Coast breakfast host Brian Kelly traverses Australia from top to bottom aboard the Ghan, following the trail of pioneers
It's a balmy Thursday evening and I'm sitting in the back yard of the historic Alice Springs Telegraph Station with my fellow passengers from the Ghan Expedition railway journey. We had left Darwin the previous day on a four-day, three-night, 2979km journey through the centre of Australia. Along the way, there would be stops and off-train excursions at Katherine, Alice Springs and Coober Pedy.
The Ghan — one of three great Australian Train Journeys run by Great Southern Rail — gets its name from the cameleers who came to Australia from Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1839 and were nicknamed "Ghans" by the locals. They played an important role in the construction of the Port Augusta-to-Alice Springs railroad that carried supplies to the early settlers in the outback. With the gradual introduction of rail, the camels and drivers lost their economic value and many of the cameleers released their charges into the wild, where they flourished. Today, there are thought to be around a million wild camels in the Outback.
It wasn't until 2001 that the first sod of soil was turned to extend the rail line from Alice Springs to Darwin, a distance of 1420km. Amazingly it took just 30 months to build, and since the Ghan's first journey back in 2004, more than half a million travellers have embarked on this amazing rail experience through the red centre of Australia.
The first thing that struck me on arrival at Berimah Railway station, Darwin, was the sheer size of the train.
It's pulled by two giant diesel electric locomotives and is 902m from nose to tail. There are 38 carriages offering the 248 passengers a choice of platinum or gold service accommodation. Plus there are four restaurants serving the local cuisine along with wines and ales.
Helpful staff directed us to our cabins then explained on-board dining options and the off-train excursions at each stopovers.
Our first stop was at Katherine Gorge on Wednesday afternoon. Here a cruise took us down the Katherine River and into two of its monumental gorges with their towering sandstone cliffs while the skipper told us of the indigenous Jawoyn people who look after the area. Back on the train there was just enough time for a shower, change of clothes and a cold beer in the bar before heading to dinner — a three-course meal with local wines. It's a great way to meet fellow passengers, who have come from all over the world.
Returning to the cabin after a nightcap, the bed had been made up, and the gentle rocking motion of the train lulled me into a good night's sleep. The next morning we arrived in the heart of Australia — Alice Springs.
Excursions here included an Alice Springs Desert Park guided walking tour, Simpsons Gap Discovery Walk, and an offroad mountain biking "adventure", but I chose the optional upgrade of a fight to Uluru, which included a guided tour. Uluru is one of Australia's most iconic symbols and to be able to picnic by this ancient monolith then tour the base and have some of its incredible features pointed out to us by the guides was well worth it.
Flying back to Alice aboard our six-seater Cessna and looking out at the land below, I gained an impression of just how vast and ancient this continent is. We flew over the Finke River, one of the oldest rivers in the world.
The highlight that evening was the Outback Pioneer Dinner at historic Alice Springs Telegraph Station. We had a great night in this dramatic setting, entertained by a local band.
We were also treated to a talk on the night sky complete with laser lights to point out the distant stars and planets — and to top it off for the adventurous, camel rides were on offer.
The evening meal featured an entree of chicken and leek pie, followed by steak cooked on the charcoal barbecue, pavlova and top Australian cheeses — not bad in the middle of the Outback!
It does get cold at night out there but the Great Southern Rail team think of everything and on every chair was a complimentary poncho — a nice souvenir of the trip. Our next stop, Coober Pedy, is an opal mining town, some 680km south of Alice Springs. It's the largest producer of the gemstone in the world and has a population of around 3500, many of whom live underground due to the extreme temperatures, which can reach around 50C in summer.
Opal-inspired outings were on offer, but I opted for a trip to the majestic Breakaways Reserve, which got its name from the colourful low hills that appear from a distance to have "broken away" from the higher ground. It looked like a lunar landscape. The view from the Breakaways lookout is spectacular and again Great Southern Rail sprang a lovely surprise.
On arrival there was a table set up complete with white cloth and a selection of drinks . . . in the middle of a desert. Nice.
On the drive back to Coober Pedy we stopped off at the Great Dog Fence. This unbroken wire fence is more than 5300km long and stretches through South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales as a barrier to prevent dingoes entering the sheep country of the south.
On arrival at Coober Pedy we were taken straight to the Golf Club. There was not a blade of grass to be seen . . . even the greens were grassless. But if you are a golfer it's worth the annual fee of $75 to join. That fee gives you affiliate membership and playing rights to St Andrews in Scotland. Not a bad deal.
We had lunch inside the working Opal Quest Mine, a working mine and when lunch was over it was into the mine, complete with complimentary Ghan hardhats for a guided tour by one of the town's characters, George, who has been mining all his life. We finished off the day with a guided interactive tour of the museum which included a look at one of the original underground homes. The train sat waiting for us at a little siding in the middle of nowhere, called Manguri and there was another surprise in store. We were welcomed off the bus with a fresh handtowel to wipe the dust from our faces. An outside fire was burning and again we enjoyed drinks and canapes while chatting with fellow travellers in the empty landscape.
It was quite an experience.
Back on board we had one more night and an 850km leg to cover before arriving in Adelaide — the end of the line for us.
We rolled in just on 11am on Saturday morning after an incredible trip. I can see why it's rated as one of the world's great train journeys. There is nothing quite like the magic and romance of a relaxing train holiday and this one stayed right on track.
Riding the rails:
The Darwin-to-Adelaide expedition operates between April and October. See
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