• All aboard ‘The Indian Pacific’. (SBS)Source: SBS
Travel through Australia’s unique cultural, social and political history on the railway track that united a continent.
Kate Myers

15 Jul 2021 - 10:35 AM  UPDATED 21 Jul 2021 - 9:43 AM

The Indian Pacific is an epic railway in every sense of the word. Taking in the remotest parts of Australia, its route provides a link from west to east through the beating heart of the continent, connecting the cities of Perth and Sydney across a staggering 4352 kilometres. 

Since a transcontinental railway first commenced operation on these tracks in 1917, it has been celebrated as one of the country’s most significant engineering feats, traversing a vast and beautiful landscape from the shores of one ocean to another. While the Indian Pacific passenger service didn’t officially commence until 1970, the railway had been a carrier of stories and a tangible timeline of Australia’s complex history long before, and it is this part of its legacy that is brought to the forefront in The Indian Pacific – Australia’s Longest Train Journey

This slow documentary is loosely broken up into four chapters, each addressing the rail line’s geography and history, its impact on Indigenous life, immigrant life, early and modern Australian life, as well as the flora and fauna of the area, with the train crossing three states and over a dozen Indigenous borders.

The iconic train is the hero character through which to unpack the stories of the people and places that played a pivotal role in the building of this transcontinental track, and the communities whose lives were forever changed as a result of its construction. Director Adam Kay brings his unparalleled experience to the project, having overseen the success of SBS’s first slow documentary The Ghan. With his small team, including acclaimed producers and writers Dan Goldberg and Billy Baxter, and talented photographer Nathan Barlow, this new and exceptionally challenging venture takes Kay’s signature attention to detail to a whole new level. 

The beauty of the documentary undoubtedly lies in its ability to cover every aspect of the Indian Pacific and its sixty-five hour rail journey, from the moment of its departure out of Noongar country in the centre of Perth. Looking at it now, it’s hard to believe that Western Australia was once a failed free colony and subsequent penal settlement, and until the route was introduced, was largely disconnected from the rest of the country. As the train leaves the station bound for Kalgoorlie, it passes through the thirty-two settlements that made up the 600km of Western Australia’s Central Wheat Belt, and navigates the terrain of Whadjuk, Ballardong, Kaalamaya and Wangkatha Country, uncovering the enduring presence of an ancient culture along the way.

As the train continues through the outback of Western Australia, and reaches the edge of the Nullarbor Plain, it begins a 477.14km length of track once described by Australian astronaut Andy Thomas as ‘a fine pencil line across the desert’. The breathtaking and immersive visuals throughout the documentary, in particular the incredible aerial cinematography that locates the Indian Pacific within the expansive landscape, capture the spectacular vistas afforded by this section of the journey, the world’s longest stretch of straight railway. It was here, on these same treeless plains, that NASA’s Skylab space station crash-landed in 1979, resulting in the local council issuing a littering fine and then US President Jimmy Carter reaching out with a telephone call of apology.

Each sunset and sunrise bring with it a new adventure and as the Indian Pacific pulls into Kaurna Country, arriving at the city of Adelaide in the early hours of the morning, there is a sense of the enormity of the journey already completed. It’s the railway equivalent of a deep breath, but before too long, the train winds its way back into the centre of the driest continent’s driest state, and here the beginnings of the colony of South Australia are found. So too is the devastating upheaval it brought to Aboriginal communities already established there, and by the time the train reaches Broken Hill in far west NSW and night falls, tales of injustice, war and division weigh heavily.

As dawn arrives once again, the Indian Pacific passes through Wiradjuri Country in central west  NSW, and continues through an area of the route that was a key trade avenue for the Darug, Wiradjuri and Gundungurra tribes. A short descent from the Blue Mountains sees its arrival into Sydney, closing the final chapter of this particular odyssey.

The combination of almost fifty unique stories with the hypnotic images of a vast and desolate land is only enhanced by the glimpses offered inside the luxurious interior of the Indian Pacific. The train itself is a portal to a past often forgotten, as the locomotives continue to haul thirty carriages across the continent each week, making this a journey you definitely won’t want to miss.

The Indian Pacific – Australia’s Longest Train Journey is streaming at SBS On Demand until 17 August.

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