10 things in Australia you can only experience by train

  

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It's a big country, and there's no better way of experiencing its vastness than by train. Australia is blessed with two transcontinental rail journeys: the Indian Pacific which runs east-west to link Sydney with Perth; and The Ghan which runs north-south between Adelaide and Darwin. Along these two routes, and others, there's an array of unique experiences.

1. Travel along an unbending line

The railway between Adelaide and Perth contains a section with a unique attribute: at 478km long without a single bend, it's the longest dead-straight stretch of track in the world. Not only does the Indian Pacific travel along this unwavering steel line through the desert, it actually stops along its length at the tiny settlement of Cook. Once a thriving town servicing the railway, it's now a fascinating virtual ghost town with shuttered hospitals and houses, and old corrugated iron jail cells.

2. Cross a continent by rail from north to south (or vice versa)

Australia has the only train service that crosses a continent from north to south. The Trans-Siberian Express and The Canadian are mighty railways that head east and west, but only The Ghan links north and south. This means, for one thing, that the time zone for the entire Adelaide-Darwin journey stays the same in winter, and only varies by an hour in summer. Meanwhile, a mighty land passes by your window as you progress through a range of climates: from Mediterranean in the south through desert in the centre, to the tropics of the Top End.

3. View the desert with no roads in sight

Whether heading east or west aboard the Indian Pacific, you'll spend a lot of time looking at the Nullarbor Plain. The world's largest exposure of limestone bedrock, it's a vast flat area with virtually no trees. At first glance this landscape seems a featureless desert, but look harder and you'll spot numerous low shrubs such as bluebush and saltbush growing in the harsh red soil. Watching it slide by your train window, out of sight of the highway, is a strangely soothing experience.

4. See the stars from Outback rails

On the second night of its southbound journey from Darwin to Adelaide, The Ghan halts at the tiny Outback siding of Manguri in South Australia. It's 42km from here to the nearest sizeable settlement, the famous opal mining town of Coober Pedy, so the night sky is completely undisturbed by artificial light. Passengers alight for a stargazing session to view the astronomical splendour above, while sipping a nightcap. It's astronomy with an Outback twist.

5. Catch a train to the wine

Most people visiting the wineries of South Australia's famous Barossa Valley do so by car or tour bus, as there are no regular passenger rail services to the area. On the westbound Indian Pacific however, passengers can leave the train at the small town of Two Wells in order to join a coach tour of the popular wine-making region. Wine tastings are followed by a walk through the town of Tanunda, before passengers return to the rails. Just think of the train driver as your designated driver.

6. Start your journey in style at a grand station

Most lengthy journeys in Australia are taken on a plane, but flying has none of the romance of rail. There's plenty of glamour in turning up for a long distance train departure at Sydney's Central Station, a grand sandstone terminal which opened in 1906. Its soaring 85 metre high clock tower speaks of an era when rail travel was king, and its domed concourse and terrazzo tiling still convey the appeal of long-distance train travel.

7. Swap train tracks for camel tracks

There's nothing more suited for travel through the deserts of the Northern Territory than The Ghan – unless it's a camel. Passengers aboard The Ghan have an option of a camel excursion once the train reaches Alice Springs, in the heart of Australia. From the Pyndan Camel Tracks yards, riders head to White Gums Station past mulga and ironbark trees, to end up at a sightseeing point with views across the MacDonnell Ranges. Bumping along on a camel may not be as fast as taking the train – but it's as memorable.

8. Dine in motion with ever-changing scenery

You can munch on unappealing fast food while stuck on a bus, but where can you dine in a stylish mobile restaurant with tablecloths and wine glasses? On a train. The Queen Adelaide restaurant carriage on The Ghan and Indian Pacific serves three meals a day, while passing impressive scenery. There's an emphasis in the menu on Australian ingredients, including such items as kangaroo, saltbush and wild rosella flower. Try ordering that on a coach.

9. Arrive by rail for a drink with Kalgoorlie locals

When the Indian Pacific stops at Kalgoorlie, Western Australia on its eastbound journey to Sydney, many passengers join a tour of the gigantic Super Pit open mine. If you're not joining the tour though, there's enough time to walk into the centre of the gold mining city and visit one of its historic hotels. There's no experience quite like sinking a cold one at the grand old Exchange Hotel on Hannan Street, surrounded by locals, before walking back and heading onward into the night by train.

10. See nature up close

If you drive a car across this wide brown land, there's always a road in sight and probably other traffic. Take a train, and you can be transported through areas four-wheeled vehicles will never reach. Australia's rail network takes trains along winding routes through mountain passes; through the heart of empty deserts; and along beautiful coastal corridors.

There's always something to see from a train window, and you feel immersed in the scene rather than being separate from it. And it's not just greenery out there – keep an eye out and you may well be rewarded with a sighting of the animals featured on Australia's coat of arms: the kangaroo and emu. Maybe even a wombat, if you're lucky.

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