THE RED HEART

A jour­ney aboard The Ghan gives Cara Wagstaff a new per­spec­tive on Aus­tralia’s mes­meris­ing Red Cen­tre.

Signature Travel & Lifestyle - - Signature Rail -

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

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