Elisabeth Easther rides the iconic train between Darwin and Adelaide, and finds a wealth of delights, both above and below ground.
My nostrils and lungs filled with rock dust as pebbles cascaded down my front into my bra, but I didn't care because I'd developed a major passion for mining and vowed to keep chipping away until I'd found my fortune.
Bashing at the crumbling cliff, deep beneath the ground in Coober Pedy, I'd found my calling. I'd caught opal fever.
Armed with a smattering of information, a hard hat and a clawhammer, I knew the height of a good seam - about level with my eyes - I knew what this seam would look like and, if I could just find one big enough, I'd never have to work again.
"Come on, Elisabeth, the bus is about to depart - time to let it go, give it up."
It was a struggle to leave, but good manners made me down tools and let Camp Mother Stephanie shepherd me back above ground, to the fresh air, the wide open sky and real life - empty handed and incredibly dusty.
Briefly I fantasised about spending the rest of my life in that funny little underground town, but I wouldn't have finished the train trip of a lifetime - and I couldn't have that.
Cutting a swathe through the centre of Australia, drawing a 2979km line from Darwin to Adelaide, riding The Ghan feels like being taken by rail through the exterior of a western movie.
I kept expecting to see bad guys on horseback, arrows whizzing past the carriage windows or, at the very least, the occasional dingo or kangaroo - but visible signs of life were few and far between and, for most of the four day trip, the landscape consisted of sprouts of tussock, scrubby little trees, an occasional bird and architecturally impressive termite hills.
Binge watching the world through picture windows, as the outback scrolled by, it couldn't have been more exotic or compelling.
Named for the pioneering Afghan cameleers who first made this vast land accessible, The Ghan has been operating since 1929 and, on May 27, she departed on her first ever four-day excursion.
This longer journey offers a wider range of off-train adventures. Aside from riding the rails, we also travelled by barge, aeroplane, camel and on foot. If our guides had been confident the crocodiles were not biting, we'd also have travelled by kayak.
Departing from the dusty Darwin depot, we'd only travelled for about three and a half hours when we stopped in at the Northern Territory town of Katherine (population 6200) and boarded buses for Nitmiluk National Park.
For 23 million years, the Katherine River has been carving its way through the sandstone and as a result, this 292,000ha wonderland is renowned for 13 gorgeous gorges.
The trees around a jetty in the middle of the bush were festooned with bats. They hung like velvety bunting and were much rowdier than you'd expect nocturnal creatures to be during the day.
Ushered into broad-bottomed boats, we motored upriver; marvelling at the trees clinging courageously to the soft rock, a cross-section of riverbeds cemented, over millennia, on top of each other, countless stories high.
Aside from the pleasant boat ride, easy strolls and stunning sights, I was truly thrilled to see a real life crocodile basking on a rock. I was also astonished to learn that the local Jawoyn people have lived round here for close to 45,000 years, a figure that's been calculated using carbon dating, taking samples from the rock art daubed impossibly high up on the cliffs.
The concept of so much time really blows my mind and I returned to the train, to my cabin, to contemplate humanity's great insignificance.
Onboard The Ghan, aside from the food, the staff and our fellow passengers, it was in my small, perfectly formed sleeping compartment that I derived the most pleasure. Each night our beds were freshly made up, one up one down, space being at a premium, there were even little chocolates on the pillows.
After dinner, as we ploughed a path across the desert, I'd press my face to the window and watch the stars twinkling by before falling asleep to the train's rhythmic clatter and hum.
Next stop, Alice Springs - the unofficial gateway to the heart of Australia. Although there is plenty to do in Alice, not knowing when I'd have another chance to experience Uluru (Ayers Rock), I took the sky-high option and was whisked away, across the mammoth Australian Outback in an eight-seater Cessna.
For 70 minutes we flew above the red, red earth, over long, straight roads, dried up old riverbeds and the otherworldly Amadeus salt lakes. Then there she was - Uluru - squatting in the desert like a giant terracotta dinosaur. After picnicking at a perfectly photogenic distance from Uluru, the experience was borderline mystical - the epic landscape almost seemed to buzz - or maybe that was the flies. I wasn't actually going to mention the flies, but they are quite hard to ignore. Just saying.
As we were shown around this most sacred of rocks - respectfully, we didn't climb it or go where the local Anangu people prefer humans not to go - a lesson on cave art taught us how to interpret the symbols and signs. Kangaroo feet indicate a place to hunt, concentric rippled circles the presence of water, and a C or U shape denotes people sitting. You can even tell if it's a male or female backside depicted and no, not the reason you're probably thinking but, rather because of the tools that are drawn beside the person: spears for a man and bowls for a woman. Aboriginal society is run according to clearly defined gender roles.
In spite of the flies, I could have stayed for weeks at this great red rock, it simultaneously calmed me and took my breath away. For some reason, the desert seemed to slow me down but eight-seater Cessnas wait for no one and I had a bush barbecue to attend back at Alice where camel rides, enormous, tender steaks and damper lessons were in full swing. As fires blazed in 50-gallon drums and the low buzz of conversation rippled around us, Australian folk music provided the perfect soundtrack to end a perfect day.
Trundling and rumbling towards Coober Pedy, the Opal Mining Capital of the World, the landscape hadn't changed at all from the previous day and the horizon continued to stretch forever on either side of the train.
Don't be fooled. This land may not look any different from the day before, yet beneath us, there was treasure.
One hundred and ten million years ago, Coober Pedy was underwater and waves like tsunamis battered the land until eventually the tide went out for good.
The marine life (including gargantuan plesiosaurs) died out, filling the cracks in the sedimentary rocks with their silica-rich remains, transforming over time to form the highly prized opals found today. Opals were discovered in 1915, and many of the original miners were soldiers returned from the trenches of World War I.
Accustomed to digging and living beneath the surface, these hardy souls decided that, to survive in this land of extremes, they needed to live underground.
Whether 50C or freezing outside, "downstairs" the temperature doesn't fluctuate much beyond a pleasant 23.
Coober Pedy, Aboriginal for "white man's burrows", is a village of curiosities. Most houses, businesses, churches and bars are below ground. A drive-in movie theatre (one of the few overland attractions, aside from the cemetery) looks like something from The Flintstones, while props from several big movies shot round here litter the upside of town. Our explorations included a visit to the subterranean Serbian Church, to the opal museum, an underground feast and a crack at mining.
Returning to the train, the earth we saw was studded with mounds of silica as far as the eye could see, like turned-out jeans' pockets, evidence of the miners beneath us who'd been "noodling" for the next big seam - the bigger the pile the greater the haul.
Lucky for some, I thought, as I stepped back on to the train, empty-handed, but not at all blue for I'd had the time of my life.
I'd always known Australia was enormous, but to experience that enormity first hand was astounding - from Darwin to Adelaide, crocodiles to camels, dust and all, The Ghan is every bit as spectacular as I'd dreamed it would be.
Details: The Ghan departs weekly between Adelaide, Alice Springs and Darwin. A second service also operates between May and August. All on-board dining, beverages and Off Train Excursions are included in the fare for all Platinum and Gold Service guests. The Indian Pacific departs weekly between Sydney, Adelaide and Perth. A second service also operates September to November.
The writer travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail.