Discover the glory days of rail travel on The Ghan
Tired of soulless airport lounges, weary of being crammed into a metallic tube with insufficient space to eat food barely worthy of the name and absolutely fed up with roads ruled by insanity, it was time to look at other options. And those options are all in our heads. We’ve been conditioned to travel for reasons – to get to work, to visit someone or some people, to go to the cinema, a concert. The list is all but endless.
However, each journey involves being in a specific place at a specific time for a specific reason. Travel because you like travelling is different. Whoever coined the aphorism that it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive, knew a thing or two. I’d leave out the hopefully.
For many who are like-minded, cruising hits the spot but for us at least, it’s again crowded, regimented and you’re cooped up for too long. Buses? They run on those roads. Thankfully there are still railways.
We’ve moved on from the days of the red rattlers but where’s the allure of riding the rails for the sheer enjoyment of it?
Having invested in a sleeper cabin on one of the last runs of the Sunlander that for half a century or so meandered a leisurely way from Brisbane to Cairns, I was in search of something more.
I found it on The Ghan. Named in honour of the mostly Afghan cameleers so crucial to European exploration of the Red Centre, the resemblance ends there.
This train has been known to be a kilometre long and can travel at up to 115kmh – a long way from the ships of the desert. And it’s far, far more comfortable. Of course, there are quicker ways to get to Darwin, but they’re for people in a hurry. People on schedules and such.
So we take a flight to Adelaide. It’s only a couple of hours after all, and arrive at the Gouger Street (the locals insist it’s pronounced Googer) pub in time for a late lunch in one of the street’s many (and quite affordable) restaurants.
It’s a great way to prepare for the experience ahead.
And talking of affordable, The Ghan is not cheap – not in platinum class anyway. But you do get picked up by a posh limo at a reasonable hour of a Sunday morning and you are transported in the kind of comfort you’re about to get used to en route to the Adelaide station.
The ground staff (so to speak), all kitted out in smart-casual R.M. Williams uniforms complete with bush hats, whisk away your bags (remember to keep at least one with three days of clothing and toiletries), lead you to the lounge for a welcome Buck’s fizz.
Before you know it, you’re on the train and in your private cabin with Craig serving more champagne and explaining what’s on offer. And it’s quite substantial.
There’s a list of “off-train excursions” as the literature puts it, included in the price you already paid, although helicopter and fixed wing trips cost extra. And that’s the only time you’ll put your hand in your pocket for the next three days. All meals – and drinks – are included in the price.
There’s a private carriage devoted to platinum travellers with bar and restaurant. If the bar is unattended you help yourself. True story. We did just that on maybe the three occasions when staff were elsewhere.
And what staff. We had Lucy (team leader), Gold and Craig, all dedicated to the every whim of 14 platinum service travellers. These kids work hard.
They were there to serve breakfast from 6.30am, lunch and dinner and were still around in the lounge area when we called it a night usually about (alright, after) 10.30.
We can only hope they’re well looked after. They certainly were by a bunch of grateful platinumites at the end of the trip. And then we’re off, this massive train of 240 passengers and 45 staff which will cover not quite 3000km over the next 54 hours. Departing noon on Sunday, we’ll be in Darwin about 5.30pm Tuesday, but who really cares? The journey’s the thing.
So we sip our champagne and then check out the platinum lounge. They’re pretty much our age group including the perhaps inevitable, but highly pleasant, American retired couple. We share a table. Meanwhile The Ghan is chugging along through the heart of South Australia through Port Augusta to Tarcoola (where, by way of trivia, gold was found in 1893, the same year that a horse called Tarcoola won the Melbourne Cup).
The gold rush was short but it did bring the railway and it’s here that we strike off to the north, approximately retracing the steps of Australia’s most prolific and least remembered explorer, John McDouall Stuart, who in his five expeditions covered more miles than his contemporary and compatriot David Livingstone ever did.
His fondness for his native Scotland’s signature tipple may go some way to explaining his comparative obscurity.
By dawn on Monday we’re at Marla, the start of the Oodnadatta Track which passes Lake Eyre on the way to Marree, which is the route the original line took before new track was laid in 1980.
The sunrise on this flat expanse of plain is spectacular, if chilly, which is no doubt why the Ghan crew has organised campfires and hot drinks for those who want to see it.
Back to the platinum car for breakfast where somebody – not me – mentioned bloody marys. No problem, says Lucy. Nothing ever was.
Next stop, Alice. But in the meantime there’s something serene about sitting back with a book (mine was a life of John McDouall Stuart) and watching the centre of Australia go by. Why would anybody want to fly over this?
Dinner’s a relaxed affair in this stratified section of the train with food you wouldn’t find in the sharp end of a long-haul airliner and with wines to match. But the atmosphere is casual, the staff attentive without being intrusive.
And there’s great fellowship to be had around the bar afterwards. I’d never been to Alice before and it still has the frontier feel about it.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service has much history here as does the pioneering radio station that linked Australia with what was then the British Empire via a cable that stretched all the way to Bombay (as it then was).
There’s also the old jail, a confronting if fascinating place to visit, and a display dedicated to the women pioneers of Australia.
We could have spent longer there – not because they’re women but because they’re people you wouldn’t otherwise get to hear about.
Then it’s Katherine where the gorge is nothing short of jaw dropping. Again, a river trip is included but this time because of recent heavy rain we were unable to get up to the second gorge (there are five) where the rock art is more prolific. But the trip through those towering cliffs is breathtaking. You’d have to see it.
And all too soon it’s Darwin. Couldn’t we have another day?