Anthony Lambert, The Telegraph, January 30, 2019
Australia’s Red Centre is one of the most charismatic wildernesses in the world, and The Ghan is unquestionably the most comfortable way to see it. The hotel on wheels runs through the heart of the country, covering the 2,979km between the south coast at Adelaide and the north coast at Darwin in two nights and three days. Most of the services entail two nights on the train, but The Ghan Expedition option adds an extra night on board. Great Southern Rail also offers a variety of six- to eight-night packages to book-end the train experience.
The train’s name supposedly honours the Afghan camel drivers who arrived in Australia in the late 19th century with animals imported from India. The Ghan name is an old one, bestowed on the narrow-gauge trains that ran from the Adelaide–Perth line at Port Augusta to a series of railheads as construction crews slowly and intermittently worked their way north. It took 50 years from 1879 to 1929 to get as far as Alice Springs and there the line stopped. Frequent floods and washouts encouraged construction of a new standard-gauge railway further west, from Tarcoola to Alice, opened in 1980, before the original concept was fulfilled with opening of the line on to Darwin in 2004.
Added to the allure of the outback is Alice Springs, a town of only 29,000 people yet known the world over as a symbol of isolation so strong that even the philosopher Bertrand Russell had to go and see it for himself in 1950. Alice, as every local shortens it, is also the springboard for trips to the largest monolith in the world, Uluru (formerly Ayer’s Rock).
The journey begins at Adelaide station, a few kilometres from the city centre, and the train is soon bowling across the farming country of the Adelaide Plains, passing the 137 turbines of Snowtown Wind Farm along the Hummock and Barunga ranges. To the north the 700km-long Flinders Ranges comes into view. By Crystal Brook, sheep have been added to wheat. Unlovely Port Pirie is the centre of South Australia’s heavy industry with colossal silver, lead and zinc smelters dominating the landscape. Within living memory Port Pirie was notorious as the meeting point of three different track gauges, necessitating much changing and transshipment.
The estuary-like Spencer Gulf is within view for much of the way to Port Augusta, gateway to the outback and its vital supply centre. This was the southern terminus of the original narrow-gauge Ghan train which began its slow and fitful service to Stuart – later renamed Alice Springs. Today the attractive town is lined with single-storey houses in brick and stone surrounded by generous verandas.
It will almost certainly be dark as the train winds through sand hills and scrub forest before calling at Tarcoola in the small hours. If you are awake, it is worth getting off the train to be astounded by the brilliance of the night sky, so different from the northern hemisphere. Manguri is the stop for opal-rich Coober Pedy where the searing temperatures have forced half the inhabitants to live underground. Passengers on The Ghan Expedition service (southbound only) spend a full day in the town, visiting the underground Serbian Orthodox Church, the grassless golf course and the Umoona Opal Mine and Museum which includes underground homes. Lunch is served beneath the earth’s surface.
Manguri is also the late-hour stop on the classic southbound Ghan to allow passengers to appreciate a wholly different night sky from the northern hemisphere. On the northbound train a stop is made at Marla to watch the sun rise over the Outback.
North of Kulgera is the Iron Man sculpture to commemorate the millionth track sleeper and the workers who laid them and built the line during the 1970s. As the train rumbles over the 15-span Finke River bridge, it is roughly as close as the railway gets to Uluru.
The approach to Alice is unmistakeable. Ahead lie the tall MacDonnell Ranges, and the train heads for a gap so narrow that there is room only for the railway, the Todd River and a two-lane road. From a distance it looks as though a giant angle-grinder has been taken to the mountains.
Alice is like no other town, the only hub and tourist centre for thousands of square miles. Hemmed in by the surrounding hills, it is having to expand to the south beyond the MacDonnells and near the airport. The railway made Alice: pastoralists could send livestock to Adelaide in days rather than months, and in the first ten months of railway service, 15,000 head of cattle worth $436,000 were railed south. And the first train load of conducted tourists arrived in 1930. Today The Ghan stops long enough for tours of the town, variously visiting the Flying Doctor Service Museum, Anzac Hill, the Women Pioneers’ hall of fame, a reptile centre and the Telegraph Station (see below).
Pressing north across endless vistas of red earth under a sky of cobalt, The Ghan pauses at Tennant Creek, a centre of gold production and cattle stations of Santa Gertrudis and Brahmna cattle. Some stations are the size of Belgium. At Katherine there is another extended stop for a boat ride between the towering sandstone walls of the crocodile-populated Nitmiluk Gorge, where the waters can rise eight metres overnight.
