Crossing Australia: how to ride the classic Ghan Railway

15 June 2018

Named after the Afghan cameleers who helped build this 2,979km railway track linking Adelaide and Darwin through the heart of Australia, the Ghan enables you to travel the length of the continent in perfect comfort.

The experience

You can’t beat putting your feet up while following a route made possible by inspiration, gritty determination and plenty of perspiration. From the neat green farmlands of South Australia, you head north past the Flinders, Australia’s biggest mountain range. Then, from sunburnt gold you enter the intense red of the Outback, where your train feels very isolated in an immense landscape threaded by dry river beds and dotted with ancient rock. Finally, you encounter green again in the lush and tropical north, and intense blue at Darwin Harbour.

The Ghan is named after the original cameleers - many of whom were actually Pakistani. Photo: Pamela Wade

The background

In 1878 they started laying narrow-gauge tracks from the south, following the route of the Overhead Telegraph, but it wasn’t till 1929 that a full rail service began between Adelaide and Alice Springs. The journey was an adventure that sometimes included washouts, week-long strandings and opportunistic meals of passing kangaroo or camel. In 1980 standard-gauge tracks were laid along a more reliable route, and in 2004 the connection was finally made to Darwin.

The train

Pulled by two powerful diesel-electric engines, there can be up to 44 coaches, making the train just over a kilometre in length. It travels at around 85km/h but can reach 115km/h if necessary. There are four restaurants on board to serve a maximum of 358 passengers, and 55 crew.

Alice Springs celebrates the debt it owes to the camel. Photo: Pamela Wade

The route

You can do it in either direction, or just half of it to or from Alice Springs. From Darwin only, April to October, you can embark on the Ghan Expedition, which takes four days and three nights, and includes many memorable, and included, excursions. In Katherine there’s a dreamtime cruise through the Nitmiluk Gorge with an Aboriginal interpretation, or the Outback Experience complete with horse-breaking, drover stories and music.

Alice Springs brings magical Aboriginal art, the Ghan museum and the School of the Air; and who could resist the chance to buy a flight-seeing trip over Uluru and KataTjuta? That night everyone enjoys a barbecue under the stars, live music and astronomy. The next day you visit unique Coober Pedy, where it’s all about the underground: both the opals that are found there, and the houses, restaurants and churches people have dug to escape the beating sun. The last day delivers you to the elegant and cultured city of Adelaide.

The Ghan snakes through the Outback. Photo: greatsouthernrail.com.au

The shorter journey, running each way, takes three days and two nights, and includes three stops, at Katherine, Alice Springs and a small Outback town, with a choice of excursions at each place.

Getting started

Whether you’re travelling Gold Class or treating yourself to Platinum, transfers between your hotel and the railway station are included in your fare — as well as all meals and drinks on board, and the excursions at the stopping points.

Most passengers spend the day in the Ghan's lounge cars. Photo: Pamela Wade

In your suitcase

This is Australia, so informality is a given. You’ll be glad though if you take something smart-casual for dinners in the Platinum Club or Queen Adelaide Restaurant, because the presentation is so gorgeous, you’ll want to live up to it. Also because this is Australia, make sure to pack a broad-brimmed hat, serious sunblock and some fierce insect repellent for the equally fierce Northern Territory midges you might encounter on excursions. Sensible shoes and something warm to wear are also musts. It’s a long journey, so you’ll want to use your devices — it’s wise to bring a surge protector.

A Platinum suite on the Ghan is spacious and comfortable. Photo: Pamela Wade

In your room

Gold Class means compact. It’s all there — day seats, night-time fold-down bunks, toilet and shower (shared facilities for the solo cabins) — but there’s no space wasted. You’ll only be able to use small carry-on bags here — suitcases are checked in. Platinum is more spacious all round, with double or twin beds, ensuite, and plenty of leg-room during the day. There’s a cupboard to stow your gear, and windows both sides for viewing the scenery. Here you have a choice, when booking, of whether to travel head or feet first while sleeping. You can have in-room service too, for that extra touch of luxury.

Watching the sunset at Mindil Beach in Darwin is a local tradition. Photo: Pamela Wade

The service

While the train is historic and charming, and the scenery vivid and awesomely huge, it will be the cheerful, friendly and helpful staff that you’ll remember most fondly. Nothing is too much trouble for them, from the bubbles and music at your reception, to the final farewell. And the food? So good, beautifully served with unlimited local wines, and including, as well as more standard offerings, such brag-worthy dishes as roast kangaroo, grilled barramundi and crocodile sausages. Open seating at dinner is perfect for making new friends, and the lounge cars, with bar, are also great for socialising.

 

Pamela Wade

From a random “I could do that” epiphany in a free period when she was an English teacher, Pamela Wade has turned a passion into a career as a freelance travel writer that, while not much of a living, is a wonderful lifestyle. Sleeping in a swag beside a croc-infested river, staying in a 6-room suite overlooking Hong Kong harbour, being charged by a fur seal in the Antarctic, it’s all great story material and so much more entertaining than marking comprehension tests!