How did the Ghan get its name and why is it so revered by train-spotters?
The train’s name honours Afghan camel drivers who arrived in Australia in the late 19th century to help find a way to reach the country’s unexplored interior. The Adelaide to Alice rail track was completed 90 years ago, but the full track to Darwin was only completed nine years ago. Spanning a length of three thousand kilometres, this is the longest north-south transcontinental train trip in the world. It is the equivalent of training from Wellington to Sydney, and half way back.
What about the dimensions? How long is the track? How big is the train?
The sheer dimensions of The Ghan command respect. My train was over 700 metres long, comprising 26 carriages and over 400 passengers, with a 54 hour journey ahead of us. It’s a steel and sparks epic.
Is it a scenic trip or is it a bore?
Pulling out from Darwin, the broad-leaf soft furnishings of the tropical Top End are very lush and scenic. However, after Katherine, the landscape dramatically changes as you enter the vast sun-burnt Outback. And for the next 48 hours, ochre-red desert sand and spinifex grass becomes your constant companion. But even though the terrain becomes rather tiring, the immensity of the desert, the deserts far-reaching horizons, the sheer magnitude of Australia’s rich-red and brown heart, is what you appreciate. And I have to say, there is something special about an Outback sunset. It certainly lives up to its hype. Slumping ever lower on the horizon, the great orange orb transforms into a ferocious red fireball, leaving in its wake a lingering purple haze in the desert. Very flash.
Where does it stop?
There are two whistle-stops. One in Katherine and one in Alice Springs. The Red Centre stop in Alice is very popular, and you can get off the train for a night or two if you want, for a side trip to Uluru. I’ll talk about the Red Centre next week.Otherwise, the whistlestop is for three hours, for a quick sampler of Alice.
Why did you love Katherine so much?
The prize draw is the Katherine Gorge, sit back and relax as you drift past the fortress-like sandstone cliffs that lord over the waters. It’s a hauntingly tranquil place is steeped in Aboriginal mythology. The local indigenous population, will not journey through the gorge, as they believe it is the domain of a revered serpent. Ancient Aboriginal rock art is painted on some of the sandstone walls.
What about the on-board accommodation and the dining?
There are a variety of options, but I do recommend you book Gold Class, which will give you the rolls-royce experience. The wood-panelled cabins are compact but comfy, with ensuite bathroom. Breakfast, lunch and dinner is served in the Queen Adelaide restaurant car, with military precision. A choice of dishes is offered in each setting. The the quantity of food is adequate without being plentiful. The quality of food is excellent, and features many Aussie flavours like barramundi and kangaroo.
What are the passengers like? Is it like a rest home on rails?
Australian senior citizens do get a hefty discount to travel on The Ghan, so they are the dominant segment of the client base. But there were people of all ages and all walks of life on my train. I was seated next to a couple of larger than life Australian women, in the dining car. They were twin sisters, and they bore an uncanny resemblance to Marge Simpson’s sisters, Patty and Selma. As I was tucking into my kangaroo fillet, my dining companions enlightened me about the eating habits of their brother, Bob who lives in Bourke, and his love for roadkill. He can’t drive past a dead animal on the road, without scooping it up and taking it home to turn into a stew. So, yes, you do meet some characters.
When’s the best time to do it?
The Northern territory’s rainy season comes to an end in March. So April to October is best.The rainy season is the life force for a spectacular array of plant life that takes root in the sandstone walls of the Katherine Gorge. And to see that, at its best, aim to do the Ghan in April or May.
Is it worth doing?
If you’re looking for a spooling reel of photogenic scenery, I would say, no. But if you enjoy trains, enjoying trading tales with travellers, want a first-hand encounter with the immensity of the outback, and a great engineering achievement, The Ghan will tick your boxes.
For further information on The Ghan’s schedule and whistle-stop tours in Katherine and Alice Springs, go to Great Southern Rail’s website. www.gsr.com.au.
( As discussed on Newstalk ZB’s Jack Tame Saturday Morning Show.)