Outback 3 The Ghan
The Ghan claims to be one of Australia's Great Train Journeys, and there is little doubt about that. It's train travel old-style, with grand carriages, personal service, no rush and the no-guilt opportunity to sit and do nothing for far longer than usual. To leave the city for Alice Springs and the Red Centre was exciting enough, so to have Australia's tropical far north and Darwin as your destination must be even more so.
In 2006 we 'did' the Indian Pacific, in theory from Perth to Adelaide. I say 'in theory' because we missed the train in Perth and had to endure a nine-hour bus journey to catch it up at Kalgoorlie. Probably the less said about that mistake the better, but the experience meant that we were not surprised about The Ghan's leisurely pace, class system or cost.
I found watching the loading of the Landie on to a motorail carriage a tad disconcerting. It had been separated from its roof box, which lay forlornly in the loading car park for some time before it disappeared, hopefully into the luggage compartment. The box might have come a-cropper when the train passed under a bridge, you see: we'd had to empty it of heavy stuff such as the MaxTrax so it could travel as our checked-in luggage. This had taken some time to set up at the time of booking, but on the day was problem-free.
We weren't allowed to walk further along to see the locos.
The Ghan on this particular day consisted of 36 carriages and two locos: it was 850 metres long. Our section of the train – the rear end – sat on platform 1. We waited while the front half on platform 2 was collected by the locos and motorail carriages before hooking up with us. A problem with the motorail section caused a 35-minute delay before departure, which should have been at 12:15. It didn't take long before we were leaving the city behind. And having lunch.
My friend and I got very excited about these, a sight you don't see in our home state unfortunately. This is the Snowtown wind farm in the Barunga and Hummocks ranges, some 150 km north of Adelaide. It's Australia's second-largest wind farm and has 137 turbines standing on a north-south trending ridge right in the path of the prevailing westerlies. What a great site for a wind farm. We were envious.
We followed the train's progress on the iPad, which made identifying locations and landscape features much easier.
In 2006 and this time, we travelled Gold Service – otherwise you have to sleep in a reclinable seat and share bathroom facilities. Gold is expensive (see here for current prices), but it provides a small private ensuite cabin (with bunks), all-inclusive wining and dining, and off-train excursions. The fare made the cost of transporting the car – $479 – seem cheap. The food in the Queen Adelaide restaurant is good. If there are only two of you, you have to share a table. You win some, you lose some. At lunchtime the conversation was stilted and I preferred to look out of the window; but at dinner I was happy to chat with Jean and Ted on topics ranging from habitat destruction to overpopulation.
There was a huge number of Grey-Nomad-age passengers; far more than I remember in 2006. It appears to be a popular thing to do to take an elderly parent on such a trip. A bit like a cruise, I guess. I mention this in case you have teenage children and are thinking of taking them on a Great Train Journey. There was only one such family on the train with us, and I felt sorry for their boys. They must have felt as if they were in a mobile home for the elderly. With happy hours potentially from pre-lunch until bedtime on the move, there was a high risk of those with impaired balance flying from one end of the lounge bar to the other.
On a big bend to the right, some time after 4, we finally got a glimpse of the locos. Soon after that, we came close to the Spencer Gulf, but not near enough for any decent shots. Although watching the landscape evolve was a particularly satisfying pastime, photography was disappointing. Some train windows were dirty and all were highly reflective; a rickety track combined with the speed of travel meant subjects weren't easy to centre; and I had to zoom in to reduce foreground movement blur. There was certainly no shortage of subject matter, however.
North of Port Augusta, the train stopped. We sat, without any announcement, for 15-20 minutes. I asked a member of staff, who clearly didn't have a clue. She speculated that we might be waiting to pass a freight train, but I think we might have noticed that. Several minutes after we'd started moving, there came an explanation from our steward: the drivers were being changed, apparently, and that involves a 'protocol'. I bet it does, but for that long?
It was frustrating because the sun was setting fast, and dramatic landscapes ahead were going to be lost to view in the rapidly fading light. What may have been the Horseshoe Range was my last pic of the day. We got ready for pre-dinner drinks.
