The trip of a lifetime: Saying farewell to The Ghan
As The Ghan nears Adelaide, Justine Tyerman finds herself reluctant to disembark and rejoin the real world. Here is the final of a four-part series about her 2979km four-day, three-night expedition on the famous transcontinental train Darwin to Adelaide.
I was awake before dawn to witness sunrise over the magnificent Flinders Ranges that stretch 430km. Edward John Eyre, who explored the ranges in the 1830s was convinced he would discover land suitable for farming there or even an inland sea but finding mainly barren land, he named many sites to reflect his disappointment: Mt Deception and Mt Hopeless.
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 landscape we had traversed over the preceding days.
The massive turbines of the Snowdon Wind Farm on the ridges of the Barunga and Hummocks Ranges are 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.
Before breakfast my hospitality attendant Aaron, who had looked after me so well, took me on a tour of The Ghan, beyond the carriages, lounge and restaurant that were our part of the train.
With 285 passengers spread over 38 carriages, it’s a busy schedule for the 49 staff on board. Their care and attention to detail is impeccable.
I met our chefs Russel and Terry busy preparing breakfast in their long narrow kitchen and complimented them on the splendid cuisine they consistently produced.
Aaron walked me through the noisy power van to the three Platinum Class carriages, the equivalent of first class. The cabins are more spacious than Gold Class with double beds, larger bathrooms and separate showers. Guests have access to two lounges, a dining room and alcoves with coffee machines. The décor is contemporary rather than traditional and ‘trainly’ like our Queen Adelaide Restaurant. The facilities are certainly luxurious offering more privacy and dining options but I preferred our more relaxed Gold Service part of the train.
Platinum Service cabin with the bed made up.
Our last meal was a leisurely brunch before arriving in Adelaide late morning. The blackcurrant and apple juice was lovely and refreshing along with the wild berry, mint and natural yoghurt sprinkled with toasted almonds and hazelnut crumble.
The delectable gammon steak, eggs, slow roasted tomatoes and rosti was over-ambitious but I just had to try it.
On the way back to my cabin, there was a kerfuffle in the passageway – too many people coming and going at one time so the train manager Bruce Smith asked if he could use my cabin as a passing bay.
“No problem,” I said. “I’ve been hoping to meet you anyway. I just want to say the service, care and attention I’ve experienced on The Ghan has been outstanding, impeccable, faultless.”
He beamed and asked if he could detect a touch of Kiwi – and then it was all on for the next 15 minutes – politics, sport, the economy, jokes at the expense of Kiwis, jokes at the expense of Aussies.
Aged 66, he’s been associated with trains for 50 years, originally as an electrician on the maintenance of The Ghan and for 24 years, working on the trains themselves.
Bruce then launched into story telling mode:
First of all, he talked about all the Aussie strawberries being dumped because of needles being found inside a few of them.
Then he went on to tell me about how all the Aussie farmers were banding together to send hay to their drought-stricken colleagues in South Australia.
“But they had to send it all back,” he said with a tragic look on his face.
“They found a needle in a hay-stack,” he said.
I dissolved in fits of laughter. I just love the Aussie wit.
As we trundled towards Adelaide, I spent some quiet time in my cabin, reading about the history of this magnificent train which is due to celebrate its 90th birthday in 2019.
Originally known as the ‘Afghan Express’, The Ghan was 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 4 August, 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 two days later, on 6 August.
Back then, the train was steam hauled and had to contend with extreme conditions including flash flooding and intense heat. The old Ghan ran on a light, narrow-gauge track well to the east of the track it travels today. As well as termite damage, the track was subject to fire and flood. Flash flooding, when the normally dry river beds overflowed onto the low-lying desert, frequently washed away the track completely. Legend has it the Old Ghan was once stranded for two weeks in the Outback and the engine driver shot wild goats to feed the passengers.
Diesel locomotives were introduced in 1954 to replace the traditional steam engines, cutting about five hours off the trip between Alice Springs and Adelaide.
