Crossing Australia's Outback by Train
The Ghan; photo courtesy Great Southern Rail and Tourism Australia.

The classic train journey aboard The Ghan between Adelaide and Darwin reveals how immense, how vast, how achingly, stunningly wide and endless is the Australian desert.

Flying by plane across Australia, the red sandhills and steamy gibber plains (Aussie for our stony desert) fade out of memory, for they are sighted in sporadic bursts via the craning of my neck. By bus…. well, the thought of cramming my family into a moving sardine can for 40 hours through the desert is a thought worth pushing away before it frightens me.

Classic Train Journey: A Road Trip with Space to Move Around

No, this is train country, home to one of the world’s most famous rail lines. Where train tracks converge into a black speck on a horizon, you don’t worry about getting to your destination too quickly and can relax, melting into a rhythm of gentle rocking and rolling. Everything is ‘away there somewhere’.

Train travel is a great experience for families. Barring toddlers who simply would not like being so contained, it’s a great way to see a lot of countryside in comfort. In between points of interest, it is, of course, useful to have thing for kids to do such as drawing, puzzles and games.

The oddest sights roll by. There’s the ‘Iron Man,’ a statue of a railway worker created by the men who built the track appearing as a lonely guardian figure. Then a low-lying mountain (yes, mountains in the desert) breaks up the long horizontal line separating blue sky and red soil. The colors are dazzling, almost as shiny as the outside of the metal train: intense reds from rock and soil, skies brushed with shades of blue from delicate eggshell to blue black, and shiny greens from light emerald to dark olive clothe the plants, skeletal bushes and stunted trees that crackle and whisper in the desert wind.

Face to Face with Camels and the Past

Then we see it… the largest animal in Australia. A wild camel looks lazily at the silver bullet rushing by and when the camel looks at The Ghan, it is looking at the legends woven by its ancestors. In the 1800’s, the ‘Outback’ of Australia experienced by Europeans was a wild frontier with very few transport options. They needed a way to to travel the desert. Camel trains were the only way to get supplies and mail to the outlying pastoral stations, great cattle and sheep farms stretching for thousands of square miles.

Cameleers, brought out from Central Asia, including Afghanistan, all soon wore the title ‘Afghans’. These hardy men with camels opened up the harsh vast desert regions of South and Central Australia, allowing more settlements, people and other developments such as roads to follow and so passed into legend.

Finally a railway, in a 3-foot-6-inch narrow gauge track laid in the 1920’s, stretched from Adelaide on the southern coast to Alice Springs, a town in the center of Australia. It passed well to the east of the current rail route and bore the title the Afghan Express in honour of these legendary men. Like many Australian words, over time Afghan was shortened to the simpler ‘Ghan’.

The original train took two days to get to the center of Australia. Traveling the Ghan was an adventure and an experience into unreliability for, unfortunately, the railway tracks passed through flood plains. When it rains in the Outback, it pours heavily and the usually dry rivers suddenly flood. The steam-hauled Ghan would have to wait the rains out, stuck in a place for hours or even days.

Riding The Ghan Today is Still Unforgettable

Finally, in 1980, a new track was laid with termite-proof sleepers (railroad ties in the US) running through far more stable country to central Australia. An extension to Darwin on the north coast finally opened. The figures are staggering. Taking 30 months to complete at a cost of $AUD1.3billion, the extension involved laying two million sleepers, constructing 93 bridges and using 100,000 tonnes of pre-stressed concrete.

All this in harsh, unforgiving, desert and in intense unrelenting heat. However, the extension has meant that Australia is unique in having a long distance transcontinental ride in both directions – The Ghan train 3000 kilometers north and south and the Indian Pacific train, 4000 kilometers east to west.

Both trains carry the echoes of legend and a sense of the frontier, of opening up wild lands carrying reputations of great traveling difficulty. Australians love their Ghan with a passion that stems from historical legend found deep in their collective psyche. Most of Australia is ‘the Outback’ and anything that helped access the continent’s inland holds a special place for its people.

Daily Life Aboard a Coast to Coast Train

The train offers all modern conveniences hardly found on a camel. Service levels range from Private to Platinum and down to Motorail, which transports vehicles as you sightsee. A choice of two accommodation optionsGold and Red – offers twin or single sleeper cabins, whose bunks fold into lounges during the day. When we traveled, Twin Golds have ensuite bathrooms while singles use a communal shower and toilet located at the ends of the carriages. The décor is colonial with etched mirrors and scalloped curtains, and the colors are muted desert shades such as ochre.