By the time we were ready for our bunks it was 10.30 pm. By now the train had turned west along the southern edge of the Woomera Prohibited Area and was about to turn sharp right at Tarcoola to head north straight through it. My friend was eager to follow the turn on the iPad, but the train had reduced speed in preparation for the manoeuvre and tiredness got the better of us. I didn't find the train's motion as sleep-inducing as I had anticipated. I don't remember it being so noisy and bumpy on the Indian Pacific. I awoke many times during the night, and suddenly at 4:30 am, when the train stopped abruptly. The next thing I knew our alarm was going off at 6, ready for sunrise over the desert.
Sleepy people stepped down into the cold mulga scrub. Southern Rail's organisation was impressive: their staff had been up since 5. There were hot drinks and bacon-and-egg sliders. Our path was lit and there were wood-burning braziers to gather round until sun-up. Except we are antisocial and preferred to explore. We tried once again to reach the locos, but were stopped by a man for health and safety reasons. We got close enough to make sure the car was still there.
And then the sun rose over Marla. We were still in South Australia.
Breakfast/brunch was served until midday for the benefit of those disembarking at The Alice and those continuing to Darwin but touring the Alice Springs Desert Park. We enjoyed breakfast at about 9 and then settled down to watch an ever-changing desert landscape. We crossed the border into Northern Territory at 10.30. Oddly, there was only a sign for South Australia. The Northern Territory sign must have been on the other side of the train.
We saw little wildlife – only one or two birds. At one point there was pink soil on one side of the train and orange on the other. And then, with help from the steward, we spotted the Iron Man sculpture, built by railway workers to commemorate the millionth concrete sleeper laid on a new stretch of track between Tarcoola and The Alice. The old wooden sleepers had been ravaged by white ants and damaged by floods. Work was completed in 1980.
Desert Oaks appeared just before the Finke River, which looked as devoid of moisture as you would expect west of the Simpson Desert.
We had already been warned of a slight delay to our arrival in The Alice: 2 pm rather than 1:45. But at around one o'clock the train ground to a halt. A series of announcements brought worsening news: our ETA slipped to 2:30; 4:30; and then 5. There was a problem with one of the locomotives that meant it could travel no faster than 20 km/h. We were told this was only the second time in its history that The Ghan had broken down.
Decisions were needed. We could not drive most of the way from Alice to Mr Ebenezer, as planned, in the dark. We couldn't stay overnight in Alice, because we would lose a day at Uluru. So, as soon as we got a phone signal, half an hour or so before our arrival, we rearranged our accommodation so that we only had to get as far as Erldunda, at the junction of the Stuart and Lasseter highways.
The timing improved slightly as the train managed 30+ km/h a few times going downhill. A broken Ghan finally limped into The Alice at 3:45. We retrieved our box and car slightly faster than had been anticipated, and we were on the road by 4:50 pm (see map right). And good news: the speed limit in NT is 130km/h, which is far too fast but was useful on this occasion. The attractive up-and-downy landscape to either side of the Stuart Highway certainly flew by at that speed. There was no time for photographs or to view the Henbury Meteorites impact craters 70 km before the Lasseter turn-off, as we would have liked. It was almost dark for the last 30 kilometres or so to Erldunda. Fortunately, there were only one or two live roos along the way, and no roadkill.
The origin of The Ghan's name is explained on a memorial on the platform where the train pulls in. It says:
In 1878, work started on a planned 1800-mile railway between our southern and northern shores. Slowly the line pushed up from Port Augusta to Oodnadatta where it stopped for nearly 40 years. In that time camel trains run by hardy Afghans worked the country to Alice Springs, ferrying passengers and freight up from Oodnadatta. When the railway reached the Alice in 1929, the train became known affectionately as 'The Ghan'. The story of how it received this famous nickname will probably always remain in doubt. Throughout its long and valuable service, it has been variously known as the Afghan Express, the Afghan Special, the Royal Ghan and the Flash Ghan. However, each of the rival stories has one thing in common – the name derives from those hardy Afghans who ran the old-time camel communications network in the Australian Outback.
This post was last edited on 1 October 2015