The Ghan // © 2011 Great Southern Rail
Outside, it’s pitch black. I am flying down the tracks aboard The Ghan, Australia’s legendary transcontinental train, the one that cuts from north to south, from Darwin to Adelaide.
Normally, the trip from Darwin to Adelaide takes 56 hours. But I got onboard in the middle of the night for the last leg of the trip, about 12 hours. I was in the Australian Outback, the area known as the Red Centre because of its distinctive red sand that stretches for miles in all directions. A lot of the central part of Australia is in fact desert.
Earlier, I had taken part in the Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive, a promotional event sponsored by the South Australian Tourism Commission. It takes about 100 paying customers into the Outback and lets them pretend that they are cattlemen (known as “drovers”) for four days.
At the end of the cattle drive, I caught The Ghan about 25 miles east of Coober Pedy, a small mining town known as the Opal Capital of the World. Since there was no real station at that point on the route, we simply drove up to the train, which was idling in the darkness on a siding next to a dirt road.
The conductor, leaning out of a car, asked which class of service we had. When we answered Gold, he said, “Wait right there.”
He then signaled the engineer, who pulled the train up so that our car was right in front of us. We boarded and quickly settled into our small but cozy compartments.
There are four classes of service on The Ghan, which is named in honor of the Afghanistan camel drivers who traversed the land and carried supplies from one settlement to another a century ago. In addition to Gold, there is Premium, the best, which boasts double or twin compartments with en-suite, full-size showers and 24-hour room service. And there is Red, which is comfortable and the equivalent of an economy seat on an airplane.
Train travel can be relaxing if you have the time. I looked out into the darkness for a while, then folded down my bed and decided to get some sleep before pulling into Adelaide the next morning. I tried to read, but quickly dozed off with the gentle rocking of my car.
The Ghan started out as a narrow-gauge railroad in the 1920s that followed the route of the first telegraph line uniting north and south. But it was hard, desolate and often unforgiving land. Floods washed out roadbeds, termites ate the wooden trestles and one story had stranded passengers having to make do by shooting wild goats for food.
In 1980, the old Ghan track was abandoned in favor of a new, wider gauge rail line that was built farther to the west to avoid floods. The new trestles were made of concrete. In 2004, the line was finally completed between Darwin and Adelaide and, today, it runs 1,851 miles north to south through some of the most spectacular countryside in Australia.
The Ghan is only one of several rail lines operated by Great Southern Rail. The others are Indian Pacific, The Overland and the Southern Spirit, and they run along the southern coast of Australia, from Brisbane in the east to Perth in the west. Each has a wide variety of so-called Whistle Stop Tours that allow passengers to debark and explore the sights and sounds of the local area.
My trip on The Ghan ended the next morning after breakfast in the dining car. I sat with a woman and her elderly mother who had made the entire trip from Darwin, a two-day plus journey. They seemed none the worse for wear and, in fact, they said that they were planning to take the train all the way back to Darwin after a few days exploring Adelaide. That’s how much the liked it. The next time, I might do the same.