The journey takes 47 hours (can be split into two stages) and covers almost 3,000 kilometers allowing me to indulge in one of my loves of long distance trains – sleeping two nights on a rocking bed. I leave the blind up so we can gaze at the darkening sky and inky black silhouettes of trees and mountains. Stars appear in their thousands with no artificial city lights fading their brilliance.

Woken in the morning with a fresh cup of tea, we bounce out of bed and head off to the dining car for a breakfast of juice, cereal, toast and scrambled eggs with bacon and mushrooms. While we are gone, my steward converts my cabin back into a lounge ready for me to be able to sit back and continue gazing.

Food on The Ghan is satisfying and freshly cooked. A typical journey will carry 170 kilograms of bacon, 45 kilograms of beef, 75 kilograms of barramundi (a native fish), 2,600 eggs, 3,960 bread rolls, 240 portions of pate, 30 sides of smoked salmon, 62 kilograms of gourmet cheese, 1,440 bottles of fine wine and 100 cartons of beer. For dinner, we tuck into the interestingly sounding Yam, Lentil and Cumin Soup (yam is a native root of Australia eaten by the Aboriginals). I savor the succulent Beef Fillet in a fantastic mushroom sauce as a main course (nothing beats prime Aussie beef raised on good soil) and finish up with the Pecan and Marsala Cake (very average – should have gone for the Australian Cheese Selection).

Sightseeing in the Outback from the Rails

In between talking and chewing, we look out at the constantly changing landscape. It’s sunset and the sky is a brilliant orange and yellow. It’s also cooler out there, and animals are on show delighting the children. Kangaroos bounce by and feathered emus strut away, legs and necks extended. Birds flap and soar and I know that the small nocturnal wildlife that slithers, hops, waddles and creeps in the cool and dark of night are emerging from under rocks and bushes.

Out there… somewhere… are also people. Only a few — those who toil in the sun and soil and are a breed apart, such as station workers, geologists, prospectors and miners. A rocket-testing site is also out there somewhere and we notice the odd mob of cattle grazing on the sparse greenery under the shade of small trees.

Breaking Up the Journey in Alice Springs to See Uluru

The MacDonnell Ranges rise to form a natural barrier up ahead, heralding our arrival at Alice Springs.

We have a few days here before boarding the next train to Darwin, and say our goodbyes to the passengers who are continuing north on the same service.

There is a lot to do here, however the main attraction is Uluru, the world’s largest natural monolith, a magnificent red rock rising out of the desert like a huge ancient cocoon buried in the soil. This is a sacred site for the local aboriginal tribe and as I undertake the three-hour walk around its base, I understand why. The walls of the rock are smooth except for strange and otherworldly caves, abrasions, holes and ledges. A strange feeling echoes off the rock, as if it is so old that it exists on a different plane to us small humans with our brief frantic lives.

As the sun sets, the rock turns different shades of red then blue. It’s an awesome experience.

Back to Alice, where we dine on succulent camel and kangaroo in an atmospheric restaurant of polished wood with saddles hanging from the ceiling beams.

The Journey Continues Aboard The Ghan

After our meal, we board The Ghan for the second half of the train journey. Heading north, we enter the Never-Never, so penned by the famous Australian poet Henry Lawson in the late 1800’s, voicing the atmosphere prevalent in this part of the country.

“It lies beyond the farming belt,
Wide wastes of scrub and plain,
A blazing desert in the drought,
A lake-land after rain;
To the skyline sweeps the waving grass,
Or whirls the scorching sand
A phantom land, a mystic realm!
The Never-Never Land.”

If anything, the landscape we see out the windows appears more endless, the horizons farther away. The country seems bigger. Occasionally, as we parallel the highway, we catch a glimpse of a road train, a lorry pulling four enormous trailers behind it – only possible on a highway where there are no speed limits, no tight bends and no traffic lights.

Finally, we reach the northernmost city of Darwin, having traversed the continent, and enjoy a wonderful feeling of achievement. Traveling on the modern, shiny, gleaming metal train does not have much to do with balancing on a hot, dusty, swaying, hairy camel’s back, but a lot to do with participating in one of the great journeys of the world.

Trip Planning Details for The Ghan Adventure

Here’s what you need to know to book this remarkable voyage, with my favorite vendors and stopping places referenced below. First and most important, book your train at Great Southern Railway. (You can call them for more information, too: in Australia at 1800 703 357 and from abroad, call +61 8 8213 4401. Once that’s done, decide how much you will spend at the various stops. I recommend pausing at Alice Springs, visiting Uluru in the Northern Territory, and staying over in Darwin to make the sightseeing easier on the whole family.

For further information, visit the site of Tourism Australia, where you can find great information and images to share with the kids, plus route planning maps and more.

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