Australia is such a huge country that it seems logical to cross it by plane. But there is another option, one that becomes a memorable holiday in itself: the train. Piecing together connecting routes, it’s possible to take a great rail journey across the continent from savannah to forests to tropics, immersed in ever-changing scenery. Here’s how to do it.

The Indian Pacific train stops in a small town on the Nullarbor Plain © Matt Munro/Lonely Planet
The Indian Pacific train stops in a small town on the Nullarbor Plain © Matt Munro/Lonely Planet

Gulf Savannah to the Pacific coast

The Gulf Savannah of northwest Queensland is a fascinating region of grassland and scattered trees, sliced through by rivers flowing to the Gulf of Carpentaria. There’s more than one option here to start your epic crossing of Australia by rail.

If you want to stick to the absolute longest journey, start in western Mt Isa, one of Queensland's longest-running mining towns. Before you leave town, visit Outback at Isa, which will give you access to three great sights: the Hard Times Mine, the Isa Experience & Outback Park history museum, and the Riversleigh Fossil Centre which showcases fossils found nearby in Boodjamulla National Park.

Then jump aboard Queensland Rail’s Inlander train to the coastal city of Townsville to wander its streets lined with grand historic architecture. This 21-hour journey takes you through the open savannah to the green terrain east of the Great Dividing Range.

Make it happen

The Inlander runs twice weekly; book via Queensland Rail Travel.

The historic Gulflander tourist train has been in operation since 1889 Tim Richards/Lonely Planet
The historic Gulflander tourist train has been in operation since 1889 © Tim Richards/Lonely Planet

An alternative Gulf Savannah trip: Normanton to Cairns

A quirky alternative to the above trip is to start instead at Normanton, north of Mt Isa. This small town is the terminus of the Gulflander tourist train, otherwise known as the ‘Tin Hare’. In operation since 1889, it runs to the tiny town of Croydon along uniquely engineered tracks which defy floods. It’s possible to ride it as part of a tour which includes the Savannahlander, another historic train which will take you onward to Cairns, a town that wears its relaxed, tropical heart on its sleeve at its central Esplanade, Boardwalk & Lagoon. From Cairns, you can enjoy a spectacular return day trip through the ranges west of the city via the Kuranda Scenic Railway.

Make it happen

The Gulflander and Savannahlander both run weekly. The Kuranda Scenic Railway has daily departures. Book online.

Travel in modern comfort on the Spirit of Queensland © Tim Richards/Lonely Planet
Travel in modern comfort on the Spirit of Queensland © Tim Richards/Lonely Planet

North Queensland to Brisbane

Starting in either Cairns or Townsville, hop on the Spirit of Queensland, a shiny modern train offering a choice of sit-up seats or Railbeds – airline-style seats which convert to beds at night. Either way, you’ll have access to a seat-back entertainment system and the cafe-bar Club Car. Tracking east of the Great Dividing Range, not far from the coast, this train heads south all the way to Brisbane; taking 24 hours from Cairns, or 18 hours from Townsville.

Make it happen

The Spirit of Queensland runs five times a week; book via Queensland Rail Travel.

Brisbane to Sydney

As Queensland’s state capital and business hub, Brisbane is a lively city with plenty of options for food, drink and sightseeing. Take in the stimulating exhibits at its impressive Gallery of Modern Art, then walk to a hip West End cafe such as the Gunshop. Catch a CityCat ferry for a cheap river cruise, and end the day with a beer at the Regatta Hotel opposite the ferry terminal.

Rise early for the XPT train to Sydney, which takes 14 hours. Leaving in the dark, you’ll pass through the beautiful green Border Ranges into New South Wales as dawn is breaking. From there it’s a daytime run through native forest and regional towns, eventually nearing the Pacific coast again at Coffs Harbour, home of the iconic Big Banana. There are more impressive hills east of Barrington Tops National Park, then commuter country appears and you know you’re nearing Sydney.

Make it happen

The XPT departs daily from Brisbane to Sydney; book via NSW TrainLink.

