Our journey on The Ghan railway takes us straight through the heart of Australia. We begin in jumping croc-filled Darwin, pass the gorges of Katherine, the camels in Alice and finally reach the flat-topped Flinders Ranges that line the way to Adelaide. The scenery remains captivating at every turn of the train’s wheels and with eyes fixed on the windows it’s easy to lose track of time altogether.
The effect is almost cinematic. The plush seats line up with the wide-screen windows; visions of termite mounds, cattle farms and galloping emus scroll past the window. The scene starts green and scrubby, moves to burnt orange, then is followed by days of an endless beautiful nothing.
The Ghan is considered one of the world’s most iconic rail journeys and indeed it feels like we have returned to the golden age of travel. In my mind’s eye my husband and I are sepia-toned, enjoying a leisurely ride across Australia in a time before people took to the skies in order to get to their destination faster.
The train’s interiors are reminiscent of a bygone era, even in the recently added Platinum Club which features leather banquettes and lashings of brass trimmings, and as we pass through masses of burnt Australian outback, scorched earth looking the same as it has for hundreds of years, it’s easy to imagine we have travelled back even further than The Ghan’s invention.
The Ghan made its debut passenger journey from Adelaide to Alice Springs in 1929 but its name honours the pioneers who first made tracks into the Red Centre of Australia. Short for Afghan, The Ghan was named after the cameelers (believed to be Afghan but most likely to have come from Pakistan) who came to Australia in 1839 and were crucial in the construction of some of the outback’s earliest infrastructure projects, such as the Overland Telegraph and Trans-Australian Railway.
Time, its endless flow and flexibility, becomes a key ingredient of our Ghan experience. As we sit in our elegant cabin, fixated with the view out the window, time stretches as much as the land before us. We travel back in time through the commentary on the Ghan radio, the voice of train manager Bruce telling us more about the places we pass through and the unbelievably long train that carries us there. (The train we’re on has 32 carriages, 2 locomotives and is almost 900 metres in length.)
Off the train we have a similar experience. In Katherine, we cruise through sandstone gorges, carved by the Katherine River over millions of years, and learn more about the Jawoyn people who called the land home long before trains existed. The Jawoyn name for Katherine is Nitmiluk, meaning place of the cicadas. We pause to listen to them as a breeze brushes across the water.
In Alice Springs it seemed most apt that we fling a leg either side of a camel. On our trek with Pyndan Camel Tracks we learn more about the role of camels in outback exploration and witness for ourselves their strength and resilience in the heat – it’s circa 40 degrees in Alice during our visit and I haven’t exactly been eating light on this trip!
Back at the ranch we browse the camel posters and paraphernalia collected by owner and cameleer Marcus Williams to honour these ‘ships of the desert’.
The final stop on our 3-day Ghan experience is a magical re-enactment of The Ghan’s history. The story goes that passengers wanting to board the train at Manguri (a remote rail siding located 42km from the underground town of Coober Pedy) would flag down the train in the dark by lighting a fire. As we arrive in Manguri around 11pm we follow the lanterns leading us off the train towards a bonfire where staff wait with nightcaps and chocolates. The sky, even on this cloudy night, is blanketed in stars in a way you can only view in the Aussie outback and a telescope has been set up for us to peer at the nearest planet. The evening is another nod to the train’s past and is the perfect way to spend our last evening as a passenger on this timeless experience.
The only thing that passes too fast on the train is mealtime! Gourmet meals and beverages are included in the package and staff serve them so efficiently despite the rumbles and random shakes of the train, which can travel at up to 100km per hour.
The menus are designed to reflect the regions we travel through and notes in the margin explain how ingredients were specially selected from places such as the Adelaide Hills, Kakadu and Kangaroo Island – we can now boast of having quite literally eaten our way across the country. For the first time in my life I venture to try daring (for me!) delicacies like crocodile sausage and kangaroo steak and there isn’t a dish on this train I don’t finish.
Evenings on The Ghan finish early – who knew staring out a window could make you so sleepy? Guests file from the lounge couple by couple until only Justin and I are left with the staff setting up for breakfast. We sway with the train, cradling full bellies, back to our cabin where a comfy bed and nightcap await. We read, we whisper, we sip our drinks and wonder what era the windows will reveal to us tomorrow.