The final stretch to Darwin is through densely forested country interspersed with mango plantations and watermelons before mangroves lining the Elizabeth River herald arrival in Darwin, Australia’s only tropical capital. After so many miles of arid country, it is almost a shock to be submersed in such luxuriant vegetation. Among the street trees are frangipanes with their glossy laurel-like leaves and white flowers.
During the stop at Alice Springs, passengers can visit the wonderfully atmospheric Telegraph Station a few miles out of town in a lonely but beautiful riverside location shaded by red river gum trees. The cluster of buildings at what was then named Stuart was part of the telegraph line that linked London with Darwin and Adelaide, which opened in 1872, reducing communication from two months to three hours. Eucalyptus telegraph poles on the overland route were eaten in a matter of months by termites, and 3,000 steel poles had to be ordered from England. Intermediate stations were required because messages had to be forwarded between stations and the signal boosted at intervals by wet-cell Meidinger batteries. The first message Stuart received told of the death from thirst of the man making his way to become the first Station Master.
How to book
The Ghan is operated by Great Southern Rail (+61 8 8213 4401; greatsouthernrail.com.au ) which also operates the other principal long-distance trains in Australia. Depending on the season there are one or two trains a week in each direction. The journey can be broken in Alice Springs, and GSR offers inclusive packages to Uluru, Kings Canyon and other attractions. For a UK booking, contact Trailfinders (020 7084 6500; trailfinders.com ).
The Ghan journey takes about 54 hours with a roughly midday northbound departure arriving in Darwin late afternoon/early evening, and a southbound departure at 10.00 and arriving in Adelaide at lunchtime. The Ghan Expedition (southbound only) takes 73 hours, also departing from Darwin at 10.00. Given the physical challenges that can afflict the railway through this terrain, it is unwise to schedule tight connections.
The two fare levels are are determined by season. One-way per person fares, in Australian dollars, are: Gold Single $2,349 / $2,729, Gold Twin $2,629 / $2,889, and Platinum $3,979 / $4,199.
The Ghan Expedition fares are: Gold Single $3,489 / $3,689, Gold Twin $3,699 / $3,889, and Platinum $5,799 / $5,999. Gold Superior fares are available on request. All off-train excursions are included in the price, as are drinks at meals and in the lounge cars.
There are four classes/level of service on The Ghan: Gold Service Single, Gold Service Twin, Gold Superior and Platinum.
Single or twin Gold Service cabins have three seats which convert into sleeping berths; twin cabins have an en suite lavatory and shower, but single cabins share facilities at the end of the corridor. Beds are made up by the attendant during dinner in the dining car, and there is a lounge car with bar, small library, games and postbox. An upgrade to Gold Superior gives a 3/4-size double bed, a DVD player and screen and various service refinements.
Platinum cabins are almost twice the size of Gold with double bed, lounge chairs and larger en suite lavatory, washbasin and shower. Wood panelling and thoughtful design create an attractive space, and stewards are on hand with beverages and drinks as well as other service touches that add to those of Gold Superior.
Large cases cannot be accommodated in Gold compartments, so it is best to take a small case for the two/three nights.
What to pack
Sunscreen of at least SPF30, a hat and comfortable walking shoes are essential. A powerful insect repellant is vital, and in the Northern Territory between August and November the midges can be vicious. The train’s air conditioning can keep the temperature cooler than some would like. Dress in the dining car is smart casual, usually a tie-free zone.
What to read
The best guide book is Colin Taylor’s Australia by Rail (Trailblazer), now in its 5th edition; it covers the country’s other passenger routes with route descriptions and enough general and city information that you don’t need to carry another guide book. The extraordinary story of the railway’s construction and difficult operation is well told in The Ghan: The Story of the Alice Springs Railway by Basil Fuller (New Holland). Perhaps the most obvious fiction to take is Nevil Shute’s 1950 A Town like Alice, though paradoxically the story has little to do with Alice Springs. None the less it does give a good idea of outback life at the time. For more recent fiction titles, try Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock, made into a film by Peter Weir in 1975; The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough; Voss by Patrick White; The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin; and for outback crime, Diamond Dove by Adrian Hylands. A recent book of photographs, Australia’s Red Centre by Mark Cunich, captures its essence.