Features - Aerial view of Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge.
Aerial view of Sydney's stunning Opera House and Harbour Bridge © Pete Seaward/Lonely Planet

Sydney to Melbourne

Sydney’s pride and joy is its beautiful harbour setting. You can enjoy it via the public transport ferries which depart regularly from Circular Quay, near the iconic Sydney Opera House and the grand Sydney Harbour Bridge. A short ferry ride takes you under the bridge to Cockatoo Island, a former prison and shipyard which is now an intriguing tourist attraction.

Once you've had a taste of Sydney, board an XPT train for the 11-hour journey to Melbourne. The train heads west to avoid the Snowy Mountains, then takes you south through the border town of Albury and across the Murray River into Victoria. If you've opted for the night journey, the sun comes up as you’re tracking through Melbourne’s northern suburbs toward the impressive Southern Cross Station in the heart of the city.

Make it happen

The XPT departs twice daily from Sydney to Melbourne; book via NSW TrainLink.

Soak up Melbourne's food and cafe culture on a brief stopover ©James Braund/Lonely Planet
Soak up Melbourne's food and cafe culture on a brief stopover © James Braund/Lonely Planet

Melbourne to Adelaide

Melbourne is Australia’s cultural and food capital. Start with a great coffee and brunch at Auction Rooms then move on to the vegan delights of Smith & Deli, or the hip modern Asian cuisine of Chin Chin. For culture, absorb top-notch Australian art (including Aboriginal works) at Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia.

Then step aboard the Overland train west to Adelaide. Launched in 1887, this was the very first intercolonial (later interstate) train in Australia. Travelling in daytime, it swings southwest from Melbourne past Victoria's second-largest city of Geelong, then follows an inland route through farmland and past the spectacular Grampians National Park, known to the local Aboriginal people as Gariwerd. Finally, it threads through the attractive green slopes of the Adelaide Hills, down to the capital of South Australia.

Make it happen

The Overland departs twice weekly from Melbourne to Adelaide; book via Great Southern Rail.

Travelling in style on The Ghan © Matt Munro/Lonely Planet
Travelling in style on the most famous of Australia's trains, The Ghan © Matt Munro/Lonely Planet

The Ghan: Adelaide to Darwin

Adelaide is proud of its food and wine. Sample the former at the excellent Central Market, then the latter via a day trip into the Barossa Valley wine region with tour operator Groovy Grape.

Then it’s time for your final train. Board The Ghan, which will convey you all the way north to Darwin in the Northern Territory on one of the world’s great rail journeys, crossing a continent and passing from a temperate climate through desert to the tropics. The journey takes 53 hours via Alice Springs to the Top End. Passengers travel either Gold Service, in en-suite cabins with berths; or Platinum, within a suite which includes a double bed. It’s not cheap, but all meals, drinks and off-train excursions are included in the fare.

This is the final stage in Australia’s longest train journey – completing a total of 8,073 km from Mt Isa to Darwin.

Make it happen

The Ghan departs weekly from Adelaide to Darwin; book via Great Southern Rail.

Features - The Indian Pacific train stops at Bathurst Railway Station in New South Wales.
Journey west from Adelaide to Perth crossing the desert on the Indian Pacific

Indian Pacific: Adelaide to Perth

You might like to substitute The Ghan with the Indian Pacific train (with the same top-notch service standards) from Adelaide to Western Australia's laid-back, cosmopolitan capital, Perth. This two-night Indian Pacific journey features a day devoted to the desert, particularly the fascinating Nullarbor Plain with its complete absence of trees. There’s nothing like sipping a cocktail while gazing out the window as nothingness slides past.

Make it happen

The Indian Pacific departs weekly from Adelaide to Perth; book via Great Southern Rail.

Tim Richards travelled by rail around Australia courtesy of Queensland Rail, NSW TrainLink, Great Southern Rail and TransWA. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

Explore related stories

Birds'-eye view of a small beach covered with umbrellas


All-inclusive adventures: 10 resorts you should consider for your next trip

Jul 22, 2019 • 6 min read