Image: The Blue Mountains
Tim Wimborne  /  Reuters file
Tourists cast shadows as they view a sandstone cliff outcrop known as "The Three Sisters" from Echo Point in the Blue Mountains town of Katoomba, about 56 miles west of Sydney.
updated 7/17/2008 2:19:40 PM ET 2008-07-17T18:19:40

For many years, I looked forward to riding the Indian Pacific across the length of southern Australia, from Sydney to Perth. At 2,700 miles, it's one of the world's longest train trips. But when I searched for concrete information on what to expect, I found it hard to locate. Now that I've made the journey, here's the information I wish I'd had.

Great Southern Rail has operated the Indian Pacific since the rail line was privatized in late 1997. It's a three-day, three-night journey that leaves twice weekly in both directions between Perth and Sydney. Most travelers say that going from Sydney to Perth—as I did—works best because you're assured of seeing the famous Blue Mountains in daylight.

After winding through Sydney's suburbs, you gradually climb through the Blue Mountains, crossing the highest point near sunset. The scenery then changes to ranchland; by mid-afternoon you arrive in Adelaide, a seaside city that feels more like Omaha than Sydney. After Adelaide, you're really in the Outback. Built to accommodate railroad workers, the little towns along the way have no outside access except by rail. (Most of the houses are now empty.) The one major stop is at Cook, where the train is serviced. This marks the beginning of the Nullarbor Plain. Plenty of kangaroos live out in the low grasses, but they're usually seen only at dusk and dawn. (We never saw any—perhaps the train scares them off.) The third evening is in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, an active open-pit mining town; unfortunately, you arrive after the stores close. The final morning, the train descends into Perth, a beautiful portion of the trip. The scenery is similar to California's Central Valley, complete with live oaks.

The train
The quarter-mile-long train has 15 carriage cars, which were built about 1970 under license from the Budd Company, an American manufacturer. They're the familiar fluted, stainless-steel cars of America's streamliner period, and they're well maintained, constantly refurbished, and clean. Unlike traditional streamliners, these trains have no dome cars or rear observation cars.

The cost of a double cabin in Gold Kangaroo class is about $1,779 per person (single cabins are also available); in Red Kangaroo class, it's $1,223 per person, while a Red Kangaroo coach seat is $639. Only Australians are eligible for senior discounts, and I found no advance or last-minute discounts. You can book via

Gold Kangaroo class
Most Americans travel in Gold class. Double cabins are a tiny 5 x 7 feet, which is smaller than a comparable Amtrak cabin. There's a thin closet for hanging garments but no room for carry-on bags of the size that fit in aircraft overhead bins. Couples should share a single collapsible bag that can be stored beneath the lone bench seat. Each double Gold-class cabin has a shower stall and a toilet. But these trains don't use rocket toilets like the ones on Amtrak and planes. Rather, the toilets rely on gravity for draining. Picture a shallow toilet or washbasin that folds out from the wall; "flushing" occurs when you fold the toilet or basin up. Meals are included in the Gold-class fare.

Red Kangaroo class
A sleeper cabin in Red Kangaroo class is about the same size as a single cabin in Gold, and passengers share a toilet and shower facility at the end of the car. Food and all beverages cost extra. It's also possible to book a Red Kangaroo coach seat: All seats are assigned; they recline and are two abreast. Passengers in these seats share the Red-class bathroom facilities.

Each cabin has a 220-volt outlet and a 110-volt outlet (designated for shaver use, the latter can also recharge camera or computer batteries). Because of power surges, Southern Rail recommends passengers run their delicate electronics on battery power. Hairdryers are available for a $5 refundable deposit.

People tend to imagine that the lull of the rails and a gentle rocking motion will make sleeping on a train comfortable. The reality is that the roadbed isn't always smooth and the train wheels "hunt" back and forth on the rails, so the train bounces as it goes. Train sleep is punctuated by little jarring bumps all night long.

Checked luggage is strictly limited to two bags per passenger that weigh no more than 44 pounds each.

