Lockdown has seen a plethora of programme repeats – multiple comedy series and drama box sets, wildlife programmes, Jane McDonald’s cruises, re reruns of significant sporting events and of course the likes of Michael Portillo, Michael Palin, Chris Tarrant and Tony Robinson taking exotic and intriguing rail journeys worldwide.
It’s probably true that you always want what you can’t have and so my curiosity and interest has been raised by this form of travel and currently to travel as far away as possible (albeit currently impossible!)
So I got to exploring my next bucket list trip in AUSTRALASIA……
Australia is a huge country and one of the best ways to appreciate its vastness and diversity is to cross it at ground level by train and in comfort. The same can be said for New Zealand where trains take you past scenery that can’t always be seen from the road and would be significantly missed by air travel.
In Australia long distance and regional rail is operated on a state by state basis by one of four companies. The network consists of over 22,400 miles of track. The (primarily) tourist cross country routes described below, are all operated by Journey Beyond.
The Ghan is a three-night, 1,850 mile train ride from Darwin to Adelaide, travelling weekly from the sweltering tropics, through the red desert of Alice Springs, to the Southern Ocean.
Its name is an abbreviation of a former nickname ‘The Afghan Express’, so called in tribute to Afghan camel drivers who came to Australia in the 19th century to help colonists reach the interior of the country. Operating for over 90 years and 16- 26 coaches long, the Ghan offers scheduled excursions in Katherine and Alice Springs (or just a 4 hour stop over), along with special stops to experience either outback sunrises (travelling north) or nightcaps under the stars (southern route), included in the cost. The Platinum service includes larger cabin and ensuite space than the Gold service, as well as private transfers, access to an exclusive dining carriage with five-course meals (including local delicacies like saltwater barramundi fish and grilled kangaroo fillet) and breakfast in bed. The Gold service offers both twin and double bed options. In high season the regular (Gold) service costs from £1620 pp and the Platinum service £2155 pp. There is also some single Gold service accommodation with compact cabins (converting at night to a sleeper arrangement) and shared bathroom facilities. Drinks are complementary and during expeditions, most of the lunches are served off the train.
The Indian Pacific is one of the few truly transcontinental lines worldwide. Over 2,700 miles in duration, it includes the longest straight stretch of track in the world - 297 miles over the Nullarbor Plain. It is Australia’s longest train journey and takes 3 days to travel between Perth and Sydney (or vica versa), with a weekly schedule. Leaving from Sydney the train follows a route up through the Blue Mountains and Broken Hill, before calling into Adelaide for several hours (sufficient time for a city tour). It then crosses the Nullarbor Plain ('nullarbor' being Latin for 'no trees') otherwise known as the ‘Middle of Nowhere’. After dinner the train stops at the gold rush town of Kalgoorlie for 3½ hours, long enough for a walkabout and next morning rolls into Perth – a continent crossed! Twin or single rail car accommodation is available. Inclusions in prices starting from £1255 pp, are as for The Ghan (ie full board, drinks and some excursions off the train).
The Great Southern operates between Brisbane and Adelaide, in either direction, with the trip taking 3 nights. From Brisbane the train passes through the Hunter Valley, past the Great Ocean Road to Melbourne and then onto Adelaide. There is a Platinum and a Gold service and inclusions are similar to The Ghan & Indian Pacific. Prices start from £970 pp.
If time is short, The Overland is an 11 hour daytime journey, which runs twice weekly between Melbourne and Adelaide. It was originally an overnight service, but running during the day allows travellers to take in the dramatic landscape of Southern Australia.
Travel companies like Railbookers build tours round the train trips above. For example, you could stay a few days pre train in Perth and post train in Sydney (accommodation and sightseeing excursions included in both cities) and then take The Indian Pacific cross country, thereby allowing you to immerse yourself in some of Australia’s vast natural diversity. A 2 night stay in Perth with the train trip and 3 nights at the end in Sydney would cost £3110 pp (excluding international flights in February 2021).
Great Rail Journeys offer even more flexibility with their tailor made holiday options – so you can do exactly what you want to do, where and when!
Why not combine a rail trip across Australia with a circumnavigation of the continent by sea?
