All aboard the camel train
Making tracks on The Ghan between Darwin and Adelaide
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.
• greatsouthernrail.com.au • 3.hilton.com
The Ghan, top; camel ride at Alice Springs, above left; Hilton Darwin, above