Riding the Ghan

Famed railway stretches far across the Outback

By: David Swanson

The most memorable experience of the journey aboard the historic Ghan railway actually occurred just before boarding.

We had made the 1,000-mile trip by car, north from Adelaide to Coober Pedy, a rough-and-tumble Outback town and the opal-mining capital of the world.

Our guide through the town’s mines and unusual scenery - a location for Mad Max and other Australian movies - was amiable Peter Rose of Desert Diversity Tours.

When it came time to board the Ghan for the trip back to Adelaide, Rowe drove us 25 miles west of Coober Pedy, to the Manguri Siding.

Other than a lonely signal, there was nothing to indicate that the site was a train stop - in fact, there was nothing taller than my knees visible for 360 degrees. The flat, raw Outback stretched as far as I could see.

Fortunately, Rowe didn’t simply drop us off.

He pulled his vehicle right up to the tracks and unfolded a card table. Out came a bottle of Australian sparkling wine, a pair of champagne flutes and a beautifully composed plate of cheese, crackers and fruit, which we enjoyed as the sun disappeared behind the horizon.

Soon we could see the outline of the train inching across the landscape, a light from the engine piercing the darkness.

About 15 minutes later the train crawled in to the siding, and a porter emerged to collect our bags.

It was an enchanting farewell to the Outback - and a wonderful introduction to the Ghan.

The route is named for the Afghan camels that were imported to Australia in the 1850s to make the first explorations of the country’s huge, waterless frontier.

In 1877 the government decided to build a steam-driven, narrow gauge railway to the remote Northern Territory. The camels were used to haul much of the timber for tracks - and the first trip to Alice Springs was not made until 1929.

During World War II there were as many as 56 trains making the trek each week, transporting Aussie soldiers to the Pacific theater of war.

Still, the Ghan has been famously unreliable.

Much of the track was laid in the wrong place. It frequently was rendered impassable by voracious termites, shifting sand and, most often, flash floods. It was not unusual for trains to be delayed for days when some obstruction was encountered.

According to legend, the train once was stuck for two weeks and the driver had to shoot feral goats to feed his stranded passengers.

The original track was decommissioned in 1980. (The Old Ghan Museum, 7 miles south of Alice Springs, is a must for train buffs, with original locomotives, carriages and other memorabilia of those early days.)

The track was re-laid for today’s standardized gauge, and most of it was repositioned to the west to minimize washouts. The Ghan started running again in 1982.

In 1997 the line was privatized and Great Southern Railway assumed control. It also operates the Indian Pacific route between Sydney and Perth, and the shorter Overland route from Melbourne to Adelaide.

Today, a long dreamed-of plan to extend the track as far as Darwin is becoming a reality. The $750 million, 882-mile extension is ahead of its construction schedule, and north-south service across the continent is expected to start by January 2004.

The complete route from Adelaide to Darwin will be a 1,850-mile, 47-hour journey.

There are two classes of service aboard the Ghan.

Gold Kangaroo service features a private sleeper cabin with bathroom. Twin cabins have a shower; single cabins use showers at the end of each car.

While they are not antiques, the cabins are attractively finished in light woods. The couch converts to bunk beds, which the cabin steward makes up with sheets, pillows and duvets.

An amenity kit is provided to all Gold Kangaroo passengers, and service includes breakfast and dinner in the dining car.

A double-sized Deluxe cabin has a double bed and a pull-down single as well as a small private lounge area.

The private Chairman’s Car has its own lounge as well as sleeping and dining areas for eight passengers.

Red Kangaroo service is divided into two categories. Least expensive are the “daynighter” seats, which are comparable to most business class airline seats. There also are private twin cabins with a sink and flat bed. Red Kangaroo passengers have their own snack bar and lounge.

The Ghan makes two roundtrips weekly. The train departs on Sunday and Friday evenings from Adelaide, and leaves from Alice Springs on Monday and Saturday afternoons. The journey takes 19 hours one way.

Starting in January 2004, the Ghan will make one trip a week from Alice Springs to Darwin.

One-way fares between Adelaide and Alice Springs are $437 per person in Gold Kangaroo class, which includes twin or single sleeper cabin with bathroom (private shower in twin rooms only), amenity kit, dinner and breakfast en route. Red Kangaroo service in a twin cabin is $349; the daynighter seat is priced $110. (Prices provided by Goway; see below).

Great Southern Railway has a number of tour packages, including a three-night Ghan Opal Safari that includes Gold Kangaroo service aboard the Ghan, two nights in Coober Pedy at the Desert Cave Hotel, with transfers and sightseeing arranged by Desert Diversity Tours. It is priced at about $800.

Other packages incorporating visits to Darwin and to Uluru, once known as Ayers Rock, also are available.

Additional information: www.trainways.com.au.

Rail Australia is sold through Goway (800-387-8850), ATS Tours (800-423-2880) and Swan Australia Tours (800-227-9246).