A number of iconic trains make every Must Do train journey: the Trans-Siberia, the Canadian Mountaineer, the Orient Express, the Tibetan railway, the Darjeerling Himalayan Express and, in Australia, the Ghan. As a hopeless train romantic, I have done most of them, although embarrassingly not the Canadian Mountaineer, and less embarrassing, the Ghan. I was about to remedy the latter omission.
As always, some history to start. First, the name. In the mid- 1800’s, European settlers in Australia decided it would make good sense to import camels to the continent to assist in building a railroad from Adelaide in the south, north to Alice Springs in the outback, a giant red, sandy desert that dominates central Australia. Thus, camels migrated to Australia along with their handlers, mostly Indians. But Europeans being Europeans, mixed up India with Afghanistan, called them Ghans and the name stuck. The railway was started in 1878, but didn’t reach Alice Springs until 1929. There is another equally unflattering story about the name The Ghan. The steam engine running to Alice during the early years was notoriously unreliable, earning it the nickname “The Afghan Express” as an insult to the Afghans who helped run it. Whatever the true origin of the name, everyone knows the train as The Ghan. As an aside, the camels were let loose after their work was done, and Australia boasts some wild camel herds that are highly prized in the Middle East.
Back to the Ghan. Finally, in 2004, the line was built from Alice Springs to Darwin, at the northern tip of the continent, a total of 2976 kilometres and a 2 night, 3 day trip (51 hours in total), give or take a few hours, from north to south.
I arrived at the Darwin train station courtesy of the free shuttle from my hotel on the Darwin Esplanade, along with a bus load of other passengers. We soon learned there would be 190 passengers aboard the 39 cars this trip, making the train just under a kilometre long. Live entertainment by a guitar playing singer greeted us at the station, but I was far more interested in ensuring I got a picture of me with the Ghan, as an announcer had advised the station would be the best opportunity for photos.
The Ghan has three classes of service: premium, gold and gold single. The big differences between premium and gold seemed to be a smaller wine selection in gold and less walking for premium passengers as the premium cars were in the middle of the train. They also had private mini buses to carry them to the station and excursions. Other than that, I didn’t see much between the two classes.
I did appreciate the gold single. It is a dedicated car at the front of the train containing 20 cabins built especially for one. Each cabinette contains a comfortable chair, footrest, table, sink, cupboards for storage and USB charging ports. At night, the staff combine the chair and footrest into a single bed. Sharing the singles cars are two surprisingly roomy shower cabins and four bathrooms. Three cars down is the lounge car for the forward section, where a good selection of Australian wines, beers and liquors were generously poured throughout the days and nights, along with offerings of munchies and fruit.
We were asked to select our meal times and wait (with a drink) in the lounge car to be escorted to our table by the hostess. Couples were seated together; all others were seated at the nearest empty chair at the tables for four, leading to a pleasant rotation of meal partners and an opportunity to meet many of the other passengers. I unofficially guessed about 2/3rds of the passengers were Australian, quite a few Brits, some Germans and a smattering of others, including me and a younger American. Most were retired although there were a couple of kids on board. Everyone shared a love of train travel and a desire to see Australia’s outback.
Meals featured locally sourced food, designed to showcase Australian culinary accomplishments. My first lunch’s main course was braised buffalo, which I did not realize had any connection to Australia. I later learned it was most likely water buffalo, introduced to Australia in the 1800’s to provide meat to remote northern territories. This plan was later abandoned, resulting in thousands of feral buffalo roaming around. The water buffalo are not related to North American buffalo/bison, but their meat was similar – like beef but lean. Subsequent meals included crocodile cakes (yummy) and Kangaroo medallions (tasty but tough). My new found favourite was coconut ice cream, served as a dessert with all the lunches and dinners, along with scoops of chocolate and wattle seed (an unique seed to Australia ground into flour by the Aboriginies) ice cream.
