Through The Heart Of Australia On The Ghan
On our recent trip to Australia, hubby and I took the opportunity to travel on one of the world’s greatest rail journeys – The Ghan – from Adelaide to Darwin through the heart of Australia operated by the Great Southern Rail of Australia.
After spending a few days in Melbourne, we took their Overland train service to Adelaide which took 10½ hrs through a rugged landscape that petered out into gentle fields of gold and green through pastoral land into Adelaide in the evening. The journey was most relaxing and comfortable on spacious semi-reclining seats with tons of leg room. We were on the Red Premium class that included meals and for lunch I opted for camel curry (yes, you heard me) and it was delicious, tasted a bit like lamb. While I was enjoying my curry, the image of a spitting camel foaming at the mouth that I encountered on my recent trip to Morocco came to mind. I felt a bit guilty chowing down its relative.
The service throughout the journey was great with attendants serving drinks and snacks and making sure the passengers were comfortable. It was a great way to see the Australian countryside.
All Aboard The Ghan
The air was buzzing with excitement at the Adelaide Parklands Terminal when we checked in while a band was playing to entertain the passengers. At 1215pm sharp, we set off on this epic transcontinental journey making tracks into the heartland known as the Red Centre of Australia from Adelaide to Darwin via Alice Springs. The journey of 2,979km coast to coast would take two nights and three days traversing through a diverse landscape of farmlands to desert scrubland carpeted with paprika red earth interspersed with sparse vegetation and towering termite mounts before entering the tropical region of Katherine. Rocky outcrops and monoliths punctuated the vast expanse of vista painting a countryside of alluring wild beauty that is humbling and captivating.
Originally called The Afghan Express, it was named after the pioneering cameleers from Afghanistan who blazed a trail into the outback of central Australia over 150 years ago with camels to transport supplies for the colonial government. After the railway was built to Alice Springs, it evolved into a passenger service train and the inaugural transcontinental journey in its present form was launched on 1 February 2004 from Adelaide to Darwin via Alice Springs and The Ghan was born.
As could be expected of a train carriage, our cabin was compact but well designed to fit in upper and lower berths which doubled up as a settee in the day time; an en suite bathroom with shower and loo and a tiny wardrobe space. But it was very comfortable and we felt quite snug in our little private space to enjoy the view from our large picture window. There was a lovely lounge with bar with free-flowing drinks and snacks where we could mingle with our fellow travellers who were mostly from
Australia. Everyone was very friendly and in high spirit as we embarked merrily on this luxurious moving hotel. The Queen Adelaide Restaurant with its old-world charm on board served the most amazing gourmet meals every day. Hats off to the chefs who could create such delicious moveable feasts in rattling tiny kitchens on tracks. Every meal was beautifully presented and the menu showcased mostly local ingredients in its meat, wine, cheese, fruits and vegetables in season. Speaking of which, we had kangaroo fillet steak and curry and crocodile boudin blanc (white sausage to you and me) and the sweetest locally grown mangoes….and the divine dessert to finish off the sumptuous meals.
The Red Centre Of Australia
On the second day, we stopped on the desert edge at the small outpost of Marla at the crack of dawn to witness the sunrise. In the fading gloom when the night slipped away as the morning light emerged from the horizon, the whole sky was illuminated with saffron orange surrounded by golden glow as if by magic.
There is something very special about sunrise and sunset in the outback and against the red desert sand, it was spectacular and very moving. Light breakfast of sliders of bacon and eggs with hot tea and coffee around camp fires against the gorgeous sunrise was what made this experience on The Ghan so magical!
We arrived in Alice Springs by the afternoon in the heart of the Northern Territory. There were a few off-train excursions on offer and I opted for a tour of the Desert Park while hubby went off to do a scenic flight to enjoy an aerial view of the Red Centre.
The Desert Park covers an area of 1,300 hectares of desert habitat that interprets Australian desert environment, its inhabitants and the conservation and education of its flora and fauna. It is culturally important to the Arrernte aboriginal people who are the ancestral owners of the land. They shared their invaluable knowledge and wisdom of the native animals, plants and their fascinating culture with us. We explored the Desert Rivers, Sand Country and Woodland habitats and visited the enchanting Nocturnal House in pitch dark to observe creatures of the night in glass showcases with special lighting that simulated their natural habitat. I had never seen so many weird and wonderful reptiles, invertebrates, birds and mammals in my life.
There were thorny lizards that looked like mini dragons and spiders the size of saucers. One of the deadliest snakes in Australia, the Mulga King Brown Snake was thankfully encased in the glass cabinet eyeing us with suspicion. It is one of the longest venomous snake in the world and can grow to a length of nearly 10 feet and deliver 150mg of venom in one bite. Nice! The Desert Park is a must for those who are interested in the natural history of Australian desert habitats.
End Of The Track
On the third and last day, The Ghan made tracks into Katherine, the historic outback pioneering post and the fourth largest Top End town in the Northern Territory. It is dubbed as the “outback meets the tropics” when the arid desert landscape morphed into a steaming tropical savannah woodland of the Northern Territory. The countryside is lush with greenery with an uncomfortable humidity. The town itself is a sleepy outpost but it is the perfect launch pad to some of the most phenomenal natural wonders of Australia with riverine scenery snaking through awesome gorges, picturesque hiking trails, wondrous caves and lofty mountains. It is a chance to truly experience an outback adventure and immerse in the local aboriginal culture.
Our excursion took us on a wonderful cruise in the Katherine Gorge in the Nitmiluk National Park through a dramatic landscape of stunning sandstone cliffs that look like medieval castle walls while some are etched with ancient aboriginal rock art. Scraggly vegetation sprouts from the towering rocks while some are semi-submerged with the rise and fall of the water level. This area is prone to flooding during the wet season that added to the changing seasonal landscape. Here, Mother Nature dictates when you can visit her domain.
All good things must come to an end and by the early evening we arrived at Darwin Berrimah Rail Terminal and bade a fond farewell to The Ghan. What really ticks the box for The Ghan is the excellent service throughout the journey with staff who really enjoy their job and attend to the passengers with warmth, sincerity and a truly friendly Australian hospitality. And a big fat thank-you to all the chefs on board who created such amazing culinary delights every day. If train journey is your thing, get on track with The Ghan, the best way to experience an epic journey through the heart of Australia.