My jour­ney: Aus­tralia

Lisa Young boards The Ghan Ex­pe­di­tion for an iconic train jour­ney through the guts of Aus­tralia

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Airm jolt and The Ghan’s bold red engine be­gins to haul its snake­like body away from the plat­form. I’m at the start of The Ghan Ex­pe­di­tion – an ex­tended ver­sion of the orig­i­nal three-day

Ghan ser­vice from Dar­win in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory to Ade­laide in South Aus­tralia. I’m ven­tur­ing into the out­back, along the spine of the coun­try to places of in­cred­i­ble nat­u­ral beauty and Abo­rig­i­nal cul­tural im­por­tance which most trav­ellers, even Aussies, never lay their eyes on.

This epic three-night, four-day jour­ney is one of the world’s iconic rail routes. It rolls along 2,979km of track, cut­ting through the mid­dle of Aus­tralia. There’s no tele­vi­sion and no wifi for now, al­though I may be able to pick it up in some sta­tions.

I’ve had two days ex­plor­ing Dar­win, the North­ern Ter­ri­tory’s cap­i­tal, a city full of in­ner city parks, sig­nif­i­cant indige­nous sites and fine beaches.

I vis­ited Litch­field Na­tional Park, swam in fresh­wa­ter holes, learned about tra­di­tional out­back liv­ing with Pu­dakul Abo­rig­i­nal Cul­tural Tours, joined Sail Dar­win for a trop­i­cal sun­set cruise and, on the less re­lax­ing Spec­tac­u­lar Jump­ing Croc­o­dile Cruise, watched huge ‘sal­ties’ launch their pre-his­toric bod­ies ver­ti­cally out of the wa­ter.

But now I’m head­ing into the real out­back; the re­mote out­back where there is no one for hun­dreds of miles. We pick up speed, the car­riages rock­ing, and soon Dar­win is left be­hind in the dust.

I’ll be trav­el­ling north to south at an av­er­age speed of 115km an hour, stop­ping at Kather­ine, Alice Springs and Coober Pedy on this 914-me­tre 38-car­riage train which uses two lo­co­mo­tives to haul 49 crew and a max­i­mum of 300 guests across the desert.

The Ghan is so long that I spot one of the chefs cy­cling along the plat­form to get from one end to the other.

The ex­pe­ri­ence at­tracts an eclec­tic crowd of all ages, al­though the av­er­age age is around 65–75. On my train there are re­turn­ing hard-core train trav­ellers, first-timers, hon­ey­moon­ers and cou­ples cel­e­brat­ing var­i­ous anniversaries.

The Ghan was named for the pioneer­ing cameleers – many of whom were from Afghanistan – who helped open up in­hos­pitable in­land Aus­tralia to set­tlers. The first Ghan de­parted Ade­laide in 1929 and chugged its way to Alice Springs. It wasn’t un­til 2004 that a mod­ern track stretched all the way to Dar­win.

Rock on

Our first stop is Kather­ine, 300km south of Dar­win. Daily ex­cur­sions are in­cluded in The Ghan Ex­pe­di­tion price, ex­cept for ex­pen­sive scenic flights and he­li­copter tours. With around 280 pas­sen­gers on board there’s quite a lot of or­gan­i­sa­tion in­volved in fer­ry­ing pas­sen­gers around, but it’s a well-oiled ma­chine.

I head to Kather­ine Gorge in Nit­miluk Na­tional Park, to gaze at a rugged and an­cient land­scape and Abo­rig­i­nal rock art from those who oc­cu­pied this harsh land

long be­fore the Euro­pean set­tlers. There are treks to iconic gorges and even an out­back horse train­ing ex­pe­ri­ence on of­fer too.

Back on­board the vibe is re­laxed and ca­sual. Pas­sen­gers gen­er­ally don’t dress up for din­ner – this is no Ori­ent Ex­press! My Gold Class cabin is start­ing to show its age but is com­fort­able, al­though with two shar­ing I imag­ine it would be a lit­tle tight.

There’s a fold-down ta­ble and a small bath­room with a walk-in shower. Af­ter din­ner, per­sonal cabin stew­ards trans­form the small space into a cosy bed­room with crisp white linens and plump pil­lows.

I am spend­ing most of my time in the lounge car, lis­ten­ing to out­back sto­ries from the bar­man, en­joy­ing the all-in­clu­sive drinks, in­clud­ing Cham­pagne, and watch­ing the rus­set-coloured sand whisk by.

Through­out the night we travel 1,183km, the car­riages rock­ing steadily, riv­ets squeak­ing and wheels pass­ing over hot steel all the way to Alice Springs at Aus­tralia’s heart.

I take a scenic flight over 450-kilo­me­tres of harsh Out­back ter­rain to the re­mark­able sand­stone mono­lith of Uluru. Later, an off-train evening BBQ is pre­pared at an old tele­graph re­lay sta­tion and mu­seum.

Go­ing un­der­ground

On day three we cross into South Aus­tralia. Tem­per­a­tures here in sum­mer can reach 50°C in the shade and as we pull into a sid­ing at Man­guri sta­tion I’m aware we’re sur­rounded by sun-baked empti­ness.

Around 40km south is Coober Pedy, a small and quirky opal-min­ing town full of for­tune seek­ers.

To es­cape the scorch­ing tem­per­a­tures homes were built un­der­ground and some still live in these gi­ant rab­bit bur­rows, which are a cool 20°C.

We drive along the Dingo Fence which was built in the 1800s to stop them en­ter­ing the fer­tile sheep-farm­ing ar­eas of Aus­tralia. At 3,488-miles-long, it sur­passes the length of the Great Wall of China and stops about 95% of the wild dogs in their tracks.

I step off The Ghan in Ade­laide with a sense of achieve­ment and won­der and it feel like I am back in the ‘real world’.

I stroll past the cafes of Gouger Street, along the green banks of the River Tor­rens, browse the colour­ful Cen­tral Mar­ket and Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia, ride a vin­tage tram to the beach at Glenelg and take a trip to the vine­yards of the rolling Ade­laide Hills.

Sud­denly, the bar­ren out­back is but a vivid me­mory.

Left: TheGhan in ac­tion. This page, clock­wise from top left: Ade­laide’s river­front; the Red Cen­tre; din­ing at the Tele­graph in Alice Springs

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