Justine Tyerman explores Coober Pedy's surreal landscapes, opal mines, underground dwellings and a grassless golf course on The Ghan Expedition, a 2979km four-day, three-night train journey through the 'Red Centre' of Australia from Darwin to Adelaide.

The old codger - that's what he called himself - loaded the dynamite into the hole he had drilled and began fiddling with the fuse. Nervous laughter rippled among the 30 or so Ghan passengers watching the demonstration by the 76-year-old miner. A few edged towards the exit sign. He wouldn't . . . would he?

We were in an opal mine deep underground in Coober Pedy and George was giving us a spiel on blasting . . . with all the appropriate props. He was clearly relishing having a captive audience in his 'office' and was keen to give us an authentic experience.

An old-timer's underground dwelling in Coober Pedy. Photo / Justine Tyerman
An old-timer's underground dwelling in Coober Pedy. Photo / Justine Tyerman

"Not many of us underground miners left around Coober Pedy these days," he said with a strong accent from somewhere in Europe. "We're a dying breed," he grinned holding the fuse in one hand and the lighter in the other.

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"Lunchtime!" our hostess called from further back down the tunnel.

Everyone suddenly decided they were ravenous despite having feasted on a three-course breakfast followed by morning tea just a few hours earlier.

Explosives was a popular topic of conversation over lunch at an underground restaurant in George's opal mine, a taste of Coober Pedy's famous subterranean lifestyle. In days gone by, our hostess explained, dynamite used to be so commonplace, miners bought sticks of it from the local store along with their bread and milk. The drive-in theatre had a sign that read: 'The use of explosives is not permitted in the theatre.' But there was always some wise-crack who let off 'a few fireworks' on New Year's Eve, she said.

Lunch in an underground restaurant in Coober Pedy. Photo / Justine Tyerman
Lunch in an underground restaurant in Coober Pedy. Photo / Justine Tyerman

It was day 3 of The Ghan Expedition, a 2979km four-day, three-night epic train journey through the 'Red Centre' of Australia from Darwin to Adelaide, and we were spending the day at Coober Pedy, halfway between Alice Springs and Adelaide.

Coober Pedy is regarded as the opal capital of the world producing about 70 percent of the global production of this beautiful precious stone. Opals were discovered here in 1915 by Willie Hutchison, aged 14, who wandered off from the campsite alone against the strict instructions of his father, a prospector. Willie came back with a sugar bag full of opals and also found water so needless to say, he was quickly forgiven.

Earlier that day, I awoke to a dazzling dawn of gilt-edged clouds and red earth glowing in the morning sun. There was very little vegetation and the horizon was dead flat, like the Nullarbor Plain that had mesmerised me on my Indian Pacific journey a few months before.

Train freak? Yes, hopelessly addicted.

During the night, The Ghan had crossed the waterless Hugh and Finke rivers. The Finke is believed to be the oldest river system in the world dating back 300 million years. I would love to have seen it in the daylight, or better still been able to jump off the train to watch the silver Ghan traverse the bridge over the red, rippled sand of the dry riverbed.

Soon after, we arrived at Manguri a remote siding literally in the middle of nowhere, our disembarkation point where coaches were lined up to take passengers on a variety of Coober Pedy excursions.

Our driver Mike was also an outstanding guide who filled our 42km drive on a corrugated, unsealed road with an informative commentary about all aspects of the area.

The Ghan crossing a dry riverbed in the 'Red Centre' of Australia. Photo / Great Southern Rail
The Ghan crossing a dry riverbed in the 'Red Centre' of Australia. Photo / Great Southern Rail

He pointed south east towards the 23,677 square kilometre-Anna Creek Station, the world's largest working cattle station, 140km from Coober Pedy. And south west towards Maralinga where Britain carried out nuclear bomb tests in the 1960s, and the Woomera Prohibited Area, a 122,000 sq kilometre site declared a prohibited area in 1947. Important space technology was tested at Woomera that contributed to the 1969 moon landing. Fascinating stuff.

The landscape was dotted with piles of earth called mullock heaps and bent-over towers above mine shafts where prospectors were excavating in search of opals. There are 2 million mullocks in the Coober Pedy area, with shafts up to 60-70 metres deep so you definitely don't want to venture off the beaten track here, especially at night.

