Tour the Aus­tralian Out­back by train

View the baked land­scape from a room with AC

Metro Canada (Calgary) - - TRAVEL - David Bate­man TorsTar News ser­vice

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.

COurTeSy Ghan ex­Pe­di­TiOn

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