Each car is serviced by a cabin attendant who doubles as a server at meals. I estimated the ratio to be about one staff member for every 25 passengers. Consequently, staff members are always rather busy and not readily available.

The Gold and Red classes each have dedicated dining cars, and passengers are required to use the lounge and dining cars of their class. The Red-class dining is basic microwaved fast food, served buffet style. You can bring your own food aboard in Red class, but the only take-out food available along the way is in Adelaide and Kalgoorlie-Boulder. The Red dining car is an austere monument to Formica and linoleum. Gold dining is a cut above Red, but by no means achieves the level of the best of Amtrak. Qantas Airways caters the train, and Gold food quality is about what one might expect in Qantas's business class. Portions are small: Dinner is an appetizer course of soup or a tiny continental-style garnish "salad," followed by one of four entrées—fowl, fish, meat, or vegetarian—that rarely come with side dishes. Breakfasts in Gold class are disappointing: an uninspired fruit plate or a "cooked breakfast" akin to something you'd get at a McDonald's. The train has no room service; between mealtimes, a limited assortment of junk-food snacks is available in the lounge cars.

Tea and instant coffee are complimentary in Gold class. Wine and spirits are obtainable in the Gold lounge car, but they're not included in your fare. The wine selection is solely Australian and is reasonably priced.

Lounge cars
The Gold-class lounge car is typical of American first-class club cars of the '50s—plush and a bit dated, but nonetheless a pleasant place to gather for conversation and views from both sides of the train. The Red-class lounge car isn't as nice as the Gold-class lounge, but I suppose it's adequate enough.

Copyright © 2012 Newsweek Budget Travel, Inc.

