The Ghan: A journey to Australia's heart

By Stephanie Flack

Stephanie Flack joins a special Anzac tribute rail journey from Darwin to Adelaide.

The Ghan runs a service between Darwin and Adelaide and hosts an annual Anzac-themed tribute tour. Photo / AAP Photo / AAP
The Ghan runs a service between Darwin and Adelaide and hosts an annual Anzac-themed tribute tour. Photo / AAP Photo / AAP

The 750-metre 31-carriage-long train has stopped, temporarily, on a level crossing in Adelaide River giving the locals a taste of city style peak hour traffic.

We were in Adelaide River - a tiny town 113 kilometres south of Darwin on board the legendary Australian train, The Ghan.

We were there to visit the Adelaide River War Cemetery, the final resting place for 434 men and women who died when war came to the Territory, and Darwin, 70 years ago.

For those riding The Ghan on this trip, it was our first opportunity to pay our respects as part of a four-day Anzac themed tribute tour, making our way from Darwin to Adelaide.

As dusk settled we boarded the train to head to our next destination, Katherine.

The small glow of a bonfire in a park near the rail line was the sign of one last activity for the day as we rolled into Katherine. A group of young Aboriginal men were eagerly waiting and happily danced right up to our cameras, holding poses, as embers from the fire flickered in the background.

I'm not a morning person so I knew I had absolutely no reason to complain when my carriage host Brendan delivered a coffee to my cabin door at 5am on Anzac Day.

Nearly 300 people had gathered in a small park around a cenotaph on a cool autumnal morning for the commemoration. A small choir sang Lest We Forget, and as the Last Post was played, the silence was punctuated by the roar and bellow of the passing trucks and road trains.

Next stop was the Nitmiluk National Park, the site of Katherine Gorge, in the land of the Jawoyn people. Nitmi is the Jawoyn word for "cicada" and the Jawoyn say Nabilil, a major dreaming figure, gave the gorge the name of Nitmiluk because he could hear the "Nit Nit Nit" song of the cicada when he travelled through the country.

Our young Aboriginal guide told us that they believe Bolung, the Rainbow Serpent, still inhabits the deep pools of the second Gorge at Nitmiluk and care must be taken not to disturb him.

As we took a boat ride along one of the gorges, rain gently patterned the calm waters and the occasional crocodile periscoped to the surface to watch our slow progress between the high sandstone walls.

Back on the Ghan, in the vintage-style dining car of the Queen Adelaide Restaurant, we engaged in lively conversations as our cutlery jingled and plates clinked, while carefully managing the soup on a slightly bumpy ride.

From a tiny kitchen on board, chefs produced fresh three-course meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

As night fell, the gliding motion of the train across the undulating tracks rocked us to sleep.

A change of pace came on the third day of our trip when we reached Alice Springs and took a trail ride through the White Gums Station. The trail gave us everything we could have wanted from the experience - wallaby spotting, an ochre clay track, some greenery here and there, a clear blue sky and - in the distance - the Macdonnell Ranges provided the backdrop. Despite the ongoing attempts by flies to photo-bomb my shots, my camera happily produced those iconic outback snaps that I'd been hoping for.

We had only a few hours in Alice Spring before we were due back on board to resume the journey to our next stop, Port Augusta.

Once there, we had one final excursion - a journey back to the 1930s on a railway known as the Pichi Richi. The timber-bodied carriages are pulled by a steam locomotive on a narrow gauge track and passed through white salt plains and the Flinders Ranges on our way to Quorn.

On board the Pichi Richi I spoke with some of the veterans.

"For the sad that goes on with how we came to have Anzac Day, there's a nice side to go with it, the camaraderie," said Jackie, a veteran who served in Bougainville with the Navy.

The veterans I spoke with all agreed that their time on The Ghan Anzac tribute journey renewed their sense of unity.

It was a time to reflect on the unique bonds that are built between service veterans, however different their experiences.


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