The towers, known as 'blowers', operate like giant vacuum cleaners to suck the earth up the shaft to the surface. They really should be called suckers not blowers.

We also saw a number of 'black lighting rigs' where miners search tailings using ultra-violet light. When lit up with a black light, opals glow or fluoresce.

Our first stop was a lookout above the Breakaways, a breath-taking, surreal landscape where a series of colourful flat-topped hills or 'mesa' appear to have broken free and drifted away from the main plateau of the Stuart Ranges.

The colours - white, cream, pale pink, orange, mossy green, red, ochre, brown and black – were astonishing, especially when the sun emerged briefly from behind the clouds. The temperature was comparatively cool here after the heat of Darwin, Katherine and Alice Springs.

The Breakaways are located in the 15,000-hectare Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park which belongs to the indigenous Antakirinja people who have inhabited the area, known to them as 'Umoona' meaning 'long life', for thousands of years.

Submerged under an icy inland sea 100-120 million years ago, the region is rich in dinosaur fossils from plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs.

After morning tea . . . and bubbly, believe it or not! . . . we drove a short distance to rock formations known as 'Salt and Pepper' due to their distinctive colours, or 'Two Dogs Sitting Down' to the aboriginal people. Nearby was a peaked hill, known as 'Wati' (man), the owner of the two dogs, and 'Sleeping Camel', a site of great significance to Antakirinja.

Our next stop was the 'Dog Fence' built in the 1880s to protect sheep against dingo attacks. Stretching over 5300km through South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales, it's the longest fence in the world.

The surrounding terrain is called the 'Moon Plains' because of their striking resemblance to a lunar landscape. The earth was littered with gypsum which sparkled in the sun.

After our delicious lunch served at long tables set up in a series of underground tunnels, we visited the Umoona Opal Mine with guide Jacquie who explained the various types of opal from dark to light, and the way they are mounted. Opals are valued according to brilliance, darkness, pattern, colour and shape – the more colour, the higher the value.

Jacquie also explained the history behind the intriguing name of Coober Pedy, and the reason for the underground dwellings. When opals were found here in 1915, miners came in their droves, many living underground to escape the intense heat and cold. Intrigued by this strange practice, the aboriginal people described the unusual living conditions as 'kupa piti' meaning 'white man in a hole'. The name stuck and the settlement became known as Coober Pedy.

One of the hottest places in Australia, summer temperatures often reach 45 degrees Celsius with ground temperatures as high as 65 degrees. In the winter, temperatures can plunge to zero. Underground, the temperatures are 21-24 degrees year-round meaning no heating and cooling are required, allowing for very economical living.

Seventy percent of Coober Pedy's population of 1900 live underground in dwellings dug into hillsides. Each room has at least one airshaft. In the early days, the dwellings were dug out by hand but now modern drilling machinery is used. The house we toured with Jacquie was spacious and quite luxurious.

We also visited the town's 18-hole golf course. Officially one of the top 10 most unique golf courses in the world, it's totally grassless and the 'greens' are oiled earth. There's artificial green turf on which to tee off but otherwise the entire course is dirt and sand. A large sign reads: 'Keep off the grass.' When it's too hot to play during the day, night golf with illuminated courses and fluorescent balls is a popular option.

Our last stop was the exquisite St Elijah's Serbian Orthodox Church built underground in 1993. Guide Peter showed us around his ornately-decorated church tunnelled deep into a hillside. The main body of the rectangular building was shaped using a square drilling machine but for the ceiling, a rounded machine was used to create the beautiful cinquefoil arch, a striking feature of the church.

The exquisite St Elijah's Serbian Orthodox Church built underground in 1993. Photo / Justine Tyerman
The exquisite St Elijah's Serbian Orthodox Church built underground in 1993. Photo / Justine Tyerman

Back at The Ghan, the crew had organised a surprise for us, a sunset bonfire with canapés and drinks against the stunning backdrop of the lantern-lit Ghan. I looked around at the animated faces of the 285 people who were strangers just a few days earlier, and proposed a toast to my own delightful new friends from Spain, Germany and Australia. There was a touch of magic in the air that evening.

