International Travel

Justine Tyerman

Travelling on The Ghan: Confronting my fear of snakes in Australia’s Red Centre

Travelling on The Ghan: Confronting my fear of snakes in Australia’s Red Centre

Justine Tyerman continues her series about The Ghan Expedition, a 2979km four-day, three-night train journey through the ‘Red Centre’ of Australia from Darwin to Adelaide. On Day 2, she wears long pants and socks and shoes, not sandals and definitely not jandals, on a hot day in Alice Springs.

After narrowly missing the spectacle of an Aussie bushfire by showering at precisely the wrong moment on my first evening on The Ghan, I slept with my venetian blinds open for the entire four-day, three-night trip for fear of missing another dramatic sight. I was rewarded with beautiful moonlit scenes of vast deserts, dry riverbeds, distant ranges and silvery light flickering behind gum trees.

My hospitality attendant Aaron knocked on our cabin doors early on Day 2 to make sure we were up, breakfasted and ready for our day in and around Alice Springs, Australia’s most famous Outback town.

Dawn was magical as the bright light of the huge desert sun gradually illuminated Australia’s ‘Red Centre’ and the land began to glow. I loved watching the dark shadow of the train flickering across the terracotta terrain. It’s moments like these I wish I had a drone to view The Ghan tracking across the landscape from above. The area was dead flat like the Nullarbor Plain, but with trees.

Breakfast in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant was a feast beginning with tropical juice and a choice of cereals, muesli, yoghurt, barramundi benedict, a full breakfast with everything - bacon, sausages, baked beans, tomatoes, spinach and eggs every way you could think of . . . or white chocolate and lychee pancakes.

“I’ll diet next week,” I promised myself as I tucked into the pancakes.

White chocolate and lychee pancakes for breakfast.

I offered one to the farmers from South Australia I was sharing a table with but they were already having trouble getting through a full breakfast and barramundi benedict.

At every meal, I added to my general knowledge about Australia. This salt-of-the-earth couple were producing special merino wool with a low itch-factor. Amazing!

After breakfast, Aaron came to check on my kit for the day. We had been advised to wear long pants, socks and covered-in footwear but I hadn’t really given much thought to the reasoning behind it.

“It’s for snake protection,” Aaron said cheerfully.

Noticing the look of horror on my face, he added: “This IS the Northern Territory and this IS snake season.”

I toyed with the idea of opting for the bus trip to the School of the Air, the Royal Flying Doctor Service Base and the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame instead of a day hiking in snake country but Aaron eyed me and hinted that would be ‘wussy’.

“Just stamp your feet as you walk, stay in the middle of the bunch, and you’ll be fine,” he said.

So I ‘womaned-up’, put on extra-thick socks and long-pants, faced my worst fears and had a brilliant day hiking.

It was forecast to be a mere 32 degrees so the day was not too scorching hot.

Disembarking at Alice Springs, we were greeted by an impressive bronze statue of an Afghan cameleer.

The plaque told us that work on the planned railway from Adelaide to Darwin began in 1878 assisted by hardy Afghans and their camels that ferried passengers, food, supplies and freight to Alice Springs. When the railway reached Alice in 1929, the train became known as The Afghan Express and later The Ghan.

The township of Alice Springs began life in 1871 as a repeater station along the Overland Telegraph Line. Alice is just 200km south of the geographical centre of Australia - halfway between Darwin and Adelaide, literally the ‘Red Centre’ of Australia. The economy is based on tourism, farming, gas and mining.

Called ‘Mpwante’ by the indigenous Arrernte people, the area has been inhabited by them for around 40,000 years. The population is 28,000 of whom 20 percent are aboriginal.

Our coach driver Andrew was an excellent guide with extensive knowledge of the region, especially the flora and fauna, from his days as a nurseryman.

Our first stop was a historical site at the foot of Mt Gillen - a memorial to John Flynn (1880-1951), a Presbyterian minister whose vision was to construct ‘a mantle of safety over the Outback’. Flynn founded the Australian Inland Mission to bring medical, social and religious services to isolated Outback communities. In 1928, he set up the first flying doctor base in Cloncurry, Queensland, and soon after, the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the world's first air ambulance, was born.

A memorial to Rev John Flynn who set up the first flying doctor base in Cloncurry, Queensland in 1928. Soon after, the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the world's first air ambulance, was born.

Andrew then led us on a nature walk, talking about points of interest such as the parallel MacDonnell Ranges formed 350 million years ago.

