Riding the Ghan in Australia

By Simon Woodhouse

If you want to get somewhere quickly, you fly. Flying, however, can be a very impersonal form of travel. You get on the plane, it takes off, you’re up in the air for a while and then you land again. You might glance out the window every now and then, but the most you’ll get is a very high flying birds eye view of patchy bits of scenery. And more often than not all you’ll see is clouds. If travel is about experiencing the sights and sounds of going from point A to point B, them doing so by plane doesn’t fit the bill.

If you want to take in the world you’re travelling through, going by train has got to be a good bet. And if the route you’re going to take passes through some really spectacular landscapes, the experience will be unforgettable.

The Ghan is a stretch of railway that runs from Adelaide on Australia’s south coast, all the way through the interior of the country, right up to Darwin in the north. It takes its name from the Afghan cameleers who used to travel through the Australian desert, and opened up much of the country’s interior. The route covers a distance of 2980 km, and takes around two days to complete by train. Historically, the Ghan had been planned for a long time, but it only started taking passengers all the way from Adelaide to Darwin in early 2004.

For a rail journey as long as this, the trains offer more than just the standard seat by the window. At the top end of the scale is the Golden Kangaroo service (terrible name, but this is Australia). If you choose this option you’ll have access to a cabin that doubles as a day lounge and single or double sleeping area. These cabins have attendant service as well as ensuite facilities. There’s also a bar lounge. Red Kangaroo class is slightly less elegant, but cabins are available or at the very least there’s day/night recliner seats.

Tickets on the Ghan have a sensible sixty day usage policy. This means that once you start your journey you have up to sixty days before the ticket expires. Why is this a good idea? Well, the Ghan goes past some of central Australia’s most well known landmarks, many of which are worth a few days away from the train to explore. The train passes through Alice Springs, the town located at the very centre of Australia. This fact alone might not seem like a reason to stop there, but the town also acts as a gateway to Uluru (Ayers Rock), surely one of Australia’s most well known landmarks. Many tour operators offer the chance to travel from Alice Springs to Uluru, and watch the sunrise on the rock. If you don’t want to go as far as the rock, the MacDonnell Ranges are closer to town and offer plenty of rugged, evocative scenery.

After Alice Springs, the train stops in Katherine. Even on the standard journey, you pause here for four hours. Also referred to as the Crossroads of the North, Katherine itself only has a population of 11,000. But not far from the town is the Katherine Gorge. Because you’re probably taking the train to enjoy the splendid scenery of the Northern Territory, the gorge offers plenty of this, so really is worth a visit. Though it’s called Katherine Gorge, it’s actually made up of thirteen smaller gorges. There are also patches of rain forest, as well as steep escarpments and rocky cliffs.

Katherine is the last stop before Darwin. After the dry, arid desert scenery of central Australia, the tropical rain forest on the northern coast comes as a welcome change. This is the end of the line as far as the Ghan is concerned, and you’ll probably want to spend at least a couple of days in Darwin before you make the return trip to Adelaide. The city makes a great base for exploring the many national parks in the immediate locale. Chief amongst these is the Kakadu, an area that can easily swallow up two or three days. Darwin, though not a huge place (population 110,000), has everything you’d want in a holiday destination – beaches, restaurants, markets and even an open-air cinema. If you don’t want to ride the Ghan back to Adelaide, Darwin’s airport offers connections to all the major Australian cities, as well as an international service.

Long train journeys, no matter where in the world they take place, always leave an impression. There’s something about watching the scenery go by, whilst neither having to worry about driving, or being crammed into a plane, that’s both relaxing and enthralling. The Ghan is no exception to this rule, and as far as great train journeys of the world are concerned, it’s one of the best.

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