As I stepped off the train, the scorched, red earth made an audible crunch beneath my feet. Leaving the comfort of the air-conditioned carriage, I felt the sun’s hot rays on the back of my neck.
The land laid out before me revealed the harsh surroundings of the Australian outback – flat land stretching to the horizon – empty, vast and surprisingly quiet. I instantly felt a smile begin to form across my face as I studied the iconic outback vista before me.
The famed railway known as The Ghan, would take us to famous sites throughout the great red centre and arriving at Darwin Railway Station, one can’t help but marvel at its sheer size.
Stretched out serpent-like before us, the iconic train was hauling 36 carriages, spanning almost an entire kilometre in length, pulled by two powerful diesel-electric locomotives.
‘The Ghan Expedition’ runs between Darwin and Adelaide, with sightseeing stops at Katherine Gorge, Alice Springs and Coober Pedy over an exciting four days.
This trip has proved so popular with passengers, that the 2017 season was doubled, running for the six months between May and October, with 2018 season running seven months between April to October.
Boarding the train, I was shown to my comfortable Gold Service cabin with ensuite. The décor is tasteful, with wood toned side walls decorated with elegant green, blue and gold accents.
For an ultra-luxurious treat, The Ghan also has a Platinum Service providing guests with a larger, comfy double bed and ensuite. Platinum guests enjoy meals in their own private dining car, as well as private limousine transfers at both ends of the journey.
While smaller, my Gold Service cabin was very comfortable. The soft day-lounge had retractable arm rests that folded down to a comfortable bed in the evening. A second bunk style bed drops from the wall for a travel companion.
Other cabin features included music channels, fold out table, small closet and ensuite bathroom.
As I inspected my room’s amenities, carriage attendant Raini knocked with a warm welcome. Curious to the origins of her name, I asked where it came from. “My name is Raini and my sister’s name is Sunny. And my brother … my Mum couldn’t afford to buy a Harley Davidson motorbike so she decided to make one instead. And that’s my brother, Harley. Can you tell I come from a family of hippies?” As we laughed together, I was swept up by her infectious enthusiasm and country charm.
Receiving a warm welcome from all the staff, their friendly demeanour radiated throughout the four-day trip.
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Back in my cabin, Raini walked me through the room’s functions and features, as well as the trip’s exciting four-day itinerary. And what the cabin lacks in space (we are on a train after all), it makes up for with thoughtful comfort features normally reserved for the domain of a big city 5-star hotel – plush pillows and doonas, Appelles toiletries and double-daily cabin service – all make the travel experience a comfortable one.
Beginning my journey, the powerful locomotives powered up. With a small jolt, the carriages began to stretch out and move in unison. Sitting on my day-lounge, I admired the passing scenery out the oversized window as I listened to the hypnotic clickity-clack of the great railway adventure about to unfold.
Within four hours, we had arrived at our first stop – Katherine Gorge. Guests have a choice of included activities and I selected the cruise along Nitmiluk Gorge, a stunning natural canyon forged over thousands of years.
The first thing visitors to Katherine notice is the heat. As the sun beat down upon us, our saving grace came from the shade provided by the towering clifftops along the peaceful and stunning waterway.
Back on The Ghan a few hours later, we prepared ourselves for our allocated dinner seating in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant. Pre-dinner drinks were served in the Outback Explorer Lounge where we could select from the extensive and all-inclusive wine, martini and cocktail list.
Our attentive barman Zac recommended the fresh lime mojito, which after the Katherine heat, quenched my thirst perfectly. The minty drink went down so well, I order another.
Three-course menus serve seasonal and regional fare. Barramundi, rack of lamb, buffalo curry, and sweet sensations like wild lemon myrtle and thyme cheesecake were all on offer. Breakfast selections were just as impressive.
Appetite sated, I retired to the bar lounge to mingle with fellow travellers, enjoy the wine list to its fullest and revelled in anticipation of the next day’s touring activities.
Back in my cabin, Raini had made up the bed, leaving an evening chocolate treat on my pillow. I rolled up the blinds to gaze at the never ending sea of stars and drifted to sleep with that mesmerising rat-a-tat-tat rhythm of the rails as the train meandered through the blackness of the outback night.
By morning’s light, the landscape had changed from the lush and green, to the dry red of the fabled outback. Early that morning we rolled into Alice Springs, where I choose the optional paid scenic-flight day-tour to Uluru (approximately $1,100 per person).
The scenic flight provided stunning views from above, while the guided ground tour took us around the base of the rock. This is where we discovered ancient rock art still quite visible as the caverns have protected the carvings from the elements.
Our guide spoke of Dreamtime stories, how Aboriginal people survived and how they communicated and thrived in this harsh environment.
Upon return to Alice Springs, we are treated to a sumptuous dinner under the stars at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station. Live music and a star gazing presentation are included with this lovely al fresco dinner. The delicious meal, coupled with a starry night sky, great music and pleasant chit-chat, make the evening a standout highlight of the trip.
The following morning, we cross the border into South Australia, arriving at the opal mining town of Coober Pedy. An American couple on our tour bus ask if we have officially arrived in ‘Woop Woop’. As we all laughed, the short answer was, ‘yes’!
Our tour takes us through the township and an abandoned underground mine, turned museum, where we witness first-hand how the town’s residents mine for the treasured opal stone.
Another fascinating feature here is that life is still lived underground.
From family homes to churches, much of the town is located in ‘dugouts,’ with vertical shafts that poke through the surface for ventilation.
We pause for an underground bunker lunch before heading out of town to the Breakaways. While much of the land surrounding Coober Pedy is pancake flat, the Breakaways are a collection of small, multi-coloured hills.
As we pulled into the Adelaide Parklands Terminal, our kilometre-long collection of locomotives and carriages split into two, taking up both sides of the platform. As we disembarked one last time, Raini was on the platform where she offered a hug and a wave goodbye.
Confronted with the conclusion of our great north to south cross-country rail journey, a touch of regret washes over me as it has all come to an end too soon.
Long distance train travel is a pleasure. Forcing you to relax, this style of travel is all about the journey. Flying may get you to your destination with speed but a journey on The Ghan is something to be savoured.
The trip is punctuated by thoughtful little touches, like the unexpected glass of champagne at the Breakaways lookout, dinner under a starry night sky and of course, the attentive service of the staff combined with the magnificent Australian scenery all make this a journey to remember.