He said deliberate controlled burning in the cooler months dated back to ancient times - it triggers the germination of species called fire weeds such as wattles or acacia. Buffel grass was introduced in 1961 as stock food but is now a pest, strangling other grasses.

We came across a corkwood tree over 300 years old. Protected from extreme temperatures and bushfires by its thick bark, the Arrernte people make a paste from the ash of the burnt bark to heal wounds and even relieve teething pain.

We stood beneath a beautiful 200-year-old ghost gum with a pure white trunk and branches. It survives in such arid conditions because of its far-reaching roots that extend sideways as far as the leaf canopy, seeking underground water.

A ghost gum at sunset at the Alice Springs Overland Telegraph Station.

As I gazed skyward at the giant tree, Andrew casually said he spotted four snakes at the base of the tree yesterday.

Seeing the look on my face, Lisa, who accompanied us from The Ghan, said:

“Don’t worry Justine. Aussie snakes are scaredy-cats. They hide from people, not like South African snakes which are aggressive and come after you.”

‘Note to self – do NOT go to South Africa.’

The next part of the expedition took us up to the Cassia Hill Lookout with stunning views of the Alice Valley, Heavitree Range and Simpson’s Gap. The arid, rocky terrain looked very snaky to me so I stayed with the group and stamped all the way to the top of the hill, much to the amusement of a chap from Brisbane who said he had a king brown living under a rock in his garden.

“Yes, it’s venomous,” he replied to my obvious question, “but it’s been there for years and doesn’t bother me.”

“Really?” I replied, incredulous.

“Yep. They’re also known as mulga snakes – there are large stands of mulga around these parts.”

Gulp!

An Aussie couple piped up saying they found a highly poisonous brown snake in bag of garden bark the other day, and chopped its head off with a spade.

I made it to the top of the hill safely and was so fascinated by the geology of the area, I forgot all about snakes. The ancient rust-stained ranges surrounding us were the sandy bottom of an inland sea about 900 million years ago. Over time, enormous pressure from within the earth slowly raised the sea floor causing the water to drain away.

The schist rock we were standing on was 1600 million years old, one of the oldest rock formations in Australia.

The last of our hikes was to the spectacular Simpson’s Gap, a deep gash in the mountain range 60 million years in the making. Known to the Arrernte people as ‘Rungutjirpa’, the gap is the mythological home of their giant goanna ancestors and the site of several Dreaming trails.

Simpsons Gap from the top of Cassia Hill.

The first Europeans to explore the gap were the surveyors for the Overland Telegraph Line who came upon the area while searching for a route north from Alice Springs. It was named Simpsons Gap after A. A. Simpson, President of the South Australian branch of the Royal Geographical Society.  The Simpson Desert was also named in his honour.

As we hiked along a path beside a dry riverbed, the rock walls began to close in on us until the canyon narrowed to a cleft just a few metres wide. The track came to an end at a deep pool which, in years gone by, fed into Roe Creek, the dry riverbed of which we had just walked alongside. The craggy red rock faces soaring high above us on both sides glowed in the reflected light of the pool, and from some angles, overlapped and intersected, casting deep shadows.

Justine at the pool at Simpsons Gap. Note the long pants, covered-in shoes and long-sleeved shirt on a hot day - snake protection!

It was deliciously cool in the shade so I lingered there a while, absorbing the spell-binding atmosphere and tranquillity of the place. As my fingers traced the crevices of the ancient rocks, I wondered what stories they could tell after 60 million years. I felt a deep sense of reverence for ‘Rungutjirpa’.

I took my time heading back to the bus, hoping to see signs of the colony of black-footed rock wallabies that inhabit a rocky outcrop below a cliff face. Only about half a metre tall and well-camouflaged, they’re hard to spot but after a while, I fancied I saw something hopping. I claimed it as a wallaby sighting anyway.

 A pair of statuesque rock pinnacles stood nearby as if guarding the colony. They looked like huge man-made sculptures, hewn from the rock.

An information board about the 240km Larapinta Trail, one of Australia’s newest and most popular trails, took my eye. I’d love to spend more time exploring this magnificent landscape, and now I’ve (almost) overcome my snake phobia, it’s entirely possible. Looking back on the day, I saw little scenery at first because I was so conscious of scanning the terrain and watching my footing but after a while I relaxed and forgot all about my fears.