An hour after lunch, we arrived at our first excursion, Katherine Gorge or, as it is now called after reverting to its aboriginal name, Nitmiluk Gorge. Majestic sandstone cliffs carved out by the Katherine River provide spectacular vistas. Mother Nature was being unco-operative; the helicopter and art viewing tours were cancelled due to rainstorms in the vicinity, but the cruise down two of the gorges was proceeding. It was in the low 40s as we set out on the water, making it unlikely to see crocodiles who usually surface only to warm themselves on cooler days. I wasn’t at all bothered – seeing 3 meter long crocodiles a few feet away is not one of my favourite experiences. What I much prefer, and what we did see, were giant walls of sienna, yellows, oranges and brown sandstone with shrubs and trees sprouting all over:
Three hours later our bus returned us to the train for drinks, dinner, more drinks and finally, sleep. Our beds had been made up when we were in the dining car. A chocolate lay on each pillow. The beds were firm, the rolling of the train soothing but alas, the occasional squeaking of the brakes and the rattling of the imperfectly fitted door to my cabin prevented a deep sleep. About 3:00AM, I jiggled the door, put a facecloth into the door jamb and fell fast asleep.
We stopped the next day at 10:00AM, in Alice Springs. If you picture Australia as a circle, Alice Springs would be dead center, and it is the center of the outback. With a population of about 25,000, it is the only town of any size between Darwin and Adelaide. It is the home base for the Royal Flying Doctors Service which has provided medical attention in the outback since 1928, and School of the Air, which educates children living in remote regions first by radio but now via internet. It is also home to a joint US/Australian military base run by the CIA with advance radar capabilities, tracking satellites etc. over China, Russia and the Middle East. Alice Springs is the Alice in A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute, a novel focusing on the efforts of a post WWII woman to create a town like Alice Springs in the outback.
One of our excursion options was to the tourist sites in Alice Springs- the Royal Flying Doctors service museum, the Radio of the Air museum and the Telegraph museum – but as there was no stop at the somewhat secret US military base and as I had spent time in Alice 25 years before, I passed on the city tour and instead opted for a visit to the Desert Park. Normally, a hike through the desert at Simpson’s Gap is also offered, but with temperatures expected over 45, cooler heads decided hiking a bunch of near seniors in the desert sun for a few hours was probably not a good idea, so it was cancelled.
With ample warnings about the heat and heat stroke prevention, water bottles offered at every entrance and exit, we set out for the Desert Park, part living museum, part educational facility showcasing the fauna and wildlife of the desert. Normally the rangers take guests on walkabouts, pointing out the plants and animals that thrive in the desert, but with the thermometer already reading 44, we were gently walked straight to the amphitheatre for the bird show.
I wasn’t sure what to expect at a bird show. I’ve been to breakfasts with birds, where well-trained parrots share your food, but this was different. A ranger came out and explained that all the birds which would be performing were local – falcons, magpies, owls, eagles, kites, black parrots – and they would be flying above our heads at speeds of up to 100 kilometres an hour. Out of nowhere flew a kite and landed on the outstretched arm of the ranger. She proceeded to throw food in the air, and the kite flew and caught it. A barnyard owl rose out of a hollow trunk, seemingly on cue, and flew silently overhead. We learned later that the owl is kept in a cage (just for a few minutes) in the hollow, with a door that releases when the ranger gives the signal. For 15 minutes, various birds entertained us with their flying and hunting prowess. Only the falcon was out of sorts -it was molting and couldn’t fly. I was amazed to watch these birds – I had been unaware that birds of all sorts could be trained (all food motivated the ranger said).
We returned to the air conditioned comfort of The Ghan for lunch and drinks and watching the desert landscape roll by, including the dried out bed of the Todd River.
Our final stop was late that evening, at Manguri. It is, literally, a train stop. Picnic tables lit by candles had been set up right outside the train and waiters strolled about offering Bailey’s and gourmet chocolates, which melted very quickly. It was still 36 degrees. The real star (sorry about the pun) were the stars, with the Milky Way visible along with other southern sky constellations that I cannot name. It is a beautiful sight, but quite impossible to photograph using an I-phone.
I slept much better the second night. After enjoying a hot shower and a leisurely brunch, the train pulled up in the Adelaide station 10 minutes behind schedule at 12:40. It had been a fabulous train ride, meeting all my expectations and providing fabulous views of the scenic outback.
Note: Booking is easily done on the internet through greatsouthernrail.com.au. A single cabin in the low season, all-inclusive including food, drinks, excursions and transfers, cost Australian $1750.