“We saved all our lives to be on this train, our dream comes to reality today,” tells senior citizens John and Wendy from Melbourne as The Ghan – the legendary Australian train – rattles over the famous Elizabeth Bridge after dieseling off from Darwin station in the Northern Territory at 10am on a sunny Wednesday.
I am settling at the train’s social hub, the Outback Explorer Lounge, introducing myself to other fellow passengers with whom I will journey 2,979km for the next four days from the top end of Australia to down south, reaching Adelaide mid-morning on Saturday.
Soon I discover John and Wendy are not alone; there are many other Aussie couples like them who are also ticking off today a once-in-a-lifetime experience perched at the top of their bucket list for a long time. They are joined by a few train aficionados from other parts of the world, some of whom had experienced luxury trains like the Palace On Wheels in India or the Orient Express in Europe and now journeying on one that proclaims similar status.
Now, what’s so special about The Ghan, which is named after the Afghan cameleers brought in by the early colonisers during the pre-rail period to move around in the northern part of the continent?
Besides being home to luxury, it’s one of the world’s longest trains, measuring almost 1km with 40-odd silver carriages, accommodating on an average 300 guests and over 50 staff members. While the Palace On Wheels and Orient Express predominantly journey through many populous and historic destinations, The Ghan rolls through the famous Aussie outback – arid, isolated and strange – showcasing fascinating landscapes of different kinds, perhaps not to be seen anywhere else in the world.
Luxury on rail and romance with this mysterious outback makes The Ghan odyssey extraordinarily distinctive. Since its inaugural journey in 1929, the train has never failed to impress its travellers, from pioneers, explorers, jackaroos, writers, soldiers and even royalty to many common Australians.
“Anything is possible on a train: A great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories,” wrote famous writer Paul Theroux in his book The Great Railway Bazaar. Though he never boarded The Ghan, his expression aptly matches with my experience on this famous train.
All passengers travel in style with the choice of Platinum or Gold Service, both of which offer an all-inclusive package comprising on-train accommodation in well-decorated individual cabins with en-suite bathroom, premium lounge facilities, and all meals and beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic). Key differences between the two services are the size of the cabin and sleeping arrangements. Platinum Service has spacious double or twin beds that by day are set up as a lounge with a movable table and two ottomans, while Gold Service offers compact but comfortable living with upper and lower sleeping berths that convert to a three-seater lounge during the day.
Elegant dining is a highlight of this journey. There are tastefully decorated dining rooms for both services that serve hearty breakfasts, two-course lunches and three-course dinners. The mission of the chefs is always to present a regionally inspired and thoughtful cuisine: Eggs benedict and poached barramundi at breakfast, buffalo curry at lunch and locally produced grilled lamb at dinner are just a few examples of the dishes served.
The culinary empire is furthermore complemented with Margaret River cheeses, Barossa Valley smallgoods and native Australian fare like kangaroo meat, saltbush and wild rosella flower. Overall, the gastronomic experience is so pleasing it’s pretty common to hear from diners, “what a great meal it was”, when coming out from the dining car.
An Adelaide to Darwin journey, in either direction, takes two nights and three days with stops at Alice Springs and Katherine for day excursions included as a part of the fare. However, during Aussie winter months (April to October), the Darwin to Adelaide journey, formally called The Ghan Expedition includes an additional stop at Manguri to explore the opal mining town Coober Pedy, located 40km away and hence takes the extra night and day to reach Adelaide.
There is always a choice of tours at every stop. Like at Katherine, famous for its monumental gorges, voyaging down Katherine River is generally a popular choice. Or, visiting a far-flung cattle station in the red-dust outback with endless horizons would be the perfect alternative for those keen on some action beyond natural beauty. If you pay extra, there is also the helicopter ride to see everything from the top.
Similarly, when the train halts at Alice Springs, it’s possible to jump on a plane for a fascinating day-tour of Uluru – Australia’s landmark natural wonder, though the extra cost for this is substantial. Otherwise, from the menu of included tours, there is the adventure minded rush for the MacDonnell Ranges discovery, a mountain bike ride, or a coach journey to explore the cityscape and some of the key Alice Spring attractions. This includes the Desert Park, Reptile Centre, School of the Air and Royal Flying Doctor Service Base.
The special attraction of The Ghan Expedition itinerary is spending time at Coober Pedy, hyped as one of the most unusual places in Australia and perhaps in the world. Since the discovery of precious gemstones in 1915, people from all over the world started moving there to make a fortune.
Today, it is home to 3,500 people from 45 different nationalities, granting the place a truly cosmopolitan flavour. The landscape is almost devoid of trees and any vegetation and weather conditions are utterly extreme. So almost everything is underground there, from residences and hotels to shops, restaurants, and even churches.
Summing up, The Ghan travel is all about the satisfying experiences on and off board. When we arrive at Adelaide, the surrounding smiling faces affirm this and tells me how magical it has been for each of them.