The Australians are an urbanised lot. The majority of their land (the bare bit, the wild bit, the difficult bit) lies beyond the living space of 85 per cent of the population - and with good reason. It's a rough and dangerous place. And it's vast.
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But the Aussies are also very sensible. Mercifully, they provide an excellent means to explore their massive frying-pan of a continent in comfort. The Outback may represent the equivalent of outer space, a hot moon of Venus, but we were going to take a rolling Sputnik - a well-equipped and serviced train, the Indian Pacific, trundling out along a track that must surely boggle the mind of any maintenance contractor. No human beings live anywhere near hundreds of kilometres of it. How do they get to it if it buckles or sinks? Unlike the Trans-Siberian express, there is no locality to this trans-Oz railway. It may be shorter, but it crosses a whole continent.
We plonked ourselves down and chatted to Tom from Wakefield.
"They all look of a certain age, don't they?" he whispered, gesturing at his fellow guests. They were indeed quite a senior complement. Tom himself was white-haired, stooped and bearded. The other guests were thinking: "I hope we don't have to sit with those two old crocks."
My cabin was fitted out in a yellowish-blonde wood with multiple cupboards and hidey holes.
"Are you going to leave me a hanger?"
"Of course." I handed Mrs Jones one hanger and then, after negotiation, a second (of the four available in our tiny wardrobe). I was looking forward to a bout of Marx Brothers slapstick when it came to getting dressed. We would be negotiating to be the sitting window-tenant, too. Otherwise: perfection. Two bunks (the top one folded away during the day), a neat little refuse door, a handy inset mirror and a door to our own private bathroom cubicle-cum-washing facility-locker.
As we left Sydney, we were winding our way past those interesting half-used suburban platforms and back gardens that litter any out-of-town track. I wanted to stay and gaze on the porches and cricket fields but we moved forward.
The Blue Mountains were satisfactorily blue, or rather a dusty green. (The long distance colour is attributed to a haze of eucalyptus oil.) Valleys dotted with trees slipped past. My wife spied a wallaby. I didn't believe her. But then I commandeered the window seat and peered into a marsupial-free dusk until my eyes ached.
The livery of the dining car was attractive and sumptuous. Etched glass, brocade banquettes, linen napery, carved bosses and a touch of brass gave a hint of 19th-century cowboy/bordello elegance. Solicitous staff offered second helpings and free drinks. Our rooms were discreetly serviced while we were absent - no heaving down of bunks by us in a swaying cabin.
I woke at 5.45am and we were already in Broken Hill. I peered out under the blind. The biggest pit of silver, lead and zinc in the world had obviously been discovered in a dirty semi-arid sort of dump, bathed in the golden light of a low sun.
As the train slid away, I wondered how long we had been in this new, red, raw landscape. We had fallen asleep amid green hills, but now we were definitely in the Outback. There is no official barrier. It's been observed that the Outback is more a state of mind than an actuality - and we hadn't even left New South Wales yet. But the dusty semi-desert and scrub reached out to the horizon on both sides.
Mrs Jones spotted another two kangaroos. I had already gone back to my book. But now I set it aside and again stared avidly into the Ned Kelly landscape, noting the lines of sage bushes, the wind-flattened hills and the absolute absence of marsupials.
Aaron, the steward, arrived to clear our breakfast table. "Did you see the family of emus?" he asked brightly. I frowned and was back gazing hopelessly into the emptiness.
The bleakness didn't last. Suddenly we were in rolling grassland again: South Australia. An isolated, grand farm stood up a white drive in a stand of trees. A sheep station's massive flocks, penned in hurdles, were awaiting the dipping moment.
As I come out of our cabin, two guys were coming down the other way, talking. I scuttled back like a crab to let them pass. "We're exploring the whole train," they said.
"Where have you come from?"
"No, I mean now."
"Oh. Up the Platinum end."
I joined my new friends to visit the posh bit.
"Of course, it's much more expensive up here," my new friend explained in "Platinum". He pulled the door open to show me a genuine room with two armchairs side by side which would transform during dinner into a couple of single beds. And, to one side, he ushered me into the ultimate luxury appurtenance - a whole bathroom.
But, you know, I wasn't envious. It was more money, but the ambience was similar in both classes - relaxed, spacious, olde-worlde luxury. I was content to be "Gold".
I quietly celebrated my birthday 12 hours out from Adelaide, in a red-earthed wilderness dotted with green bushes and spindly trees under a sharp blue sky. I didn't want more excursions or stops. I just wanted the ever-changing bush outside my window. It was like a flickering campfire: mostly the same but never quite; soothing and absorbing.
I was dismayed to think that we were already beginning our third day. But finally, it was my turn to squawk. As a birthday treat, I was granted a clear view of an emu over my breakfast bacon.
By midday, we were passing Watson Sidings on the Nullarbor, which is Latin for "no trees". This is Royal Flying Doctor territory: marvellously flat and bristling with sage. The map showed that we were crossing the very southern fringe of the continent. The rest of this blistering expanse of Outback stretched 3200km beyond my window in a northerly direction. No wonder the Australians huddle in cities, like ports on the edges of a great sea of earth.
Cook, once a railway depot but now a shed, rumbled up on the starboard side. This tiny outpost was occupied by four people, though any sense of decayed isolation was a little dissipated by 210 passengers crawling all over it taking photos.
In Rawlinna, six hours later, at our final halt, we waited on board until the crew were ready and then, in front of a peeling post office, ate a meal of lamb and sausages in the dusk.
What you need to know about Griff Rhys Jones' Australian rail adventure
Griff travelled as a guest of Journey Beyond . The Indian Pacific journey from Sydney to Perth or vice versa costs from $1955 per person.
For more about Western Australia, visit westernaustralia.com
Griff's Great Australian Rail Trip starts today on Prime, 7.30pm