Inside track on the Ghan Expedition

Travelling Well | Words: Gary Tippet | Photos: Anne Morley | Posted on 06 August 2017

The legendary Ghan is like no other long-haul train journey.  We explore its weekly 2979-kilometre cross-continental journey from Darwin to Adelaide.

I am dancing with my wife in the red dirt behind the historic Alice Springs Telegraph Station. A bush trio is playing a languid – and very fitting – version of Moondance.

There is a scent in the air of perfectly cooked steak and the clink of wine glasses. We are ringed by spot-lit ghost gums, a camel snorts in the background, and a meteor burns a brief arc across the warm starry night.

This is like no long-haul train journey I’ve ever imagined.

the ghan at night

The Ghan at night.

And yet we – and the other 293 people here – are “aboard” the legendary Ghan, at the halfway point of its weekly 2979-kilometre cross-continental journey from Darwin to Adelaide.

Each winter dry season, the Ghan transforms from its traditional role, of simply carrying its train-bound passengers between the two capitals, to the Ghan Expedition, which over four days and three nights takes them on excursions to some of outback Australia’s most iconic spots – Katherine and Nitmiluk Gorge, the Alice and Simpsons Gap, and Coober Pedy.

In 1974 I took the Ghan from Port Augusta to Alice Springs on an ill-fated journey to the Top End. In those days it took a different route, more than 100 kilometres to the east, passing through Quorn, Leigh Creek, Maree and Oodnadatta and skirting the Flinders Ranges and Lake Eyre South.

Back then, to differentiate the passenger service from the freight train, locals called it the ‘Flash Ghan’. (The freight was the ‘Dirty Ghan’.) I was going second-class so I don’t remember it as particularly flash, but it was memorably slow. It rattled on narrow-gauge track laid on termite-bitten wooden sleepers across flood-prone shifting sands and at times positively dawdled. Every so often, it simply stopped and waited… and waited.

It’s no bullet train by a long stretch.

Once, folklore has it, the old Ghan sat in one spot for two weeks and the engine driver was forced to shoot wild goats to feed his passengers.

In 1980, the track shifted west to a new standard-gauge line on concrete sleepers (though the long-awaited 1420-kilometre second stage to Darwin was not completed until 2004). But this Wednesday morning, as the Ghan pulls out of the terminal on Darwin’s East Arm, it seems little has changed.

simpsons gap
tali wiru with sunset in background

Simpsons Gap.

For 10 minutes it creeps, painfully slowly, through the scrub and industrial landscape of the Berrimah Yards. Gradually, as it turns south towards Batchelor and the Adelaide River, it picks up speed. It’s no bullet train by a long stretch: its top speed is 115km/h but it crosses the continent at an average of just 85km/h.

(I should add that “stretch” is the apt word for today’s Ghan. Our 38 carriages and two diesel-electric locomotives span more than 950 metres, but the record is held by the inaugural trip on February 1, 2004, when the two locos and 43 carriages covered more than a kilometre of rail.)

More speedily, we have abandoned our tight but comfy cabins for one of the train’s Outback Explorer Lounges. Ours is named for Burke and Wills – perhaps cruelly, given that they died malnourished and exhausted while here the canapes, beers and bubblies are flowing. Soon we’ll head for lunch in a Queen Adelaide dining car – perhaps a beetroot, sweet potato and tomato tart, a buffalo curry and a mango sponge.

Small freshwater crocodiles laze harmlessly on the river edge.

Four hours into the journey we ease into Katherine to head out on our first excursion. Some choose an “Outback Experience” on a nearby cattle station, while the better heeled take optional helicopter or fixed-wing flights over Nitmiluk and Kakadu National Parks.

We opt for a more leisurely cruise and hike through Nitmiluk – formerly Katherine – Gorge, guided by some of its traditional owners, the Jawoyn people. Sheer sandstone cliffs surround us and birdsongs and calls of the cicada, for which the Gorge is named, bounce off their walls. Small freshwater crocodiles laze harmlessly on the river edge – though a two-and-a-half-metre saltie was trapped just the week before.

Departing Alice Springs stationat sunset

Departing Alice Springs station.

Northbound Ghan Expeditions take in a sunrise at Marla, South Australia

Northbound Ghan Expeditions take in a sunrise at Marla, South Australia

Another excellent meal, a few more drinks in the lounge and we return to our cabin to find the beds turned down, a mint on the pillow, and it’s off to sleep – or not – to the sway and rattle of the carriage.

As we rise in the morning, the Ghan is not far north of Alice Springs and our next excursions: perhaps an exploration of the Alice, a mountain bike ride in and around the Todd River, or even an optional flight over Uluru. We opt for the Simpsons Gap Discovery Walk.

Again, it’s a great choice. According to the Arrernte Aboriginal people, the gap, which they knew as Rungutjirpa, was the Dreamtime home of a group of giant goanna ancestors. Several dreaming trails and stories cross the site and it’s easy to feel the spirituality of the place – and impossible not to be awed by its beauty and serenity.

Under the span of the Milky Way we ride camels, eat, dance and sing.

Suddenly the drone of a didgeridoo fills the canyon. It is our excellent bus driver Andrew, who has led us on walks through the surrounding mulga and introduced us to many of the 40 rare and relict plants that surround the gap. He gives us a short lesson on how to play the tricky indigenous instrument and someone dubs him ‘Didgeri-Drew’.

After lunch we commune with shy dingos, inquisitive emus, oblivious bilbies and a cheeky black cockatoo at the Alice Springs Desert Park and then it’s back to the train to dress for dinner at the Telegraph Station.

It was here that the town of Alice Springs had its birth. The Arrernte have lived here for thousands of years, but in March 1871 surveyor William Mills passed by searching for a route for the Overland Telegraph Line. He came across a waterhole and named it for Alice, the wife of his employer Charles Todd.

the ghan exterior near port pirie
the ghan interior view of the desert

It was never a spring, but the name has stuck to the settlement that slowly grew up around the station.

The station, which operated for 60 years, is also the spot for our Outback barbecue and under the span of the Milky Way we ride camels, eat, dance and sing. It’s the perfect end to a terrific day – or would be if most didn’t head back to the Explorer Lounges for nightcaps.

The Afghan cameleers who helped open the red heart of Australia abstained from alcohol and pork. Each day’s feat of endurance was supported by little more than curries, water and tea.

The Ghan staff are a versatile lot, preparing food, serving meals, and not bad on the coffee machine, either.

Their privations would not be lost on 21st-century travellers on The Ghan, named in the cameleers’ honour, who gather each afternoon in the lounge car – if much thought was given to pioneers and camels, that is.

With the bar open and the conversation assuming an escalating hum, stories are told accompanied perhaps by a Crown Lager or Croser sparkling. A dozen Australian-only wines cover a solid range from Clare Valley riesling and Barossa Valley shiraz to Coonawarra cab sav and fortifieds.

The Ghan staff are a versatile lot, preparing food, serving meals, and not bad on the coffee machine, either.

Breakfast is hearty: something healthy before the main event, which might include a white chocolate and lychee pancake, ham frittata or eggs Napoli. Menus change to reflect passing local foods whether it is barramundi, beef, buffalo, kangaroo, chicken or top-class Barossa Valley charcuterie and cheeses. And there is a delightful synergy in enjoying a fresh mango parfait while plantations of the tropical fruit roll past outside the window.