By Laura Coulter
All Aboard! For many travelers, the idea of train trips conjures images of fine dining, impeccable service, colorful fellow passengers and slow travel. From the Orient Express to the Trans-Siberian Rail, train routes have romantic histories, snaking across continents that were otherwise too challenging and time consuming to explore. In the spirit of exotic travel by rail, I suggest that you forget the budget airlines and rental cars and look into a slow, luxurious journey across the continent of Australia on The Ghan.
This year, The Ghan celebrates 90 years of outback adventure, its legend stemming from the 1930s when the first Afghan cameleers arrived in Australia. On that momentous journey, the train was dubbed ‘The Afghan Express’ and then shortened to the icon it is today, ‘The Ghan’. Regarded as one of the world’s greatest rail journeys, it delivers so much more than an extended train ride.
History of The Ghan
The Ghan train was named for the pioneering cameleers who blazed a permanent trail into the Red Centre of Australia more than 150 years ago; the original Ghan line following the route of explorer John MacDouall Stuart.
Today, the north-south cross-country journey covers 2,979 kilometers and encounters spectacular and diverse landscapes from the soft shades of the South Australian plains, the rusty reds of the MacDonnell Ranges and the tropical greens of Katherine and Darwin. There are still many camel sightings from the train, as packs of them are roaming wild. Whatever time of day, you’ll be treated to amazing, changing landscape from all viewpoints.
Life On board
After catching a budget flight to Darwin from Singapore I purchased Gold Class tickets for the The Ghan, travelling from Darwin to Adelaide over three days. A former frontier outpost, Darwin is the capital of Australia’s Northern Territory and a gateway to the massive Kakadu National Park. Its popular waterfront area has several beaches and green areas, such as Bicentennial Park. Also, near the water is the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, displaying Southeast Asian and Pacific art, plus a pearling lugger and other seafaring vessels. Train travelers could easily spend a few days here viewing art, relaxing into the Australian wine culture or going to see the diverse tropical ecosystem. I spent three days enjoying the clean and organized city before being picked up from my hotel by the Great Southern Rail company, which owns and operates The Ghan service.
For anyone who backpacked through Europe and slept upright in a seat to save money, the onboard options on The Ghan are a dream. Greeted onboard by a cheerful steward, who remained on-call for the entire journey, I settled in quite easily to this type of train life. I opted for the Gold Class package and had a self-contained single unit to myself for three days, two nights and seven meals. In my carriage, there was a wash basin and sink; a larger shower and toilets were at the end of the car, shared by other passengers, although I didn’t see another passenger at any time waiting for the facilities. There was enough room to easily stow a carry-on, with larger suitcases with an allowance of up to 66lbs being kept in storage for duration of the journey. I had a chair and table that magically converted into a single bed while I was in the dining car enjoying a multi-course meal and, when I retired to my cabin, the bed was made with lovely crisp sheets and plump duvet. This was my private oasis, a superbly comfortable overnight room to recline and let the rhythm of the tracks sway me to sleep.
In the morning, there was a soft knock at the door and I was presented with a coffee – ordered the night before – to enjoy while I sat up in bed, looking out the window at the changing scenery.
With the Gold Class package, all meals and drinks were included and no one went hungry. There were three dining cars on board and guests were given meal times to attend. The two available for Gold Class were the Queen Adelaide restaurant, adorned in art deco furnishings that evoked the golden era of rail, and the Outback Explorer Lounge that offered camaraderie and cappuccino in a relaxed social setting. Staff were efficient and friendly and all were on board for the entire three-day journey.
The chief steward did an excellent job of mixing up groups, so that each table was full. I dined with different people each night. For the most part, guests were social and pleasant, happy to chat while enjoying a four-course meal, with Australian wines and seasonal menus featuring mouth-watering dishes such as saltwater barramundi, grilled kangaroo fillet and Australian cheese plates. Once your meal was finished, you could enjoy a coffee or after-dinner drink in the Explorer lounge or back in your room. From the looks of a few guests, they spent most of the trip in the lounge tasting the local wine, while others were happy to play cards, nap, visit, read or walk up and down the carriages.
There was an intriguing mix of backgrounds, nationalities and age groups on board, although I was the youngest being in my late thirties. I saw very few families (sorry kids!) and plenty of white-haired seniors with some of the guests in their 90s. Some were on an “all-Australia” highlights tour, while others were just treating themselves to a few nights away and adventure in their own home country. One thing that united most of us was that we had ‘dressed to travel’.
Off Train Excursions and Short Stops
While I would have been content to stare out the window at the changing landscape for the entire journey, off train excursions were also included in the package. River cruises, cultural experiences and optional camel rides or helicopter flights added another exciting dimension to the journey. Some of the outings I experienced included the Nitmiluk River Cruise, which stops in Katherine and Manguri and travels to the world’s largest classroom, the Alice Springs School of the Air. The school was established in 1951 and was the first education service to use two-way radio broadcasts to help with the education of students in remote areas who were unable to attend face-to-face lessons. It is still in operation today and covers more than 1.3 million square kilometers. The visitors center depicts its mission to provide schooling to children aged 4 to 13 years at cattle stations, roadhouses, Aboriginal communities and national parks with daily lessons via satellite broadband.
The off-train excursions are extremely organized and very limited in spaces – several were already booked out before the trip started, especially the helicopter outings. Other guests chose to extend their trip by staying a few nights in Alice Springs to visit Uluru, or Ayers Rock, joining another train at a later date for the final leg to Adelaide. There was also a special ‘unscheduled’ surprise stop on the second evening. A few hours after the sunset, the train came to a halt in the middle of the desert. The very few guests who were still awake were invited to get off and experience star-gazing through telescopes set up by the crew. There was also a big bonfire, hot chocolate and a chance to see the train from the other side. It was quite a site to see the silent, hulking giant sitting there with its lights on, surrounded by the night’s stars and sky.
By the time the train pulled into Adelaide at the end of our three-day journey, I’d seen diverse landscape with beautiful sunsets and sunrises, had been fed very well and found effortless company among a large amount of new people. It was a breeze!
If the charms of The Ghan lures you into this easy mode of travel and leaves you wanting more, the Great Southern Rail also runs the Indian Pacific route from Sydney to Perth – another adventure through the ‘middle of nowhere’. All aboard!