Spots of Time

June 03, 2003

Slow And Steady Wins The Race

The only thing visible from the windows is the reflection of the inside of the train and its passengers. The motion is noticeable, with a vibration you can feel coming up from the tracks, through your shoes, up through the seat, and radiating into your spine. It is just past 7 p.m. yet many passengers have curled up to sleep - the rocking motion of the train lulling them to dreamland. Everyone's body clock is shutting down with the setting of the sun and the knowledge that our journey will be a long one.

Train travel has always held some kind of romance for me - and I know I am not alone in this feeling. I'm not sure why - my experience with train travel has been limited - I never even did the European rail pass experience. Maybe it is old movies or maybe it is the foreignness of the form of travel that appeals to me. Either way, I knew before arriving in Australia that I would travel by train whenever possible.

I first heard about Australia's rail system by reading Bill Bryson's book about Australia, "In a Sunburned Country" (or "Down Under," depending upon its country of publication). Upon arrival I found that while train travel was possible throughout much of the eastern half of the country, the only really efficient trains were those three that traveled the southern half of the continent. Packaged together as the Great Southern Railway Pass, a "backpacker" could purchase a 6 month pass for unlimited travel on either The Ghan, The Overland or The Indian Pacific for $450 Australian dollars. Done deal.

My rail adventure started when Lindsay, Alex and I left Sydney on The Indian Pacific, traveling west to Adelaide, Australia's fourth largest town. The journey was 25 hours - for us. However, The Indian Pacific's route spans the continent of Australia - from Sydney through Adelaide to Perth, located on the country's western coast. The Web site boasts it to be "one of the world's longest and greatest train journeys." The total distance from Sydney to Perth - 4352 km. Needless to say, this was not a minor undertaking. Though we had originally planned to do the entire distance in one trip, the timing of our 10 day Outback adventure tour (which left from Adelaide), required that we break up the journey. In retrospect we would be patting ourselves on the back for this decision.

Our travel companion was Nigel, a tall, blond Canadian that distinguished himself by being one of only a handful of Canadian travelers I have EVER met that didn't travel with a Canadian flag prominently displayed on his pack. We liked him immediately. His impressions of us were a little more vague. Throughout the trip he quietly studied our group with his intense blue eyes and I could see him alternate between mild amusement and slight fear at the thought of 25 hours with three slightly wacky Americans. Nigel, more adventurous (or crazy?) than the three of us, was traveling the full 4300+ kilometers in one trip - more than 60 hours on a train traveling solo. I was impressed and worried about him all at once.

Bill Bryson traveled and wrote about his experience from the comfort of the first class sleeper cabins. Our group did not have this luxury. We were traveling via Red Kangaroo Daynighter seats - reclining airplane style seats - though slightly wider. Though the booking agent had said the train was completely full, we left Sydney with only about 50% of our carriage's seats taken. This was a blessing as it allowed us to commander two seats each, and, by turning the seats around to face either other, create our own little "beds" - Nigel and I on one side and Alex and Lindsay across the aisle from us. Following Alex's overnight long-distance bus travel experience, we all took a sleeping pill to help us sleep through the night. A huge help - even coming from this pill-commitment phobic individual.

Speed is not the main benefit of train travel in Australia. Alex, who had traveled on many a European "speed" train was shocked at how slow the train was traveling, even after it was far outside the Sydney station. "I think that guy in his wheelchair out there is beating us," Alex said. "And look, a child learning to walk is moving fast than we are!" She was exaggerating - but only a little bit. If speed is your main priority, then traveling by air is the way to go. However, if you aren't as concerned about the destination, I highly recommend train travel - and this is why.

Lindsay and Alex had been traveling for two weeks before they met up with me in Sydney and were consequently relaxed, fun and just the slightest big insane. I had been working on a major deadline for the past month and was stressed, still thinking about work and decidedly unfun. If we had flown directly to Adelaide (a flight time of about 2 hours) I would have arrived as stressed as when I left Sydney. However by traveling slowly through the countryside, I was allowed time to slowly say goodbye to my Sydney work life and embrace the upcoming 6 weeks of travel and adventure - without the usual air travel whiplash. Traveling by land has a grounding affect on you - no pun intended.

(I must stop here to say that the following information - like much of what I learn, sticks in my head with no context whatsoever - as easily attributed to Cosmopolitan, The New York Times or a random conversation with a passenger on a bus. I only mention its enigmatic origin as a desperate attempt to avoid any kind of charges of plagiarism in case I've actually taken it from a travel book or a quote by a famous writer. So, if you are my source, know my source or have read my source - please let me know. Thanks.)

I once heard/read/was told that a certain traveler/individual/writer only traveled by ground and only by day because slower travel allowed you the benefits of a constant uninterrupted flow of destination to destination - allowing one to get accustomed to the leaving of one place and arrival at another without the jarring reality that comes from a relatively quick plane ride or overnight journey. Now, while I realize this is not an option that most of us have due to time constraints, huge distances or barriers - such as say, the Pacific Ocean - the idea of what this individual said stuck with me.

While long-distance train travel is not exactly staying true to this individual's theory, it is much closer than jumping on a plane to your next destination. The 25 hours on the train allowed me time to chill out, let go of the work world, watch the sun set, listen to Alex and Lindsay's stories from the past two weeks, read up on Adelaide, write in my journal, meet and actually talk to an interesting traveler, sleep relatively well, and wake up to the sun rising. All in all, a rather pleasant experience.
Though I know even my leisurely long-term travel schedule won't allow for this type of travel in all circumstances, if I have the option, slow and steady definitely appeals to me. To quote another random mysterious source - it's the journey, not the destination.