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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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).