FOR YEARS I've been a devotee of train travel.
It started in the days of steam locomotives when, at the age of 10, I went on a school trip from Sydney to Cairns which took us three days and two nights of sitting up, not much sleep and blackened faces from the soot.
How things have changed in the diesel electric era.
I've tried the Orient Express from London to Venice, tuxedo and all. I've ridden the rails across China, Mongolia and Russia on the Trans Siberian.
And of course the Shinkansen, the Japanese bullet trains.
But in many ways the most enjoyable of all was a recent trip on the Indian Pacific from Sydney to Adelaide and Perth.
Like its sister service The Ghan from Darwin to Adelaide, the Indian Pacific brings the vastness of Australia to your consciousness in a way that simply can't be matched by air travel.
For four days and three nights the seemingly endless vistas unfold before your eyes and if you thought this would get terribly boring, you'd be wrong.
I took a book and managed to get through one chapter as well as the occasional nap...but there was always the thought that I'd miss something if I slept during daytime.
The sight of prancing emus was enough to capture the attention and wish for more.
There's the constant temptation to leave your cosy Gold Class cabin (yes, they're small but they do have ensuite bathrooms) and hit the lounge/bar for a complimentary cappuccino, drink or snack and a bit of socialising.
We met people from Israel, Malta, UK, Ireland, the USA, China and Japan plus, naturally, many retirees dipping into their super or spending the kids' inheritance.
A motley crew, you might say, but the air of conviviality was assisted greatly by the all-inclusive open bar policy.
Meal times on a train journey are a big event. This is certainly the case on the Indian Pacific where a team of chefs create extraordinary cuisine in the smallest of kitchens...for example a top-class Beef Wellington; poached barramundi; a quinoa and roasted veg salad; a tasty frittata or poached egg on rosti for breakfast; desserts like quandong pie, strawberry trifle or even bread and butter pudding.
And an excellent wine selection.
The off-train inclusions are equally impressive, with options such as tours of Broken Hill including the Living Desert Sculpture Park or the Pro Hart Gallery.
In Adelaide there are dinner options in the city, the Barossa Valley or the pretty village of Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills...we chose the latter and were treated to an evening of German culture with an Oktoberfest-like, thigh-slapping performance by the local people in their lederhosen.
And a beer or two.
The Nullarbor Plain occupies a whole day and night of travel and is almost mesmerising because of its scale.
On the final evening we hit a remote place called Rawlinna (population four) for a dinner under the stars, at long tables set up on the deserted platform with a roast lamb w/veg feast magically appearing from the train's kitchens.
The train itself is not exactly bullet-like.
In fact the average speed over 4352 km is just 85 km/h with a top speed of just 115 km/h. This is not a means to get from A to B (or S to P), but an Aussie experience that brings the word "iconic" to mind... clichéd as it is, there's no other way to describe the Indian Pacific or for that matter, The Ghan.
They bring the Wide Brown Land to your window while you sit back and enjoy the wonder of it all.