It's been a long time between drinks for passengers of the Indian Pacific, the famous transcontinental train that runs between Perth and Sydney. And as the beverages are included with the fares nowadays, that's a lot of missed cocktails since the service stopped running in March last year.
But now it's back. Eased pandemic restrictions have increased confidence in state borders remaining open, and the Indian Pacific is once more covering the 4352 kilometres of track linking west and east.
When it launched in 1970, this train was public transport. But nowadays it's a full-blown "rail cruise" with the fare including all meals, drinks and off-train excursions. Each of these elements is well crafted, particularly the on-board food, which often comprises ingredients from the region travelled through (camel curry, anyone?).
There are COVID-19 precautions aplenty on board, including the provision of hand sanitiser and alcohol wipes, and meal seating of passengers in travelling couples or groups only.
On the first crossing in a year, I'm travelling in Platinum Service. Gold Service, the entry-level class, provides upmarket echoes of the classic sleeper-train experience: bunk beds in en suite compartments and booth seating in dining cars, with bar car attached (there's also a Gold Single option with shared bathroom).
Platinum is a cut above. My compartment is the size of a compact hotel room, with a fold-down double bed. During the day it's set up as a sitting room, with lounge seating, footstools and a small table, connecting to a bathroom with shower. The beds are so comfortable that several of my train-mates ask the attendants to leave them down all day, for afternoon naps.
Before the train departs East Perth Terminal, we gather in the Platinum Club, our combined dining car and lounge bar. It's very elegant, with padded banquette seating at one end of the carriage giving way to dining tables and individual chairs at the other. The colour scheme is a subtle selection of cream, green and brown, anticipating the hues of the landscape ahead.
By late on the Sunday of departure we've reached Kalgoorlie, where we enjoy a city tour and watch a short theatre performance at a museum about the city's gold-rush origins.
The second day – which I nickname Desert Day – starts at Rawlinna, once a township serving the railway but now reduced to a population of three. Milling about between trestle tables, derelict buildings and the train, we're served coffee and egg and bacon sliders as we listen to tunes played by the train's resident musician.
This casual outback gathering is a worthy introduction to the Nullarbor Plain, our companion for many hours ahead. As the world's largest expanse of exposed limestone bedrock, it's utterly flat and treeless. And because the railway lies 100 kilometres north of the highway, there are few sights other than red earth scattered with grey-green shrubs. It's unearthly, but also fascinating; there's something stimulating about sipping a cocktail while gazing over that deadly void.
We're off the train again at Cook, another former railway town, in South Australia. At this point the Indian Pacific is on the world's longest stretch of dead-straight rail, 478 kilometres of it, and its ruler-straight alignment accentuates the alien surrounds. Adelaide, reached early on the third day, is a relief from the emptiness – it's green, busy, and has a choice of tours. I opt for the progressive breakfast at the city's Central Market.
Back on the train we have Broken Hill to look forward to, including art gallery visits or a drag show at the pub featured in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The remaining off-train outing, in the Blue Mountains, will come on the final morning.
Our last dinner on board includes a choice of saltbush-encrusted kangaroo loin, Hunter Valley beef eye fillet, Murray Bridge pork loin and a roasted brassicas quesadilla.
Speaking with my fellow passengers, I learn that many moved this rail cruise to the top of their bucket list when the virus prevented overseas travel, and they're happy they did.
Like me, they're glad to see the Indian Pacific back on the rails, with its fine food, tours and mesmerising scenery.
Stay & Ride
The Adnate in Perth's CBD is a new Art Series hotel, featuring acclaimed street artist Matt Adnate's work and a cool, Miami-style pool bar; artserieshotels.com.au.
Pullman Quay Grand Sydney Harbour has comfortable rooms with soothing views of ferries and the Sydney Harbour Bridge; pullmanquaygrandsydneyharbour.com.
The Indian Pacific runs weekly in each direction between Perth and Sydney. Gold Service from $1819 (single) or $2029 (twin) per person; Platinum Service from $3889 per person; journeybeyondrail.com.au.
Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Journey Beyond Rail Expeditions and Accor.