Photos: Awesome Australia

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  1. The sacred monolith of Uluru, or Ayers Rock, is located in Central Australia's Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, which is a World Heritage site. (Torsten Blackwood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Be careful going down the road in Western Australia. There could be camels, wombats or kangaroos trying to cross. (Nick Rains / Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A kangaroo stands next to a rare waterhole as sheep gather and look for food on a station near White Cliffs in the state of New South Wales. (William West / AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Tourists look at spectacular cathedral termite mounds in the Litchfield National Park near Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory. Often visible along the Northern Territory, also know as the "Top End" highways, they are amongst the largest mounds built by termites anywhere in the world and are reminiscent of mediaeval cathedrals. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A koala rests on a branch at Sydney Wildlife World, which features Australian flora and fauna set amongst natural habitats and ecosystems. Koalas feed almost exclusively on tough, toxic eucalyptus leaves, which they can digest because they have the longest gut for their size of any mammal. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Located near Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, the East MacDonnell Ranges Aerial are part of the remains of mountains that once went as high as the Himalayas. The East MacDonnell's are more varied and less crowded than the more popular West McDonnell Range. (Brian Geach / Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Visitors stand on a cantilever at the Illawarra Fly Treetop Walk tourist attraction that overlooks rainforest and coastline in the center in the Illawarra region, south of Sydney, in Australia's New South Wales. The Illawarra region gets its special character from the way the escarpment meets the sea. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Pinnacles, ancient limestone formations, rise out of the sand in Nambung National Park. There are thousands of pillars in this Western Australian area, which offer photographers images at sunrise and sunset. (Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The Three Sisters jut out of the Blue Mountains near Katoomba, New South Wales. The character of the rock formation changes as the sunlight brings out magnificent color.
    According to Aboriginal legend, there were three sisters in the Katoomba tribe who were in love with three brothers from the Nepean tribe, yet tribal law forbade them to marry. The brothers were not happy with this law and used force to capture the sisters, which caused a battle.
    A witchdoctor turned the sisters into stone to protect them from harm, but he was killed before he could reverse the spell. And so the sisters remained in the rock formation. (Lincoln Fowler / Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The large leaves of the Canna x generalis flowering plant from the Cannaceae family display their unusual coloring in the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens. The Botanic Gardens were founded on their current site by Governor Macquarie in 1816 and is the oldest scientific institution in Australia, playing a major role in the acclimatization of plants from other regions. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A droving team heads off from camp during the Great Australian Cattle Drive preview on May 7, 2009, in Oodnadatta, Australia. The Great Australian Cattle Drive takes place July 30-Aug. 29, 2010, and offers the general public the chance to experience an Australian adventure. (Quinn Rooney / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Many residents of opal mining town Coober Pedy, Australia, live underground in dugout homes. The Underground Serbian Orthodox Church is one of the town's must-see sites and includes rock carvings in the walls, a high-roof ballroom-style design and stained glass windows. (Quinn Rooney / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A young indigenous performer during the Yeperenye Federation Festival on Sept. 9, 2001, in Alice Springs, Central Australia. The Yeperenye Festival involves traditional elders with thousands of dancers, artists, singers, musicians and spectators, who gather at Blatherskite Park on the traditional lands of the Arrernte people. It was one of the largest cultural gatherings of indigenous and non-indigenous people since colonization. (Matt Turner / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Mount Borradaile in the Northern Territory was inhabited for up to 50,000 years by aboriginal tribes, and it's cave walls feature some of the best examples of aboriginal art. The drawings show a huge range of dates and events. The mount and the surrounding Arnhem Land draw tourists from all over who want to see real Australian history. (James Fisher / Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. The wetlands of the Yellow Water area of the Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territories are a mecca for wildlife and flora. The flora in the park is among the richest in northern Australia with more than 2,000 plant species recorded. The park is also considered to be one of the most weed-free national parks in the world. (Adam Pretty / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Rex the crocodile swims in a tank at Sydney Wildlife World on March 29, 2010. Rex, a saltwater crocodile, was caught in the Northern Territory and moved to his current habitat in December last year. (Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Cows have the right of way on Norfolk Island, east of the Australian mainland, where motorists also take the time to wave to each driver they pass. (Lawrence Bartlett / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. The Australian War Memorial in Canberra is a combination of a shrine, museum and archive, which commemorates the sacrifice of Australians who died in war. (Geoff Lung / Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A giant statue of famed Australian outlaw Ned Kelly at Glenrowan, the location of his final stand, about 110 miles northeast of Melbourne. Long dismissed as tourist kitsch, Australia's "Big Things" -- giant models of everything from koalas to pineapples -- are now being heritage-listed and recognized as works of folk art. (William West / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. The Ghan railway, which runs from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north, offers travelers the chance to see great Australian landscapes through the country's Red Center. (Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Vineyards are shown in the internationally renowned Margaret River wine region in the south-west corner of Western Australia, situated between the two coastal capes of Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A rock climber heads up a dolerite stack known as Totem Pole in Tasmania's Cape Hauy. (Nick Hancock / Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Beach-goers soak in the sun on the Gold Coast in Queensland. The Gold Coast is a favorite tourist area that features some of the world's finest beaches and lively nightlife. (Sergio Dionisio / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. American Kelly Slater performs a cutback during an aerial expression session on day one of Surfsho at Bondi Beach on March 12, 2010, in Sydney, Australia. (Cameron Spencer / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park off of Australia's coast offers one of the world's best places to snorkel. The reef is one of the richest, most diverse ecosystems and extends from the tip of Cape York in Queensland and goes south almost to Bundaberg. And it takes up an area larger than Victoria and Tasmania combined. (Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. These massive porites corals at the Great Barrier Reef are hundreds of years old. The corals are like trees in that each year a new band is laid down in their skeletons that record their environmental histories. (Jurgen Freund / Freund Factory) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Fish of all colors swim in the Great Barrier Reef off Australia's northeastern coast. In January of 2009, Australia announced a crackdown on pollution of the Great Barrier Reef as the World Heritage-listed site comes under increasing threat from toxic chemicals and climate change. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Crimson clouds provide a beautiful backdrop during a match between Australia and England at the Sydney Cricket Ground in Sydney, Australia. (Adam Pretty / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is an iconic landmark in Australia's most populous state of New South Wales, with a population in excess of 7million people, is shown in this photo taken on May 26, 2009. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Sydney Opera House is easily one of Australia's most recognizable landmarks. The buiilding, on Bennelong Point in Sydney Harbor, is a multi-venue performing arts center and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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