One of the world’s great railways, The Ghan turns a trek through Australia’s awesome Outback into a diverting desert cruise
It was an unseasonably hot and humid morning in April and the snake-like silver body of The Ghan spilled out of both ends of Darwin’s train station.
With a firm jolt, the bold red engine began to haul its 38 carriages away
from the platform. This was the start of The Ghan Expedition – an extended version of the original three-day railway service, that travels from Darwin in the Northern Territory to Adelaide in South Australia.
We were about to pass through the gritty Outback – along tracks that represent the spine of the country – to places of incredible natural beauty and points of Aboriginal cultural importance.
This epic three-night, four-day journey is considered to be one of the world’s iconic rail routes, as it rolls along 2,979km of track through the guts of Australia.
Travelling on The Ghan offers a digital detox, an escape from modern technology (no wifi) while passing through some of Australia’s iconic towns; kick back, relax and practise your social skills, instead of spending time on social media.
Before my departure, I spent two days exploring Darwin. I stayed at Vibe Hotel on Darwin Waterfront. It’s surrounded by some of the city’s best bars and restaurants and is close to the historic Stokes Hill Wharf.
Outback Tour Services took me to Litchfield National Park, 130km south of Darwin, where I swam in freshwater holes at Wangi Falls and under waterfalls created by monsoon rains, as well as exploring massive magnetic termite mounds.
At Pudakul Aboriginal Cultural Tours, I witnessed a unique “on country” Aboriginal cultural experience and insight into traditional living and lifestyles.
I joined Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Cruise, where guides dangle meat from a long pole over the edge of the boat until a croc launches itself vertically out of the water, and for a change of pace, and to cool down (temperatures can hit a humid 36C), we took to the water with Sail Darwin for a tropical sunset cruise that was nothing short of spectacular.
Back to the train…
The Ghan travels north to south at an average speed of 115km per hour from Darwin to Katherine to Alice Springs and then into Coober Pedy in South Australia, before ending in Adelaide. The journey can also be taken in the opposite direction.
The train measures 914 metres and has two locomotives. It can take 49 crew and a maximum of 300 guests. It is so long that at one point I spotted the chef travelling efficiently along the platform by bicycle to get from one end to the other.
The first Ghan departed Adelaide in 1929 en route to Alice Springs, at the centre of Australia. It wasn’t until 2004 that a modern track stretched all the way to Darwin. The train was named for the pioneering cameleers, many from Afghanistan who helped open up the inland of Australia.
Daily excursions are included in The Ghan Expedition price, except for scenic flights and helicopter tours, which are an additional cost. With around 280 passengers on board, you can imagine there’s quite a lot of organisation involved in ferrying passengers around in coaches at each stop, but things flow smoothly as it is a well-oiled machine.
Our first stop was Katherine, 300km south of Darwin. Excursions to Nitmiluk National Park to see rock art and iconic NT gorges were on offer, as well as an Outback experience with horse trainer extraordinaire Tom Curtin.
Back on board, the train slowly picked up speed. The carriages rocked and rivets squeaked as the wheels passed over hot steel tracks.
The train attracts a variety of passengers of all ages; there are returning hard-core train travellers, first-timers, honeymooners and couples celebrating various anniversaries.
There’s a relaxed and casual vibe on board, and passengers generally don’t dress up for dinner. I travelled in a Gold class cabin, which was comfortable. It slightly showed its age but was clean and comfortable none the less; with two sharing, though, I imagine it would be a little tight. But most of my time was spent off the train during the day, or in the lounge when we were moving.
Our inclusive meals were served in the ornate Queen Adelaide restaurant car, where food and delicious wine representing the region you travel through is served. In the Northern Territory, the menu offered lighter food, like smoked barramundi for breakfast and kangaroo steak and camel tagine for dinner. I was impressed with the kitchen and waiting staff, who operate in such a confined space.
There’s no end to the hospitality – drinks are included in the price of the journey and champagne is on tap. Attentive and dedicated staff members make sure this steel-wheeled icon operates smoothly.
After dinner, I returned to my compartment, where my personal cabin steward, Phoebe, had transformed the space into a cosy bedroom with crisp white linens and plump pillows. My cabin also had a small bathroom with a walk-in shower, a fold-down table and a big window, which was perfect for watching the passing countryside. Rocking along the tracks, all 1,183km to Alice Springs, I was soothed to sleep each night.
The sunrise lit up the red ochre Outback, the coarse spinifex plants and the desert oaks that lined the tracks.
The Alice Springs station platform has a statue of a camel – a memorial to the Afghan camel trains. I traded in the comfortable, air-conditioned train for a 450km scenic flight over the harsh red Outback terrain. The remarkable sandstone monolith of Uluru (aka Ayers Rock), sacred to indigenous Australians, came into view and we flew by to see it up close.
An off-train evening BBQ was prepared at The Telegraph, an old telegraph relay station and museum on the outskirts of Alice Springs. Entertainment, food and even camel rides were available to The Ghan passengers.
We crossed into South Australia, the driest state in the driest continent in the world. Temperatures in summer can reach 50C and that’s in the shade!
The boundless Outback sky erupted in a display of pink hues as sunrise gave way to another dazzling morning. We were surrounded by sun-baked emptiness that shimmered in the antipodean dawn.
The Ghan stopped in a siding at Manguri station, which is in the middle of nowhere, 42km north of Coober Pedy. The train is too long to fit the town’s platform, so passengers get ferried by coach.
Coober Pedy is a quirky opal-mining town, full of independent miners looking for their fortune. Most of the world’s opal was found in this area. Some people live underground in spaces that resemble giant rabbit burrows so that they can escape the soaring desert temperatures. The temperature underground is much lower, at around 20C.
We passed the infamous Dingo Fence, which is longer than the Great Wall of China and stops about 95 per cent of dingoes crossing the country. At the Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park, we took in the extraordinary ancient rock formations. Film fans will recognise the landscape from The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert.
Our next stop was Adelaide, South Australia’s cosmopolitan capital and the end of our journey.
There are so many reasons why Adelaide is a great place to visit at any time of year. Most of its sights are within walking distance of the centre. Start at Victoria Square, stroll along Gouger Street with its numerous cafés, stride down the grand boulevard of King William Street, walk through the parks or along the River Torrens with its pretty garden banks, take an indoor tour of Adelaide Central Market, have a peek inside Parliament House, and visit Trinity Church. Don’t miss the Art Gallery of South Australia, with over 40,000 works of art.
Landscape, history and wine inspire delightful trips outside the city. Adelaide Hills has produced wine since 1839. There are around 90 wineries dotted throughout the region.
People step off The Ghan Expedition with a sense of achievement and wonder, with a feeling that they have done something a little unique and special that they can’t wait to tell everyone about.
Clockwise from above: the massive sandstone monolith of Uluru; The Ghan stops near Coober Pedy to allow passengers to visit the opal mines; the vintage dining car. Photographs: Lisa Young
‘I spotted the chef travelling by bicycle to get from one end to the other’
The Ghan’s 2020/2021 fares (1st April, 2020 – 31st March, 2021). The Ghan Expedition, four-day/three-nights from Darwin to Adelaide southbound, lead in fare A$2,999 pp for a Gold Twin advance purchase fare based on two people and A$5,899 pp for Platinum also based on two person occupancy.
Singapore Airlines: Flights from Edinburgh to Darwin and returning from Adelaide or another Australian city from £700.
Useful websites for Darwin
www.tfehotels.com; www.outbacktourservices.com.au; jumping crocodile.com.au; wwwsaildarwin.com; www.pudakul.com.au
In Adelaide: www.oakshotelsresorts.com