In search of Australia. Newcomers sample Sydney and the outback. From the windows of the Indian- Pacific, a vast continent unfolds

THERE'S an old Kurt Weill song, I believe, with lyrics about its taking ``a long, long time from May to December.'' It doesn't take quite that long to cross Australia, from Sydney to Perth, by train; it only seems that way.

We boarded the 12-car Indian-Pacific on a rainy afternoon, as the engine huffed and hissed anxiously at the Sydney station. The name Indian-Pacific is derived from the two oceans this line of tracks connects.

``Let me know how it goes,'' an Australian friend remarked with some doubt, as we squeezed my bulky luggage through the narrow passages and stuffed it into First-Class Sleeping Berth 01, Car No.2. ``This is not the kind of thing we do very well, so I'd like to hear how it goes,'' he said with a wave.

Having experienced this remarkable country from 75 feet under the Great Barrier Reef, 200 feet above it in a hot-air balloon, astride a camel in the outback, and aboard a Land-Rover through the forests in Tasmania, I was looking forward to just sitting back and watching this fascinating continent unfold before me.

Well, for my distant friend in Sydney, here's how it went:

Punctually, at 3:15 o'clock that Thursday afternoon, the whistle gave out a few toots; the cars lurched and squealed; and we inched out of the station. Some 3,961 kilometers (2,460 miles) of parallel iron track stretched before us.

``Please come to the dining car and sign up for first or second seating,'' came the announcement over the intercom, as I yanked fruitlessly on the handle of my hide-away bunk. With the idea that the second seating would be less rushed and allow an extra hour's sleep before breakfast, I decided on it. That choice made, I returned to my single ``roomette,'' which turned out to be, upon closer inspection, a misnomer. ``Closette'' would be more accurate.

Somewhere tucked away within this 4-by-5-foot cubicle was a pull-down stainless commode with drinking fountain, a pop-down basin, a toilet, the pull-down bed, two mirrors, three lights, an 8-inch-wide closet, a 4-foot-long window, a guest stool, and a flip-up table that, according to the brochure, is ``useful to hold such things as a glass, book, or cigarettes.'' Not all at once, mind you.

``If you get out of your cabin I'll get the bed down for you, mate,'' offered a cheery conductor. That accomplished, the hour left before dinner was enough time to relax and get to know a few of the passengers.

Two darling little elderly gray-haired sisters in matching blue pantsuits were in an adjacent ``twinette.'' They sat happily side by side, knitting a granny-square afghan. They worked steadily, with Penelope-like patience. ``No need to pay any attention to color,'' one explained. ``You just knit what you have. They always come out nicely, and go with any d'ecor.'' The other sister added, ``You can talk and look out the window at the same time and not lose your place.

The lounge car, in rather depressing tones of brown, black, and beige with faded mustard-yellow curtains, was the ``social center'' of the train. It included a wet bar, a few small tables, a mini-Yahama organ, and a TV for watching video movies. Reading matter consisted of a few dogeared copies of ``Network: Railways of Australia Quarterly.''

The amazing Yahama organ never cooled off, as passengers delighted in poking out tunes with one finger, much to their own amazement. ``Oh, my word,'' gasped one woman, who pulled the ``rumba'' and ``loud'' buttons simultaneously. ``Did I do that? I thought it was the train!''

Enough show biz - dinner is served.

Waiters in polyester burgundy vests, blue shirts, bow ties, and black pants hustled us into smooth-worn Naugahyde bench seats. Listed under ``Appetizer'' was ``Grapefruit Cocktail.'' Under ``Entree'' was ``Fillet of Flounder Dugl'er'e.'' ``Hawaiian Steak'' and ``Sirloin of Beef With Horseradish'' were listed under ``Joints.'' ``Golden Sponge Pudding and Custard Sauce'' or ``Pears Belle H'el'ene'' were the dessert choices, and a ``Savory of Sardines Parmesan'' completed the interesting selection.

Back to the lounge to watch the setting sun brush wisps of gray clouds with brilliant shades of Day-Glo orange and pink. Background music for this festive evening was provided by an eight-year-old towhead at the mighty Yamaha. With undaunted fortitude he regaled his captive audience with ``Waltzing Matilda'' to the beat of a cha-cha. This encouraged most of us to turn in early.

Once you've figured out the sleeping arrangements and where light switches are hidden, the gentle sway of the train as it clicks along sends you to dreamland as effectively as a lullaby.

A rap on the cabin at 7 a.m. and a cup of hot tea slipped inside by the conductor made for a civilized way of being awakened. With the bed folded back into the wall, there was just enough space to dress. Then I took a few minutes to peruse the landscape for signs of life. Emus (five-foot, flightless cousins of the ostrich) sped off in all directions at 30 miles an hour as we roared across the cinnamon-colored desert. I counted 21 kangaroos and five emus one morning before breakfast.

Occasional stops gave us a look at little two-dog towns, dotted between mulga scrub, blue saltbush, and silver and salmon gum trees. Somewhere beyond the horizon were cattle stations larger than some countries.

Pulling into Port Pirie at 3:30 Friday afternoon, we made an hour-and-a-half stopover. Several passengers left to board the Blue Bird Train heading southeast to Melbourne and Adelaide. Others joined us on the westbound trip to Perth. A huge billboard on the platform proudly proclaimed the interesting places in this town of 17,000: the world's largest smelting works; second-busiest seaport in Australia; modern grain silos; modern abattoirs; second-longest railroad station in Australia. So much to see, so little time.

A short stop in Port Augusta that evening was long enough to stretch our legs and try a Slush Puppie - a snow-cone topped with apple, raspberry, or cola syrup. A young, soft-spoken local aborigine, licking a cola Slush Puppie, shared his recipe for perfect roast kangaroo.

Back on board, we continued across sheep-covered plains. Before reaching Kalgoorlie, we crossed the ironing-board-flat Nullarbor Plain, an enormous limestone plateau that was the floor of a prehistoric sea. It supports the longest stretch of straight railroad track in the world. We arrived in Perth's shiny new train station at 7 a.m. on Sunday, 3 days after leaving Sydney.

And so I must confess to my friend in Sydney that my feelings after this sojourn are somewhat mixed. The ambiance of the train could be brightened considerably by a change of color scheme, new upholstery, and curtains. And the generally abysmal food could be improved.

But would I recommend this train? Yes, for a short trip from, say, Sydney to Port Pirie. And yes again, provided you love trains, have gobs of time, and don't mind close quarters.

As most passengers are pensioners, teen-agers and toddlers could get bored quickly. Still, this trip is the best way to absorb the vastness of this continent. And it sure beats bouncing through the outback by camel.

If you go

Make reservations well in advance. A one-way ticket costs about $500 (US) for a single, first-class roomette. Both economy and first-class tickets include all meals.

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