Riding the rails in search of Australia’s mining past
by Matthew Beattie
The Indian Pacific railroad is a 2,704 mile (4,352 kilometer) ribbon of steel between Perth on Australia’s west coast and Sydney in the east. Second only to the Trans-Siberian in length, it takes in three states and passes through some of Australia’s most spectacular – and iconic – scenery. It is the perfect way of discovering this unique country and exploring its colorful mining past.
Australia is a land on an epic scale. To illustrate this, consider the famous Anna Creek Cattle Station in the state of South Australia. It covers 9,412 square miles (23,677 square kilometers) and is larger than the entire state of Israel. Australia is both an island and a continent and, as a result, distances are on a continental scale. This can make traveling between destinations feel like an exercise in endurance – especially if you are venturing into the country’s arid and remote interior in search of its mining heritage. Beyond the temperate “Boomerang Coast” of southeastern Australia, towns and cities can be separated by hundreds of miles of inhospitable outback.
A kangaroo pauses among rows of vines near Adelaide, South Australia. The fertile soil and gentle climate around Adelaide make it perfect wine country. (Photo: Great Southern Rail)
Let the train take the strain
So why not turn the journey into a destination in its own right? Inaugurated in 1970 with the completion of the first unbroken coast-to-coast standard-gauge track, the Indian Pacific is a relative newcomer. However, it has earned a reputation as one of the world’s finest transcontinental railroads. On its four-day, 2,704 mile journey between Perth and Sydney, the Indian Pacific crosses a spectacular landscape of contrasts: rolling pastures and vineyards, the arid Nullarbor Plain and the stunning Blue Mountains. It also passes through some of the most mineral-rich territory on Earth, making it the perfect transport for exploring Australia’s mining heritage.
Luxury on rails
The Indian Pacific begins its epic journey at East Perth station, just in time for morning coffee. Step aboard and settle into your comfortable private cabin. Afterwards, enjoy a hot drink while taking in the ever-changing view from your window. As you leave Perth and the Indian Ocean behind you, the city suburbs give way to the pastoral beauty and rolling hills of the Avon Valley. At some point – probably while you are washing down a gourmet lunch with a glass of local wine in one of the onboard restaurants – verdant hills give way to vast wheat fields that are more typical of the American Midwest.
The landscape takes on the dusty red hues of the Australian desert, as the Indian Pacific enters the Goldfields region of Western Australia and nears its first stop, Kalgoorlie. Founded in 1893, Kalgoorlie is an outback town built on gold. Quite literally: it sits on the edge of Australia’s largest goldfield. The story goes that three prospectors – Patrick Hannon, Tom Flanagan and Dan Shea – were traveling to Mount Youle when one of their horses lost a shoe. During their unscheduled stop, they discovered that the local geology hinted at the presence of gold, so they decided to stay to investigate. It was a wise decision. Today, even after more than a century of mining, the town they founded is still producing gold in impressive quantities.
View into the interior of the Super Pit gold mine in Karlgoorlie, Western Australia. At 3.5 kilometers in length, 1.5 kilometers wide and more than 600 meters deep, it was Australia’s largest opencast mine until 2016. It has since been overtaken by the Newmont Boddington gold mine, which is also Western Australia.
From rolling hills to mountain ranges and deserts, the Indian Pacific passes through some of Australia’s most stunning scenery. (Photo: Great Southern Rail)
With a population of 30,000, Kalgoorlie is the largest outback town in Australia, home to historic architecture and diverting museums. Particularly worthy of a visit is Hannans North Tourist Mine, which takes visitors on a historical journey from the lawless camps of the 19th and 20th Century Gold Rush to the titanic machinery of modern Australian mining. You can even have a go at panning for gold yourself.
A treeless wilderness
Leaving Kalgoorlie behind, the Indian Pacific begins the longest leg of its journey: the Nullarbor Plain. It also enters the world’s longest stretch of straight track, 297 miles (478 kilometers) without the slightest curve or deviation. “Nullarbor” is derived from the Latin word for “no trees”. It is an apt name for the murderously hot, treeless vista that rolls out before you.
You awake the next morning to the rolling countryside of South Australia, as you near the state’s vibrant capital city of Adelaide. With its world-class museums and cultural attractions, Adelaide is truly a destination in its own right. Take an optional morning tour of the city before returning to the train or linger for a few days and discover the nearby Barossa region and its famous wines: a great way of washing away the dust of the outback.
Broken Hill and the red desert
The evening sun setting over Merty Merty, Flinders Ranges, South Australia. (Photo: Tourism Australia
The Indian Pacific leaves Adelaide behind for the desert once again, as it embarks on the next stage of its journey. Gone are the green pastures, to be replaced by the dusty, red landscape of a Mad Max movie and every Australian beer commercial ever made. There is just time to enjoy another delicious lunch on board, before the train pulls into Broken Hill.
Broken Hill’s mining history began in 1883, when a Portuguese-German boundary rider (or fence tender) called Charles Rasp discovered what he thought was a lode of tin. In reality, what he found was one of the most valuable deposits of silver in Australia. By 1907, Broken Hill had earned the nickname “Silver City” and had grown to become the second largest town in New South Wales after Sydney, with a population of 30,000. It gave rise to the Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP) – which was to become Australia’s richest company.
Artists and flying doctors
Today, Broken Hill is rather smaller; however, its history is recognized through its status as Australia’s first Heritage Listed City. Although mining is still important, the town has also become a magnet for artists, who are inspired by the beauty of the landscape and the unique quality of the light. Home to an art trail, museums and genteel architecture, Broken Hill is full of surprises and a lovely place to explore. Discover the town’s mining past with a visit to one of its many mining museums. Also a great place to explore is the Bruce Langford Visitors’ Center – a permanent museum dedicated to the Royal Flying Doctors service.
The Blue Mountains and Sydney
The final leg of your transcontinental journey is arguably also one of the most spectacular. The Indian Pacific departs Broken Hill, bound for the stunning Blue Mountains and Sydney in the morning. As you enjoy your final evening meal on board and watch the sun set over the desert, it is hard not to be impressed by the grit and determination of those early pioneers who set out into Australia’s unforgiving interior in search of their fortunes. Some – like the founders of Kalgoorlie and Broken Hill – were successful. Many others had very different experiences. However, without them, Australia would not be the fascinating place it is today.
Adelaide is the second stop on your epic Indian Pacific journey across Australia. The state capital of Australia, Adelaide is home to numerous excellent museums and a thriving arts scene. (Photo: South Australian Tourism Commission)