The first time I flew over Australia in daylight, heading towards Brunei from the east coast somewhere, I was sat beside the window, peering out. “Gaba,” said my neighbour, a leathery old specimen, still wearing his slouch hat at 33,000 feet.
“Great Australian Bugger All”, he said, and scowled into his beer.
It was true – nothing to see except endless red wastes, looking like a continent-wide nuclear blast had seared the lot. I pitied the poor people who had to cross it on foot. And it took hours to cross it at 950km/h.
My companion had done some traveling in the interior, by car and truck, and you could tell that he’d hated it. A merciless, thankless, thirsty place, and always a relief to reach a spot of civilization, no matter how remote.
Adelaide to Darwin - the Victorian Dream
In about 1878, at Port Augusta, work started on building a railway to bisect Australia from North to South. Adelaide to Darwin was the dream, and 10 years later they’d reached Oodnadatta and ran out of money. 38 years later, with new cash, the line reached Alice Springs, then still called Stuart, and that was the end of the line until work started on the final stretch in 2001 to finish just two years later.
In the interim years the Ghan service ran from Adelaide to Alice Springs. The word “Ghan” came from the Afghans who had been brought in to run camel trains across the red centre to link up remote communities before the railway service. Named “Afghan” after these tough men, it was “Ghan” almost before the paint dried and so it remains today.
The Old Ghan track pretty closely followed the original route pioneered by John Stuart in 1862. Based on ancient trails between water holes and sources of food, it wasn’t the best line for a railway, and the service was frequently disrupted by flash floods and extreme heat. So unreliable was it that it was said you could check your watch by it – if it was on time your watch was broken. The old track was abandoned in 1980 for a modern termite-proof track further to the west.
The new Ghan runs almost 3,000km from Adelaide to Darwin, and since 2004 has been offering a unique passenger service. It might take 48 hours to make the journey, and it might have taken 126 years complete, but there is something so fundamentally impressive about the engineering in the railway and in the massive double locomotive that pulls the train, that it hits you square in the emotions.
The new Ghan runs almost 3,000km from Adelaide to Darwin, and since 2004 has been offering a unique passenger service.
A plane might be more of a marvel, and quicker, but it is remote, a distant whine. The Ghan is a brutally muscular piece of the present, the here and now, and the echo of the air horns over the MacDonnell Ranges is a lot more tangible to those who live in the interior than the contrail of a jetliner on its way to who-knows-where.
Two departures a week in each direction, the Darwin-bound traveller leaves Adelaide just after 5pm and arrives in Alice for lunch the next day. There is time for a rapid tour of Alice, literally a whistle-stop tour, and for another at Katherine the following morning before pulling in at Darwin station at 4:30pm. 2,970 km in 47hrs 15 minutes.
Fares range from a seat at AUD525, a twin sleeper at AUD1,460, or the Gold Kangaroo single or twin sleepers (twins with shower and toilet), and all meals thrown in at AUD1,890. All prices per person, each way. Side tours extra.
Children, concessionaires and backpackers can get discounts worth a few hundred dollars depending on the class chosen.
Gold Kangaroo travellers have their own dining car and a lounge and bar car and enjoy a high level of personal service.
There are plenty of ways to turn this trip into the backbone of a much longer holiday. Start in Sydney, Melbourne or Perth and take the Indian Pacific or the Overlander to Adelaide. Take your car – if it isn’t too high. Almost any car fits on the Ghan, but the NSW part of the Indian limits you to 1.74m high.
Take longer breaks at Alice and Katherine.
Fly to Cairns from Darwin and take the Sunlander to Brisbane.
Crème de la Crème
For the Crème de la Crème traveller there are more options. You can charter a private carriage for little more than the cost of the Gold Kangaroo fare. There are four to choose from. The Prince of Wales accommodates 10 with a private lounge. The Sir John Forrest sleeps six, two in a double room and has a private lounge and a fully-equipped board-room. The Chairman’s Carriage sleeps eight, four in double rooms, and the Sir Hans Heysen sleeps four in two large double rooms, can squeeze in two more on fold-out beds and as well as the usual private lounge there is a self-contained kitchen and a spacious dining area.
Travel in Style.