Some cruise itineraries mimic the routes of the Great Southern and the Overland, but obviously by sea and over 4 or 5 nights (Brisbane to Adelaide and Melbourne to Adelaide) and there are 10 or 11 night cruises traveling from Perth via Adelaide to Sydney (mimicking the Indian Pacific), eg. Sea Princess on 10.2.21 : Perth – Margaret River – Adelaide –Albany – Adelaide – Melbourne – Burnie –Hobart – Sydney, from £1234 pp for an inside cabin, cruise only.
A circumnavigation of Australia is more difficult by land, but by sea could look like this - Sea Princess – 21.2.21 (28 nights) : Sydney – Hobart – Burnie – Melbourne – Adelaide – Albany – Margaret River – Perth – Broome – Kimberley Coast (scenic cruising) – Darwin – Cairns – Alotau –Brisbane – Sydney, from £3779 pp for an inside cabin.
It could also be argued that a cruise is a better way to see and experience the Great Barrier Reef with 4 night cruises sailing round trips from Brisbane to Airlie Beach, up the Gold Coast or 10 night durations travelling as far north as Cairns (eg. Sea Princess on 19.3.21: Brisbane – Sydney – Airlie Beach – Cairns – Port Douglas –Willis Island – Brisbane, from £999 pp for an inside cabin, cruise only).
Cruises like Sea Princess’ circumnavigation (above) and Sapphire Princess on 29.3.21 (Sydney – Brisbane – Cairns –Alotau –Darwin – scenic cruising Kimberley coast – Broome – Geraldton – Perth) offer a brief glimpse of the Kimberley’s – Western Australia’s sparsely populated and wild northern region (three times as large as England), that is fast becoming the new ‘expedition cruise’ destination of the world. It is a vast, remote area of spectacular limestone gorges and their resultant waterfalls, unique ochre coloured rock formations hiding ancient Aboriginal rock art paintings and giant boab trees. It is also home to salties (saltwater crocodiles that grow up to 20’ long). Whilst Gibb River Road runs overland for 400 miles through the area, parts of the Kimberley’s are so remote that they are only penetrable by sea. Small expedition ships carrying from 12 – 200 passengers with zodiac inflatables to allow a closer inspection of the geology within narrow waterways, offer the experience of a lifetime in this area of the world.
Cruises are typically of 10 nights duration and depart from Broome, Wyndham or Darwin. The cruising season in the Kimberley’s runs from April to October, with April and May possibly being the best time to visit as the waterfalls are in full flow, after the rainy season.
Most expedition cruises have a wide variety of experts on board allowing you to make the most of their ornithological, photographic and ethnological knowledge. For instance, Silver Explorer with 144 guests, is sailing a 10 night itinerary on 3rd August 2021, visiting features like the Montgomery Reef (a spectacular coral reef 9 miles inland, where the land appears to rise majestically out of the water at certain times of the day due to mammoth tidal streams – a bit like the Severn bore, but better), the 25 storey high George Falls and the Bungle Bungle Range of hundreds of dome shaped rock formations seemingly rising from the earth and up to 820’ high. Prices start at £8460 pp for a suite with portholes, cruise only.
Other companies offering expedition cruising in the Kimberley’s include Noble Caledonia (Island Sky) and Ponant who offer 10 night cruises (as above) and then occasional 13 night itineraries in conjunction with National Geographic. So some serious expedition and research manpower on board! Closer to home, Coral Expeditions is an Australian expedition cruise company who operate 3 small ships. Offering a cruise and land based tour, APT’s 15 night Grand Kimberley Coast includes 9 nights on Island Sky travelling between Broome and Perth.
New Zealand’s rail network was initially developed to deliver imported freight from seaports to the rest of the country. Today this involves the movement of 99.5% of all freight and is still the main focus for the rail system. There are a few long distanced passenger routes on both islands which are mainly aimed at tourists, none of which include overnight travel.
However, much of New Zealand’s intercity travel between places like Auckland, Hamilton, Christchurch or Greymouth is carried out by scenic coach and bus services.
