepid train journeys, and this time he’s taking on the vast wildernesses of Australia.
He’ll be examining the best and brightest of Australia’s 41,000 kilometres of track – from the stunning sands on the coasts, to the barren wastelands in the centre; the iconic sea suburbs of Sydney to the sporting stadia of Melbourne.
“Australia is a wonderful country to explore by train,” says the former defence secretary. “With my 1913 guidebook, I investigate convicts, koalas, kangaroos and camels; trace the history of European settlement along with its impact on the native peoples; and look at the new multi-ethnic Australia coming to terms with its past.”
So, to get you in the mood for some luscious landscapes, screeching rails, and invariably annoying automated announcements, here’s a highlight reel from some of Australia’s most rewarding railway lines.
1. The Ghan, Adelaide-Darwin
One of the world’s truly epic rail journeys, The Ghan cuts a vertical path between Adelaide and Darwin that bisects the Australian continent. The route spans 3,000 kilometres, three days, and three different climates – the temperate countryside of the south, the tropical splendour of the north, and the vast expanse of rust-coloured emptiness in between. At the halfway mark lies Alice Springs, an urban oasis in the heart of the outback, and a jumping-off point for Uluru – the sandstone monolith formally known as Ayers Rock.
2. The Indian Pacific, Perth-Sydney
What the Ghan does north to south, Indian Pacific does east to west. Running between Sydney and Perth, this luxurious train takes you from ocean to ocean with a well-catered, well-choreographed itinerary. On this four-day voyage, it’s the variety – the ethereal emptiness of abandoned mining towns; the forested vistas of the Blue Mountains; the extended horizons of the barren Nullarbor Plain – that makes this adventure one of the best your Aussie dollars can buy.
3. The Puffing Billy Railway
One for the history buffs, the Puffing Billy Railway near Melbourne is a throwback to a bygone era when steam locomotives ruled the rails. Visitors can enjoy a whistlestop tour through the mountains of the Dandenong Ranges, filled with eucalyptus groves, serene Victoria farmland, and deceptively rickety-looking bridges. Puffing by name and by nature, this relic of the 1920s races through its hour-and-a-half run in a haze of billowing vapour. In the modern world, Billy might not be up to the standard we’d expect when it comes to train travel, but he does make for an excellent day out.
4. The Spirit of the Outback, Brisbane-Longreach
Another odyssey in the outback, this 26-hour service winds through the Queensland ‘never-never’, pausing regularly at historic settlements and bush towns along the way. With comfortable cabins, helpful staff and a well-stocked lounge car, Spirit of the Outback ranks as the perfect way to enjoy this iconic Australian environment, while also enjoying the benefits of air-conditioning. A manageable run time, rugged scenery, and enough Australian dust to dim even Portillo’s brightest-coloured blazer.
5. The Australind, Perth-Bunbury
Compared to the tropical north, the urban south, and the Great-Barrier-Reef-heavy east, Western Australia often feels slightly neglected, but this charming little trip features sun-soaked beaches at both ends, a dining car offering five-course meals, and some of the most verdant scenery anywhere in Australia. Connecting Perth with the historic town of Bunbury, the service gets its name from the planned city of Australind, a piece of 19th century urban planning that was abandoned after 30 years of development hell. The modern-day hamlet of Australind – a satellite of Bunbury – doesn’t even have a train station.
6. The Spirit of Queensland, Brisbane-Cairns
A relaxing ride through the Queensland countryside, this service was not built for those in a hurry. Lazily wending its way through a successions of forests, hills and meadows, The Spirit of Queensland wants you to relax, switch off your mobile, and let the sunlit scenery drift by in a haze of greens, browns and blues. Just try not to fall asleep too quickly – if you’re in rail bed class, you’ll miss out on a three-course dinner.