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Tales of Trains: Where the Journey is the Destination

by Nora Dunn

Train travel in Vietnam.
View while leaning out of a train in Vietnam.

What is it like to ride the trains of the world? To sleep on trains? To eat dinner in fancy — and not so fancy — dining cars? How do trains differ in Europe, Australia, and Asia? And what kinds of people do you meet on the trains?

The answers to these questions can't be answered with bullet points, nor can the flavour of train travel be captured in a single page. The magic of waking up early in the morning and lying in your bed while watching the world go by can't be underestimated, nor can the quirkiness of a compelling sales pitch for toothbrushes done at full pitch at the foot of your bed be entirely understood — especially if it's in Chinese.

I have an evangelical love of trains that has been fostered since childhood. So when I started traveling full-time (in 2007), my first point of action was to travel across Canada by train. It was followed a few years later by some noteworthy long-distance train stunts, including 16,000kms of trains across and around Australia (11,000 of which was done in 11 days straight), and 25,000kms by train from Lisbon to Saigon — in 30 days.

*  *  *

The Indian Pacific: My Plan of Attack

In reflecting on my three-day adventure riding The Ghan from Darwin to Adelaide, I was surprised at how quickly the time passed. I figured that, despite my love of long-distance train travel, riding a train for 3,000kms (followed shortly thereafter by a further 1,000km from Adelaide to Melbourne and a few hundred kilometres of commuter trains after that) could devolve into a lacklustre experience.

Translation: I expected boredom.

But to my surprise and delight (and almost disappointment), my time on The Ghan flew by. Between the well-timed whistle stops in Katherine and Alice Springs and the always-lingering conversations over mealtimes, I disembarked the train with very few of my pre-determined “train projects” complete.

So this time, I created a challenge: I wanted a train trip that would give me more than enough time to do everything: to take in the vast and changing landscapes of Australia, to meet interesting characters on the train, to read, to write, to sleep, and just possibly, to experience boredom.

I actually wanted to see if it’s possible to become bored on a train.

With this (somewhat misguided) motivation in mind, I became the architect of a train journey that most people wouldn’t dream of — neither in their fantasies nor their nightmares. In fact, on announcing my itinerary to even the staff of Great Southern Rail (being people who I’d figure could best understand my passion for train travel), one girl responded initially with a blank stare indicating a lack of comprehension, then a flicker of both admiration and confusion accompanied by the comment “Boy, you really do like train travel, don’t you?”

Yes, yes I do.

My plan of attack? To take the overnight train from Melbourne to Sydney (11 hours, and 1,000kms). After catching up with Sydney friends, I would board the Indian Pacific in Sydney and ride it the 4,000kms to Perth (stopping enroute in Broken Hill, Adelaide, Cook, and Kalgoorlie). After a whopping 24-hour stop in Perth (with a whirlwind tour aided by a fellow travel writer), I would re-board the Indian Pacific and retrace the 4,000kms and four days back to Sydney to arrive in the morning, spend the day in Bondi with a friend, then board the last of my overnight trains back to Melbourne to complete a train journey that, after all is said and done, nears 11,000kms by train in 11 days.

If boredom can elude me in 11,000kms over 11 days, then I will have met my match in trains.

Nora Dunn is The Professional Hobo: a woman who sold everything she owned (including a busy financial planning practice in Canada) in 2006 to embrace her dreams of full-time travel.

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