Long distance train journeys include The Tranzalpine, a passenger train running on South Island, east to west, between Christchurch and Greymouth. The journey is 139 miles one way, takes 4 hours 50 minutes, with 9 stops and runs daily in each direction. Since 1987 it has been heavily geared towards tourist travel and only has one class of accommodation, but you can choose to sit in forward facing reclining seats, at tables of four or in the open sided viewing carriage. The scenery matches that of other iconic rail journeys in the world with 16 tunnels and 4 viaducts (most impressive is the Staircase Viaduct which is 246’ high). Prices start at £99 pp one way.
There is also a seasonal rail service (it doesn’t run in winter) The Coastal Pacific, which runs daily from Christchurch to Picton, offering dramatic seascapes and lush mountain vistas as well as the opportunity to break your journey at Kaikoura for a spot of whale watching or swimming with dolphins. The train also connects in Picton with the ferries at Cook Strait and a passage to Wellington on North Island.
The Capital Connection between Wellington and Palmerston North is more of a regional service and operates Monday to Friday only.
The major route on North Island though is The Northern Explorer which runs between Auckland and Wellington. It is a 423 mile, 11 hour journey across the interior of the island and its five distinct geographical regions. Travel past spectacular coastlines, snow capped mountains, volcanoes, lush farmland and scrubby bush, as well as engineering feats like the historic North Island Main Trunk Railway and the Raurimu Spiral. The train has a viewing carriage and a café carriage to buy refreshments and the seats are similar to those on The Tranzalpine. The carriages have large panoramic side and roof windows. Prices start from £90 pp and the service operates in alternate directions on different days.
Companies like Great Rail Journeys offer escorted tours in New Zealand that incorporate several of the iconic journeys described above – as well as trips on Vintage and Gorge railways. Not just for train buffs, a 21 day tour starting from £4995 pp (in 2021) visits both islands and dips into Maori culture and wine tasting as well.
Similarly, APT Luxury Southern Tourer (Christchurch return, featuring the Tranzalpine) = £2995 pp for 9 nights, excluding international flights, in January 2021.
Of course not even trains can reach right down into Fjordland National Park, so for a complete New Zealand geological experience, why not add on a circumnavigation of New Zealand from Australia. Most cruises sail during the Antipodean summer. There are a variety of options ranging from 10 – 14 night round trips from Sydney, Brisbane or Adelaide, through 10 or 11 night one way itineraries (Sydney to Auckland or vica versa) to more in depth itineraries incorporating late and overnight stays. Cruise lines including Princess, Holland America, Celebrity, and Royal Caribbean, as well as more luxury cruise lines which also position ships in Australasia for a season of cruises.
Sydney – Fjordland National Park (scenic cruising) –Dunedin – Christchurch – Wellington (overnight) –Picton (overnight) – New Plymouth (overnight) – Auckland.
On 13th January 2021, 14 nights, cruise only prices start at £1949 pp for an inside cabin.
Celebrity’s Solstice : Sydney – Eden - Fjordland National Park (scenic cruising) –Dunedin – Christchurch ––Picton –Wellington – Tauranga - Auckland.
On 14th January 2021, 11 nights, cruise only prices start at £1079 pp for an inside cabin.
Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas : Sydney – Wellington – Picton – Christchurch – Dunedin - Fjordland National Park (scenic cruising) – Sydney.
On 28th January 2021, 10 nights, cruise only prices start at £842 pp for an inside cabin.
Silversea’s Silver Muse : Auckland –Tauranga - Wellington – Nelson – Picton –Kaikoura – Akaroa – Dunedin –Stewart Island - Fjordland National Park (Scenic cruising) –Hobart – Melbourne
On 2nd February 2021, 14 nights, cruise only prices start at £7400 pp for a vista suite.
Azamara’s Azamara Pursuit: Auckland – Bay of Islands – Tauranga – Napier –Wellington – Nelson – Picton –Christchurch – Dunedin –Fjordland National Park (Scenic cruising) –Hobart – Melbourne – Sydney (overnight)
>On 6th February 2021, 17 nights, cruise only prices start at £3558 pp for an inside cabin.
Farewell Australasia – come back soon for another continent’s worth of cruises and rail journeys!