After a sumptuous farewell dinner, restaurant manager Nick joined us in the bar and recited a beautiful poem he had written about The Ghan.

Around the fire, we watch the sun set,

Reflecting on memories we'll never forget.

New friendships are made, an unbreakable bond.

This is more than a train trip, it's a journey beyond.

It brought tears to my eyes.

I was awake before dawn on the last day to witness sunrise over the Flinders Ranges that stretch 430km. On the other side of the train, the blue waters of the beautiful Spencer Gulf sparkled in the sun, and as we neared Adelaide, there were golden wheat fields, green pastures, tall haystacks and rolling hills, such a contrast to the arid, red landscape we had traversed in the preceding days.

Heading north out of Port Augusta near Yorkeys Crossing, with the Flinders Ranges in background. Photo / Dave Atherton
Heading north out of Port Augusta near Yorkeys Crossing, with the Flinders Ranges in background. Photo / Dave Atherton

The massive turbines of the Snowdon Wind Farm on the ridges of the Barunga and Hummocks Ranges were a dramatic sight. With blades up to 53m in length weighing 10 tonnes each, they are expected to generate enough energy to power 230,000 homes, about 40 percent of South Australia's annual electricity needs.

The schedule of excursions had been so full-on, I had spent little time reading about this magnificent train which is due to celebrate its 90th birthday in 2019.

As we trundled towards Adelaide, I had time to delve into the history of The Ghan originally known as the 'Afghan Express', named for the pioneering cameleers who blazed a permanent trail into the Red Centre of Australia more than 150 years ago. Many cameleers were migrants from an area now known as Pakistan. However, according to outback lore in the 1800s, these men were believed to come from the mysterious outpost of Afghanistan and were considered Afghans - 'Ghans'.

The original Ghan line followed the route of explorer John MacDouall Stuart. Construction began on the Port Augusta to Alice Springs line in 1877 but it was not until Sunday August 4, 1929, that an excited crowd gathered at the Adelaide Railway Station to farewell the first Ghan train. This train carried supplies and over 100 passengers bound for the remote town of Stuart, now known as Alice Springs. The train arrived on August 6.

In 1980, the old Ghan rail track was abandoned in favour of a new standard-gauge rail line built with termite-proof concrete sleepers. The track was laid further to the west to avoid the flooding problems encountered along the old route.

In 2001, the first sod was turned on the 1420km extension of the railway line from Alice Springs to Darwin. At its peak, 1500 people worked on the project and the new line was completed in just over 30 months, five months ahead of schedule.

The Ghan embarked on its inaugural transcontinental journey on 1 February, 2004. Since then, more than half a million passengers have travelled on the train.

Having experienced the Indian Pacific trip from Perth to Sydney a few months earlier, I found the two journeys quite different. There's more on-train time on the Indian Pacific so it's extremely relaxing with many hours to read, day-dream, doze, socialise, enjoy the on-board entertainment and watch the landscape. I found the three-night, four-day journey a deeply restful interlude in my busy life, an opportunity to recharge my physical and mental batteries.

On The Ghan, passengers are off the train on exciting excursions for most of the daylight and some evening hours so the bulk of the long stretches of travel are during the night. The only daytime travelling is the first day from Darwin to Katherine and the last day from around Port Augusta to Adelaide.

Don't ask me to choose. They are both outstanding train journeys.

As we pulled into Adelaide, I had a sense of loss and didn't want to rejoin the real world. The Ghan has a true romance, mystique, elegance, and presence, and I was loathe to disembark. I felt bereaved as I hugged our wonderful crew and my new friends goodbye.

Lines from Nick's poem echoed in my mind as I wandered down the platform feeling disorientated:

This is more than a train trip, it's a journey beyond.

"See you on the Eastern and Oriental Express next year," my Spanish friend and fellow train nut yelled after me.

Factbox

• The Ghan Expedition is a 2979km four-day, three-night train journey through the 'Red Centre' of Australia from Darwin to Adelaide.

• Justine travelled courtesy of international rail specialists Rail Plus and Great Southern Rail.

• Visit Great Train Journeys for more information on The Ghan; see here for the latest deal to celebrate its 90th anniversary, or call 09 377 5420 for other epic train adventures around the world.