A decade on from its maiden trip, Australia’s cross-continent railway is still right on track, writes Richard Jones
The Ghan made its first journey – all the way from the bottom of South Australia to the top of the Northern Territory– in 2004.
And I was one of the lucky passenegers who joined the original staff and drivers from a decade ago for a ‘Ghanniversary’ trip.
What makes The Ghan so unique and special is its back story. Its moniker is an abbreviated version of its previous nickname The Afghan Express, and honours the camel drivers who arrived in Australia during the late 19th century to help find a way to traverse the country’s vast interior.
In 1929, the very first Ghan departed Adelaide bound for the town of Stuart (now Alice Springs). It was always intended that the line would eventually be extended all the way to Darwin. Following decades of wrangling and deliberation, The Ghan left Adelaide on February 1, 2004, bound for Darwin.
Its arrival in the city signified a new era of tourism in the Northern Territory, making travel easier as well as providing better access for the region’s Aboriginal communities.
I began my Aussie journey in Adelaide, which is regularly voted among the world’s top 10 cities to visit. There’s plenty to see and do and it’s a gateway to many of South Australia’s main tourist attractions, including the beach resort of Glenelg, the Barossa wine valley and the nature reserves on Kangaroo Island.
Adelaide Parklands Terminal is the starting point for a northbound Ghan journey. The sheer size of The Ghan is staggering. There are two engines pulling up to 43 carriages and car transporters, and at over 1km in length it takes good eyesight to be able to see from one end to the other.
Train carriages in general are far from spacious – but clever design means every millimetre of space is utilised perfectly.
Nevertheless, walking down the narrow dark timber corridors on an evening followed by a stranger can still make you feel like you’re in a scene from Murder On The Orient Express!
There are three choices of accommodation, including the Red seats, which are pretty typical of UK first-class.
However, I find The Ghan to be a kind of cruise on land, and to get a true taste of the train’s magnificence, you need to stay in the Gold or Platinum cabins which offer pull-out beds, wardrobe space and a safe, plus as much food and drink you can get down you.
The cuisine is nothing short of mesmerising. During my three days on board, I eat like a king, tucking into full Australian breakfasts and a variety of grilled delicacies, including saltwater barramundi, emu and kangaroo for lunch and dinner.
In between the eating, drinking and resting, the hours whizz by.
With an intermittent phone signal and no TV, radio or internet on board, it feels like I’m in my own peaceful little bubble. I find myself hypnotically staring out of the window, sometimes for hours on end, as the scenery changes from the parched farmlands of South Australia, past rivers and ocean, to the notoriously harsh red centre and termite mound-littered Outback, before arriving in the bush and swamps of Northern Territory.
I also play frequent games of animal-spotting with other passengers - I clock a court of kangaroos and flock of emus, while my companions pick out water buffalo and crocodiles.
After our stop off in Pimba, we arrive in Alice Springs the next morning. Here, a guided camel ride gives me a small taste of how life must have been for the Afghan drivers.
Then it’s on to Katherine the following day, where guests can take a tour of the town to sample the local indigenous population’s culture – didgeridoo playing, kangaroo skinning and cooking and a variety of arts and crafts.
After three days on the tracks and 1,851 miles on the clock, we arrive at our final destination - Darwin.
The Northern Territory’s capital is something of a party city and there are a lot of influences from Asia, due to its close proximity to the continent, combined with a significant Aboriginal population. There are plenty of bars and restaurants, and Darwin’s most famous tourist attraction, Crocosaurus Cove. Here I hold snakes and a baby crocodile, before feeding lunch to one of the Cove’s famous residents – a 6m saltwater croc called Chopper.
But not even Chopper could steal the limelight from the real star of my time in Australia ... The Ghan.