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