We had a late lunch at the Alice Springs Desert Park where passengers who did not want to hike watched a free-flight bird show, met resident dingoes, visited desert animals of the night at the nocturnal house and learned about the flora, fauna and geology of the area.

After freshening up back at The Ghan, coaches transferred us to the historic Alice Springs Telegraph Station for dinner under a canopy of stars, entertained by a trio playing popular hits, country and western and trained-themed songs.

The historic Alice Springs Overland Telegraph Station, our venue for dinner under the stars.

Our brilliant chefs from The Ghan prepared an absolutely delicious feast starting with chicken and leak pie entrée with a bush chutney and paw paw salad, followed by a main course of succulent beef tenderloins, jacket potatoes, salads and roast vegetables, and desserts of pavlova, chocolate brownies and cheeses and dried fruits.

The wines, as always on The Ghan and her sister train, the Indian Pacific, were sensational but the Wolf Blass Pinot Sparkling Chardonnay had an extra effervescence that night.

After two days of mixing and mingling, I was surrounded by familiar faces, and the sense of joie de vivre and bonhomie was infectious. People were dancing, singing, riding the resident camels, watching a blacksmith at work and exploring the beautiful stone buildings of the historic telegraph station.

Sylvia from Barcelona, one of my new friends, had taken the opportunity to fly to Uluru for the day, an optional extra offered on The Ghan. She was ecstatic about the experience, something I’ll hopefully do on my next trip to Australia.

Later in the evening, as the stars began to twinkle in the clearest sky in years, an astronomer named Dan gave us a guided tour of the night sky. Armed with a powerful laser beam, he pointed out the Southern Cross, Milky Way, Saturn, Pluto, Neptune, Mars, Venus and many of the constellations. Peppered with inimitable Aussie humour, it was informative and highly entertaining.

Before the night was over, I strolled around the station and learned about the obstacles faced by pioneer Sir Charles Todd and his team in constructing the Overland Telegraph Line that linked Australia to the world.

The 2900km line extended from Port Augusta in South Australia, to Palmerston (now Darwin) in the Northern Territory, along a route closely following that of explorer John McDouall Stuart. Construction of the line with its 36,000 poles began in 1871 and was completed in just 23 months, opening in August 1872. It linked with an underwater cable network to London, meaning that communications that had once taken 120 days to arrive by ship now took only 48 hours.

The Alice Springs Telegraph Station was established in 1871 and was one of 12 along the line. The station operated 24 hours a day and was basically self-sufficient, relying on provisions arriving from the south only once a year. Sheep, goats, cattle and their own vegetable garden ensured adequate food and the blacksmith made much of their equipment.

The station ceased operation in 1932 when it was replaced by more modern facilities in town. Since its closure, the station has been used as an education centre for part-aboriginal children from 1932-42; wartime army base during World War 2; and an aboriginal reserve from 1945-1963.

The barracks, post and telegraph office, Morse code machines, station master’s residence and kitchen, and outbuildings such as the harness, buggy shed, battery room, and shoeing yard were fascinating.

I enjoyed reading about the camel trains that carted supplies from the railhead at Oodnadatta to Alice Springs before the railway was completed in 1929. The trip took two weeks, each camel carrying 250kg. Caravans of 50 camels were a regular occurrence delivering supplies to the station. What an awesome sight that would have been.

There’s still a registered, operational post office at the station and all mail posted in the original red postbox is stamped with the Alice Springs Telegraph Station Commemorative Franking Stamp.

Back on The Ghan, my brain and senses were so over-stimulated by the events and sights of the day, I expected to have trouble getting to sleep that night but the rocking motion of the train lulled me to slumber-land in no time. No doubt the chocolate fudge on my pillow from Aaron helped too. We had another early start the following day for our Coober Pedy excursions so I needed the rest.

To be continued . . 

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 Rail Plus for more information on The Ghan and https://www.railplus.co.nz/great-train-journeys/  for other epic train adventures around the world.

*A veteran of many rail journeys organised through Rail Plus, I’ve also travelled on the Indian Pacific (see my series of four stories here); and the TranzAlpine.

Rail Plus has a dedicated team of experts to advise you on Great Train Journeys all around the world including the Belmond Andean Explorer in Peru another epic train journey that’s on my to-do list. The trip traverses some of the most magnificent scenery in the world - from Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire; crossing the highest plains of the Andes; to the reflective beauty of Lake Titicaca; the vast Colca Canyon and the city centre of Arequipa, a UNESCO World Heritage site.