THE RED HEART
A journey aboard The Ghan gives Cara Wagstaff a new perspective on Australia’s mesmerising Red Centre.
It’s one thing to know that Australia is vast and largely unpopulated; it’s quite another to see and feel its immensity for myself. The two flagship trains of Great Southern Rail, The Ghan and The Indian Pacific, are committed to showcasing the wild majesty of our nation’s heart with effortless epic journeys. I’m aboard The Ghan, traversing 2979 kilometres of the unforgiving desert landscape from Darwin to Adelaide on routes laid out by the Afghan cameleers who gave the train its name. I’m travelling in considerably more style than the dromedaries and their handlers of the past. In my Gold cabin, the comfortable lounge converts to a double bunk bed by night, complete with crisp linen, with the lilting motion of the rails to lull me to sleep.
Beyond the train As the train slowly lurches out of Darwin, I head to the lounge for a welcome drink with my fellow travellers and a glimpse of the gourmet pleasures to come with our first lunch aboard The Ghan. I love the oldfashioned touches in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant, from the cut-glass dividers between the tables to the curtains pinned back by the sides of the windows.
It feels we’ve hardly stepped aboard before we’re already venturing out for our first off-train excursion in Katherine. The Ghan Expedition - an itinerary introduced in 2016 to allow more time to soak up the stops - features three days of optional adventures beyond the trains. The number of options varies by destination, and all but a handful of ‘flightseeing’ excursions are included in the fare.
At Katherine, we can explore Nitmiluk with a cruise or head to a farm for the Katherine Outback Experience. This showcase of country singer-cum-horse whisperer, Tom Curtain, is a fascinating mix of music and skills: at one point, Tom breaks out his guitar as he rides reinsfree; at another, he gets one of his horses to roll out his swag and lay down. The Uluru experience If you choose one Optional Upgrade excursion, make it a day of scenic flights over Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
Our tiny five-seater Cessna 210 taxis up the runway, the whirring of the propellers filling the cabin, and suddenly we’re in the air, watching Alice Springs disappear into dry, red earth.
We soon see the monolith of Uluru rising above the plain. Goosebumps prickle my skin; the sacred landmark is more impressive than I had imagined. We circle the rock three times before descending into the town of Yulara for a close-up perspective.
Uluru looms 348 metres above us as we approach the viewing area. Its beauty and sheer size is entrancing as we enjoy a picnic lunch at its base.
It is an incredible experience touring Uluru and soon we’re on our Cessna heading back to Alice Springs via Kata Tjuta for a Pioneer Dinner under the stars.
Going underground We emerge from the train in a desert plain and board a coach bound for the opal mining town of Coober Pedy. With temperatures reaching up to 47 degrees Celsius, most of the population lives underground in ‘dugouts’. In local style we head below the lunar-like surface to an opal mine for lunch.
We round off the evening with cocktails beside the train, which gives me an opportunity to walk the length of the train (all 780 metres of it) .
As we pull into Adelaide Station the next morning, I farewell this unique experience of the Outback. The three-night Expedition has been an extraordinary journey through Australia’s heart, a place I had never truly encountered until The Ghan.
Travel file Rail The Ghan is extending its three-month season to six months in 2017, offering The Ghan Expedition between 3 May and 25 October 2017. www.greatsouthernrail.com.au/trains/the-ghan/the-ghan-expedition