The Ghan – Traversing Australia’s Outback in Style
The Australian outback is a vast place. You can choose to touch it lightly by air, or attack it with vigour by road. Or, there is another way to experience it – by gently caressing it through the romance of train travel.
The Ghan Expedition offers such an experience. It follows the traditional route of Aboriginals, early adventurers and Afghani cameleers (hence the name The Ghan), who were brought to Australia in 1839 to assist explorers to carry goods, and later, build vital inland rail links between Darwin and Adelaide, right through the red heart of central Australia.
The Ghan is the perfect way to see the outback in its raw state, from the comfort of your airconditioned carriage. The Ghan Expedition is a four-day, three-night journey that covers almost 3,000 kilometres. Over 1 km in length and boasting 43 carriages, with almost 300 passengers and 50 staff, it is an impressive hotel on wheels!
I travelled with my 89 year-old mother in early May, when the extreme heat of the summer was starting to wane. We shared a double cabin with bunk beds and an ensuite shower/toilet, in Gold Class. It was compact but comfortable, generally not recommended for sharing with anyone other than someone you know intimately, as privacy is virtually impossible! Luggage space is also limited so it is best to take a cabin-sized suitcase and small backpack for daily activities.
There is also the option of a single Gold Class cabin with one bed and shared shower and toilet, and Platinum Class cabins which are twice the size of Gold Class and include a double or twin beds with ensuite. Each class has its own lounges and dining cars and a plethora of staff to service your every need.
Most meals are taken on the train and were of an extremely high quality, including Australian delights such as crocodile sausage, prawn and pork dumplings and saltbush lamb, and waist-expanding desserts of macadamia tart and chocolate brownies. Wines were also top-shelf Australian varieties, including Petaluma Croser Sparkling, Vasse Felix Chardonnay, Tim Smith Mataro, Grenache, Shiraz and Penfold’s Club Reserve Port. Premium beers and spirits are also included in the package.
The evenings were spent sleeping between stops, and by day we explored the tropical town of Katherine, the outpost centre of Alice Springs and the opal mining settlement of Coober Pedy.
Getting used to sleeping on a moving train can take a while, or if you are like me, I felt like a baby being gently rocked to sleep, so found the movement sublime!
A variety of off-train expeditions are included in your journey, ranging from low to high fitness level required, so there is something to suit every age and circumstance. On our trip there was a family with young children and a grandmother who was 92, with every age in between, although probably mostly in the over 70 category.
In Katherine, we explored the Nitmiluk Gorge (formerly known as the Katherine Gorge) as part of the Rock Art Cruise, which entailed a leisurely cruise up to the First Gorge, passing sheer sandstone cliffs, to view Indigenous rock art dating back 40,000 years. An alternative tour took participants to an outback cattle station to witness horse-starting, dog demonstrations and Australian country music and storytelling. Optional extras included a helicopter or twin fixed wing scenic flight over the spectacular gorge.
Day two saw us in Alice Springs, visiting the iconic Royal Flying Doctors Service and School of the Air, which is the world’s largest classroom, covering more than 1.3 million square kilometres. Both were inspiring examples of how dedicated pioneers have overcome seemingly impossible challenges to provide vital health and education services to the people of the outback.
Less well known but equally fascinating was the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame, which pays tribute to the many women who have achieved amazing feats against great odds throughout Australia’s history. It is housed in the Old Alice Springs Gaol, which also tells the story of those who inhabited its walls. A visit to the nearby Reptile Centre to learn about some of the most deadly snakes, lizards and crocodiles in the world, will have your skin crawling and your senses on high alert.
Evening heralded a unique dinner under the stars at the Old Telegraph Station – the site of the original Alice Springs settlement, established in 1871 to relay messages between Darwin, Adelaide and London. On white clothed tables lit with candles, surrounded by heritage buildings and serenaded by a band of country music balladeers – the BBQ dinner was a highlight of the journey.
Coober Pedy loomed large on day three as we headed underground to see how this opal mining town operates both for work and everyday life. While the opal mining takes place in underground sandstone caves, so too do the lives of many inhabitants, who choose to live in cosy caverns etched out of the rock to create a haven from the 50 degree Celsius summer days and 2 degree Celsius winter nights. As the largest producer of opal in the world, Coober Pedy is also one of the most culturally diverse communities in Australia, with over 45 nationalities represented. Lunch was a Greek feast in an underground cave.
Next stop was the majestic mountains known as The Breakaways, created by the movement of what was a huge inland sea, just outside the town. As the sun set, we sipped wine and marvelled at the changing colours over the landscape.
Back to The Ghan for a final sunset soiree as the sun dipped below the sky, we then headed into dinner before our final overnight leg to Adelaide.
Overall, it was a unique experience and one I would highly recommend to anyone wanting to relive the romance of train travel while traversing the expansive and majestic landscape of outback Australia.
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