Tour the Australian Outback by train
View the baked landscape from a room with AC
The Ghan Expedition, a fourday, 2,979-kilometre journey through the Outback from Darwin to Adelaide, is a new contender budding to join the ranks of the world’s great train journeys.
The Ghan is an abbreviation of Afghan, derived from the nationality of the people who helped build the original railway in the late 1800s.
Day one Very few places are undisputedly best seen by train. The remote and vast Outback, central Australia’s “red zone,” is one. Rainfall makes the land flourish abnormally green. In Darwin, it’s nearly winter and 34 C. The only red, for now, is the odd rusted, abandoned car.
Inside the room, everything compartmentalized and neat. It’s tight, not cramped. The radio plays three channels, all crooner classics. No Wi-Fi. No TV. But the bar! The bar is free and company is first-rate.
The average age of travellers is about 65, give or take. And no wonder — this trip is perfect for the elderly. It’s all-inclusive, no hassle and the service is good. Considering the space, there’s lots of socializing and the schedule is busy without stretching endurance.
It’s surprising there are so few foreigners and families with kids. Then again, prices start from around $3,000 per person.
We alight to Katherine Gorge, land returned to the native Jawoyn people in 1989. The Aboriginal people’s symbiotic relationship to nature is explained while we peek at three freshwater crocodiles sunbathing.
We go from train to bus to boat to another boat to another boat to bus to train. Herded from one transport to the next, my relative lack of patience is occasionally tested by the slightest dawdle. By night, sleep interrupted by shoogling, the romanticism of the train wears thin. The cabins are comfortable but no linen or cushions can placate a moving train.
Day two The new terrain is a plane of copper and sunset red dust.
To Uluru, formerly Ayers Rock, by plane. The formation of Kata Tjuta, or the Olgas looks like a series of giant, red upturned thimbles. A more polished version of the red rocks of Sedona, Ariz.
From a distance, Uluru is sleek and smooth. We get closer by car and see it’s streaked like peeling paint. The iron crust is what protects the sandstone from erosion. For once, rust is a saviour.
The land around is unusually green. The national park flooded in December for the first time since 1958.
Night two. A candlelit dinner at an Australian ranch, a cosmology lesson under the clearest of skies and camel rides as a parttribute to the preferred mode of transport of the Afghan train track builders.
Day three Driving to Coober Pedy, we pass a solitary home, the only dwelling for miles. Outside, a family of six are waiting to wave to us. They do this every time the Ghan arrives.
Degnan tells us the town was hit by a plague of snakes way back... three weeks ago.
Most of the homes are at least half-buried underground to hide from the sun. It’s a mix of a gold rush U.S. mining post, the prehistoric town of Bedrock from The Flintstones and a sandy, budget version of Hobbiton.
The open-air cinema, Degnan tells us, has run the same ad for decades. It politely asks patrons not to ignite dynamite in the cinema.
From start to finish, the Ghan is a real adventure through the country’s core, worthy of top spot on any tourist’s must-do list Down Under. The author was hosted by Great southern rail, operators of the Ghan expedition, which didn’t review or approve this story.
The Ghan snakes its way through the Outback. Shown here in Coober Pedy, its final destination.