There are many colourful stories and legends about The Ghan but this one about true Aussie ingenuity really appealed to me. In October 1954, The Ghan broke down in Finke south of Alice Springs with electrical trouble and a blown gasket. The postmaster produced the tongue of an old shoe to repair the gasket and The Ghan went on its way.
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 Ghan.
Today, the journey covers 2979 kilometres and encounters spectacular and diverse landscapes from the green and gold pastures of the South Australian plains, the rusty reds of the MacDonnell Ranges and the tropical landscape of Darwin.
I also read a fascinating book about the cameleers who first arrived in South Australia in 1839. The camels were imported to carry goods for explorers and surveyors venturing inland. Being able to carry up to half a tonne in weight and survive without water for long periods of time, they were ideally suited to the harsh conditions of Australia’s interior. Their broad leathery foot pads protected them from the hot earth and prevented them from sinking into the sand.
When they were no longer needed, rather than see their camels shot as ordered under the Camel Destruction Act, 1925, some cameleers released them into the wild where they flourished. Australia’s wild camel population is now estimated to be around one million.
The Outback Lounges on The Ghan are named after heroic pioneers who explored the Australian interior.
Our lounge was named after Edward John Eyre who lived from 1815 to 1901. Eyre survived a murderous mutiny to complete an expedition from Adelaide across the vast Nullarbor Plain to Albany in Western Australia. He also undertook an unsuccessful attempt to reach the centre of Australia.
Another lounge was named after Scotsman John McDouall Stuart who lived from 1815 to 1866 and embarked on several death-defying attempts to cross Australia south to north, finally succeeding in 1862.
I could have spent many more hours reading about the fascinating history of The Ghan but it was time to pack up my belongings and get ready to disembark.
I also wanted to say goodbye to my delightful Ghan friends and thank the staff who had looked after me so well on the trip - Nick, Aaron, Howard, Sonya, Bidya, Mel and Ceidleigh. Such genuine, warm, talented lovely people who go the extra mile for their passengers.
Justine (far right) and her new friends on The Ghan, solo travellers from all parts of the globe.
They don’t look for easy ways on the Ghan. The ethos is to surprise and delight guests, to go beyond the expected to the unexpected, the exceptional. Morning teas including champagne appeared in the most remote, distant and hard-to-access locations not because they were needed but because the staff wanted to add an extra treat to an already memorable experience.
The chefs set up lunches, drinks and dinners in the most challenging off-train places – at the historic Overland Telegraph Station, in an underground opal mine, on a mountain top and beside a huge log fire in the desert against the backdrop of The Ghan.
Having experienced the Indian Pacific trip from Perth to Sydney a few months earlier, the two journeys are quite different. There’s a lot of on-train time on the Indian Pacific so it’s extremely relaxing with many hours to read, day-dream, drift, doze, and watch the landscape. There’s on-board entertainment and a wealth of opportunities for socialising on the Indian Pacific because the excursions are shorter and less elaborate, especially on the Perth to Sydney trip. I found the three-night, four-day journey a deeply relaxing interlude in a busy life, an opportunity to recharge my physical and mental batteries.
On The Ghan, passengers are off the train on 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.
The excursions I chose were energetic with a good amount of hiking and sight-seeing but there were other coach trips for less active or less mobile passengers including wheelchair access. Just down the hall from me was a spacious cabin especially equipped for disabled passengers.
Another difference was the greater spread of ages on The Ghan, from children to teens to elderly and disabled.
As we pulled into Adelaide, I had a real sense of loss and didn’t really want to rejoin the real world. The Ghan has a true romance, mystique, elegance, and presence. It got under my skin. I decided the only cure was to start planning another train journey. My Rail Plus adviser recommended the Belmond Grand Hibernian, a trip through the ever-changing panoramas of Ireland's celebrated scenic landscapes.
* 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.
Rail Plus has a dedicated team of experts to advise you on Great Train Journeys all around the world including the Belmond Grand Hibernian in Ireland.
The train traverses the sprawling countryside, dramatic coasts and fascinating cities that define this captivating land. With its lush green landscapes, mystical tales of old, fabulous food and a wealth of literary and musical talent, Ireland truly has something for everyone to enjoy.