Planes, trains and ...people
Riding aboard The Ghan through the heart of Australia isn’t just about the journey or the destination, but the people you meet along the way.
Travelling along the same tracks used by pioneers, migrants, soldiers, jackaroos and royalty since 1929, The Ghan is no ordinary train. Stretching almost one kilometre in length, the icon is this year celebrating 90 years of cross-country adventure through the heart of Australia.
Not a fan of confined spaces, I admit to being moderately relieved by the sheer size of the train. Stepping aboard, I was reminded that there is a finite amount of space available on this mode of transport. That said, though, every creature comfort you could wish for is close at hand.
The cosy cabin took a little getting used to, so we headed to the Outback Explorer lounge and a more open plan. It was there we soon discovered what it is that makes a trip on The Ghan unique – the people.
The 49 onboard crew are dedicated to making the journey as comfortable as possible and you can’t help but have a chat with the other passengers on board. Before we’d even arrived at our first stop, we’d met all our ‘neighbours’ and made travel buddies that would last the duration of the trip.
Every passenger aboard The Ghan can choose from a range of off-train excursions. I decided early on that, given my aversion to confined spaces, I wanted to be as active as possible and so chose excursions that involved a moderate to high level of mobility. These are those excursions.
After boarding we were treated to a sumptuous lunch and had time for a quick nap before arriving in Katherine four hours’ later (we were a little delayed after an incident involving a wild boar – turns out wildlife cross train tracks too, albeit unsuccessfully).
It was just a 30-minute bus trip to Nitmiluk Gorge (better known as Katherine Gorge) and a guided cruise along the river edged by rock formations dating back millions of years. The gorge was named Nitmiluk after the area was returned to the traditional owners, the Jawoyn people.
The landscape is breathtaking – towering sandstone cliffs varying in colour from red, white and black, thick vegetation and native wildlife ranging from the cicadas after which the gorge is named to freshwater crocs.
The three-hour tour felt like 30 minutes. Back on the train, there was time only for a quick freshen up before we were seated to dinner in Queen Adelaide Restaurant where, again, we were treated to an exceptional three-course meal and great company.
Smack in the middle of the stretch between Darwin and Adelaide, Alice Springs is a quintessential outback Aussie town. Framed by the MacDonnell Ranges, the town is as pristine as it is charming and, for me, was an unexpected highlight of the journey.
After a sumptuous breakfast in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant, we joined our bus driver/guide Kylie on the Simpsons Gap Discovery Walk. Located 18km from Alice Springs, the walk covered three trails on Arrernte land. Along each of these, Kylie provided insights into the flora and fauna of the area and how they sustained the traditional owners for thousands of years.
Don’t be deceived by the clear skies and dry landscape – at the onset of winter Alice Springs can rival the southern-most cities in terms of temperature. It was freezing and an emergency stop at the local Kmart was needed to stock up on gloves, beanies and jumpers in preparation for the Outback BBQ Dinner scheduled for that evening.
Held at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, the birthplace of Alice Springs, the Outback BBQ Dinner was an unforgettable experience. Warmed by open fires, we were treated to a camel ride before indulging in a gourmet barbecue dinner and entertained with a blacksmithing demonstration and live music.
The Alice Springs Telegraph Station was established in 1871 and from there the first telegrams were sent to London in 1872. Messages could be delivered in three to four hours, as opposed to three to four months when sent by ship, the only alternative.
The station was the genesis of global communications and would later be used to accommodate the children of the Stolen Generation – a museum dedicated to this significant part of Australian history has been established on the site. Insightful, emotional and educational, the Alice Springs Telegraph Station is an unforgettable snapshot in time.
‘Kupa piti’ (white man’s hole in the ground) is the largest producer of opal in the world. A tour of this mind-boggling area takes in the Breakaways, a natural rock formation surrounded by barren landscape resembling the moon’s surface that wouldn’t look out of place in a Star Wars film. In fact, this area has featured in many films of this genre, including Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
Equally out-of-the-ordinary is the township of Coober Pedy, where there isn’t a blade of grass in sight and only 30 percent of housing is above ground. It’s like another world that is best explained by the locals on a tour. Lunch underground followed by a tour of the Umoona Opal Mine provides an intriguing insight into life in this remote town.
Our last night on The Ghan was spent much the same way as the previous two nights – everyone singing to the strumming of a ukulele over drinks in the lounge. These people arrived as strangers but will leave as friends. The Ghan doesn’t only travel through the heart of Australia, but into the hearts of all those on board.
The writer travelled courtesy of Journey Beyond.