All aboard the camel train

Mak­ing tracks on The Ghan be­tween Dar­win and Ade­laide

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - JU­DITH ELEN

A desert cross­ing in the 21st cen­tury — with ease, air-con­di­tion­ing and first-class chefs — does not pre­clude outback ad­ven­ture. A stan­dard rail­way jour­ney be­tween Ade­laide and Dar­win on The Ghan, a des­ti­na­tion of its own, in­cludes op­por­tu­ni­ties to ven­ture off the train on ex­cur­sions in unique lo­ca­tions. Gorge cruises, camel-rid­ing treks, guided walks, bus tours and he­li­copter fly­overs are all op­tions, many of which are in­cluded in the fare and oth­ers at a sur­charge.

Now, for a brief pe­riod, there are also Hil­ton ac­com­mo­da­tion pack­ages in Dar­win and Ade­laide on of­fer for Ghan trav­ellers. Dar­win is a long way from just about any­where so it’s a shame not to spend a cou­ple of days there. Sim­i­larly, Ade­laide’s easy-to-reach vine­yards and coast­line are fun to ex­plore. Ho­tel and train deals in­volve com­bi­na­tions of Dar­win, Ade­laide or both but must be booked by this year’s end for travel in 2017.

I’m stay­ing at Hil­ton Dar­win be­fore head­ing off on The Ghan to Ade­laide. Hil­ton Dar­win pack­ages in­clude tour­ing and an overnight stay in Kakadu Na­tional Park, but if you’re tak­ing the train’s stan­dard Ghan Ex­pe­di­tion, an in­de­pen­dent Litch­field Na­tional Park tour is a great thing to do. AAT Kings of­fers guided day trips ($179 a per­son), in ex­tremely com­fort­able coaches with good com­men­tary. Itineraries in­clude cool­ing swims in wa­ter­fall pools, fields of red-earth ter­mite mounds that look like pre­his­toric stand­ing stones and a model of Charles IV’s Cze­choslo­vakian Karl­stejn Cas­tle, built in 1978-83 on a rocky out­crop in Batch­e­lor Park by town gar­dener Bernie Hav­lik, for­mer im­mi­grant worker in the nearby Rum Jun­gle ura­nium mine.

Hil­ton Dar­win re­cently spent $10 mil­lion re­design­ing and ren­o­vat­ing its ex­ec­u­tive rooms, foyer ar­eas and fit­ness cen­tre. Beds and (cru­cially) pil­lows are won­der­fully com­fort­able, there’s a 10th-floor out­door pool, gym, har­bour views from many gue­strooms and it takes just min­utes to walk to the town cen­tre or har­bour’s edge.

Dar­win’s water­front park this late Novem­ber is flush with gi­ant fallen man­goes and feast­ing mag­pie geese ar­riv­ing for the ap­proach­ing wet sea­son. Soon wa­ter­ways and some road­ways will be flooded; mag­pie geese will be nest­ing, croc­o­diles will be ford­ing land “bridges” im­pass­able in the dry sea­son, and the land will be dense with veg­e­ta­tion. Al­ready, green­ery clothes the ground and trees are flow­er­ing in scar­let and white.

Back at the Hil­ton, Mitchell’s Grill is a high­light of my stay. Chef Jojo Bor­lag­dan in­tro­duces what will be­come a mi­nor theme of the cross-coun­try trip: de­li­cious, of­ten unique lo­cal foods bril­liantly cooked, from lemon myrtle­crusted fish to mango mousse. Lo­cal fish is a Mitchell’s Grill spe­cial­ity, of­ten sparked with na­tive spices and in­clud­ing mack­erel, bar­ra­mundi and North­ern Ter­ri­tory prawns. Dar­win is in­deed a good food des­ti­na­tion, with great pro­duce, di­verse meats (buf­falo, croc­o­dile, camel, kan­ga­roo and goat), trop­i­cal fruits and Asian in­flu­ences. Of the city’s 40-odd restau­rants — many along Mitchell Street — Hanu­man should not be missed with its so­phis­ti­cated Thai-In­dian-Nonya cook­ing and flavours of wild ginger, fresh co­conut, tamarind, lemon­grass and ly­chees.

For a pe­riod in Aus­tralian his­tory, camels car­ried the coun­try. These dreamy, sway­ing plod­ders and their Afghan handlers ac­com­pa­nied ex­plor­ers and map mak­ers, car­ried sup­plies, mail and even wa­ter to re­mote set­tlers, plus es­sen­tial tools and equip­ment for works such as cross-con­ti­nen­tal tele­graph and rail­way lines.

De­spite our of­ten-shame­ful treat­ment of these men, a gov­ern­ment web­site says the camels and cameleers and their life-sup­port­ing trans­port were the back­bone of the econ­omy from 1860 to the turn of the cen­tury; they even saved the lives of sev­eral outback towns in the great drought of 1902.

It’s in their name that we em­bark on the cross-desert trek that is The Ghan Rail­way. The orig­i­nal rail­way, the Afghan Ex­press, which be­came The Ghan, ran be­tween Port Au­gusta and Alice Springs. We’re fol­low­ing the route of the Over­land Tele­graph, Dar­win to Ade­laide. The cameleers worked for both. Mak­ing our way through the vast cen­tre of red earth and sil­ver-green grasses, we pause en route first at Kather­ine in Nit­miluk coun­try, where I cruise be­neath the lay­ered red sand­stone plates

and spec­tac­u­lar rock faces of the Kather­ine River gorges, guided by a young lo­cal man. Other Nit­miluk ex­cur­sions in­clude he­li­copter and fixed-wing plane flights.

In Alice Springs, I am­ble on camel-back among dry grasses, over baked, stony earth, look­ing down on the heavy-lid­ded, cud-chew­ing, be­nignly smil­ing face of Dock.

Time passes quickly on the train, watch­ing from up­hol­stered and pol­ished-wood com­fort a land­scape scat­tered with trees and ice-green grasses, empty red-dirt roads, dis­tant moun­tains, vast skies, sun­sets and sun­rises — a sun­burnt coun­try.

I read and so­cialise with Swiss, Ger­man and Aus­tralian pas­sen­gers while sip­ping a cock­tail, good wine or nice bub­bles in the up­hol­stered bar-car ban­quettes. We also share ta­bles in the din­ing car, en­joy­ing ex­cel­lent dishes that are var­ied, well-pro­por­tioned and imag­i­na­tively Aus­tralian.

On our fi­nal night, we step out of our sil­ver-car­riage “camel train” to sip drinks in the lam­plit desert around a crack­ling bon­fire.

It is a be­lated toast to those early Afghans.

Ju­dith Elen was a guest of Great South­ern Rail and Hil­ton.

• great­south­ern­ • 3.hil­

The Ghan, top; camel ride at Alice Springs, above left; Hil­ton Dar­win, above

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