Alexis Buxton-Collins experiences four seasons in three days on Australia’s most iconic train journey.
Looking down at my bag, I can’t help but think that I’ve overpacked. There’s a heavy winter coat, board shorts, thongs and everything in between. I’m prepared for dinner in a fancy restaurant, a river cruise and an outback hike and this is all for three days. But The Ghan covers a lot of territory in that time, and I want to be prepared.
I zip my bag up and hoist it onto my shoulder, mindful that I’ve been told to arrive at the Keswick Terminal early. There’s no security line to tackle and check in doesn’t take long – the early arrival is so that I can meet my fellow guests over a glass of sparkling wine before we all set off. There’s nothing like a train journey to evoke the golden age of travel!
When it’s time to board, I check out the cabin that will be my home for the next few days. A large window dominates the wall with a fold out desk beneath it and two seats on either side. In the corner a bag of Appelles toiletries is perched above a basin but there’s no sign of a bed anywhere. An attendant in an Akubra hat and warm vest introduces himself as Michael and points out the surprisingly numerous storage spaces before explaining that he will transform it into my bedroom during dinner service.
Looking out the window, I see groups teeing off at the North Adelaide Golf Course and reflect that I’m one of the few people with an even more leisurely day ahead of me. The most exercise I’ll get for the day is walking between my cabin and the Outback Explorer lounge where an open bar and my fellow passengers await. As we exchange stories, the restaurant manager subtly watches us before pairing us up for lunch.
Sue from Modbury becomes one of my regular dining companions – her parents travelled on the Ghan when it terminated in Alice Springs before 2004 and she always dreamed of taking the iconic journey. Her husband was less enthusiastic, so he’s flying up to meet her in Darwin. Opposite us sits Ernst, a seven-foot German who is also travelling solo and has decided to make his way slowly but surely through the entire wine list over the course of the next few days.
I settle on a glass of Penna Lane Riesling to accompany my grilled Hiramasa kingfish and the afternoon flies by in their company. Farmland stretches out on either side of us, and in the distance ridges capped by wind turbines are almost lost in the clouds. It’s hard to imagine using my board shorts at the moment.
Soon after Crystal Brook, the terrain gets more interesting as flat plains of saltbush lead to the low humps of the Southern Flinders and an announcement over the intercom informs us that we’re approaching a curve in the track. Looking out the window, we can see the entire 902-metre train stretching out in front of us. Above the red dirt of Australia’s interior, this gleaming steel snake shines in the afternoon sunlight as the light slowly fades from the sky.
The next few days settle into a comfortable routine. I get to know more about my fellow passengers as we as we move inexorably northward, and each day is broken up by excursions that allow us to appreciate the slowly changing landscape. The second day starts before dawn, as we disembark at Marla and warm ourselves around a fire while clutching cups of tea and warm vegemite scrolls. The inky blackness around us gradually lifts and colour returns to the landscape, beginning with pink and gold clouds streaked across the sky. An overnight low of two degrees makes me grateful for that winter coat, but within an hour of sunrise I’m happy to be back in the climate-controlled cabin as the small undulations in the landscape are turned into islands by mirages.
Plains of red dirt dotted with hummocks of saltbush and low mulga bushes seem to stretch out forever until we cross the broad bed of the Finke River and giant brick red mesas rise in the distance. Closer at hand, large gums reach skyward and the colourful hills are painted with swirls or red, white and yellow before we pass through a tiny gap in the MacDonnell Ranges and enter Alice Springs.
There are several excursion options and I’ve chosen to visit the Alice Springs Desert Park where walking paths lead through habitats populated by native flora and wildlife such as emus, dingoes and zebra finches. This environment is bursting with life in comparison to the landscape we’ve passed through, and, onboard, my wildlife encounters are restricted to the Queen Adelaide Restaurant. The menu changes to reflect locally available foods and I spot kangaroo fillet, buffalo curry and crocodile sausage as we head north and Ernst slowly but surely works his way through the wine list.
Further north, semi-arid desert gives way to sub-tropical savannah woodland at some point during the night and I once again wake up to an entirely new landscape. 2,979 kilometres is a long way to travel, but onboard The Ghan there’s none of the monotony I associate with driving through the centre.
I feel like I’ve eaten enough for two passengers, but I can’t resist the barramundi benedict before hopping off the train once more to explore Katherine Gorge. There, a boat waits to take us between the imposing rock walls that form southern end of the Arnhem Land escarpment. We pass a rock gallery that’s over 10,000 years old, but in this landscape that’s nothing – there are no fossils in the rock, because it was formed before life on Earth began.
As kites circle overhead and spiky pandanus and freshwater mangrove line the water’s edge, I struggle to remember the cold morning just two days ago when I boarded the train. It’s even harder to recall by that evening, when I disembark just in time to change into board shorts and watch a deep red sun setting over the Timor Sea from my balcony in Darwin.
The writer travelled as a guest of Great Southern Rail
Image via Great Southern Rail