July 08, 2012


David Ellis and John Rozentals


IT may not have the mystique of Agatha Christie's Orient Express, or require the week-long stamina of the Trans-Siberian, but there's no doubting the status of Australia's The Ghan as one of the world's great rail journeys.


Because this is an epic 54-hour transcontinental expedition covering almost 3000km between Adelaide and Darwin, and offering both an eye-opening look at our spectacular Inland, and a captivating insight into our pioneering past.


Originally begun in 1878 to link Adelaide with Stuart – now Alice Springs – it took 51-years to reach Alice, and another 75 years after that to get to Darwin.


And early passengers were never led to believe there was much in common between official- and actual-time: on one occasion in the 1930s when the train finally chugged into Stuart a fortnight behind schedule, rather than the driver, fireman, cook and guard being lambasted as bumbling public servants, they were lauded as Heroes of the Outback.


Because when their train became trapped in floodwaters in the middle of nowhere, the crew had gone off daily to shoot wild goats, and butcher and feed these, and tea, to their passengers thrice daily until the floodwaters subsided. As a journalist of the day noted: "Timetables are a matter more of hope than fact… not only is the hour of arrival indefinite, but also the day."


It is far different in today's air-conditioned Ghan – so named after the Afghan camel drivers who ferried freight from where the train terminated for many years in Port Augusta, to Stuart. Seeing the camel-train dust on the horizon, Outback locals would send the word north: "The 'Ghan's are coming…"


Modern-day travellers have a choice of seating-only Red Class, Gold Class double-sleeper with ensuite, and the more-luxury Platinum Class.


But even the highly-popular Gold Class sitting/sleeping cabins are not where you want to spend the majority of your time on this eye-opening journey: the Lounge Car is the place Gold Classers head for, with picture windows, reading material, a bar, and the opportunity to chat with fellow travellers who come from around the world.


And it quickly becomes apparent that that they could just have as easily called this part of the train Baby Boomer Class, for here are people looking for comfort and good food and wine as they crack into the kids' inheritance on this cross-desert soft-adventure…


Conversations quickly turn to the surrounding countryside, and while it's easy to imagine the Australian Outback as a possibly boring, scrubby, same-ish environment, its one that quickly proves that the more you look, the more you see...


On the journey south from Darwin, there's time for lunch before a stop at Katherine, a lunch that introduces guests to the skills of chefs Karen Chandler and Chetin Suri and their culinary wonders from an amazingly tiny kitchen.


The stop at Katherine allows a chance to join an (additional cost) tour into the Nitmiluk National Park, including a cruise through part of the Katherine Gorge and a viewing of indigenous rock art; the tour is run by the local Jawoyn people and their applause-earning expedition leader, Robbie Braun.


The Ghan's other stop for sightseeing is at Alice Springs next morning, and while the train's parent company, Great Southern Rail is based in Adelaide, its spiritual home is here in Australia's very centre...


A must-visit during the three-hours at Alice is the Araluen Cultural Precinct with its Arts Centre, Museum of Central Australia, the Strehlow Research Centre that's a repository of material relating to the local Arrernte people, a craft studio, and the Central Australian Aviation Museum.


And back on board, there's time for drinks in the lounge car, a chat with fellow guests – many of them rail buffs with infinitely detailed diaries of their international train travels – and later, while enjoying a leisurely dinner with wine (optional cost,) staff convert Gold Class cabin seating into double bunks.


Wake-up calls come at about 6.30am through a friendly rap on the door, and tea or coffee. Then a quick shower in an ensuite that's a miracle of compaction, breakfast – and another amazement-filled day as The Ghan continues its eye-opening 3-day, 2-night journey south…


For details see travel agents or go to Great Southern Rail www.gsr.com.au.





[] THE GHAN – one of the world's great rail adventures

[] THE GHAN snaking its way through a diversity of outback landscapes

[] MEMORIAL on Alice Springs station to the Afghan camel drivers who

   opened up the outback.

[] OUTBACK ruins along the track of The Ghan

[] GOLD CLASS dining car: exceptional cuisine from a wobbly kitchen

[] CHEFS Karen Chandler and Chetin Suri bring it all together

[] SLEEPER cabin in Gold Class – a miracle of compaction

(Photos: Sandra Burn White and Great Southern Rail)


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