I became enticed by the Ghan after reading Bruce Chatwin’s nomadic novel The Songlines. It’s an embroidered tale of friends negotiating the new train route to Darwin while respecting important Aboriginal connections to The Dreamtime (the “songlines”).
The book has now accompanied me on a pilgrimage that has given me a huge dose of reality.
The Ghan’s full northern journey started in 2004, with the line’s completion from Alice Springs to Darwin. The routine service runs most of the year, mid-January to mid-December.
The Ghan Expedition, which runs from April to October, stops more often with time to soak up Katherine, Alice and Coober Pedy. The Expedition’s to-do list is so full you almost forget you’re travelling nearly 3000km on rails.
We’ve boarded the Ghan Expedition from Darwin. I’m 50, definitely on the younger end of the passenger manifest. My wife and I walk along this 900m locomotive for about five minutes to our tight but comfortable car Q cabin. We learn to play Tetris with our luggage very quickly. The bathrooms are a big improvement from earlier carriages, now with conventional toilets and a reasonably-sized shower.
The first exposure to Aboriginal history and culture comes four hours in at Katherine. The Indigenous guide at Nitmiluk National Park is very local – Katherine Gorge is a part of his dreaming.
We travel by flat-bottomed boat past basking crocodiles and rock paintings 60,000 years old. The drawings we see are essentially local shopping lists of what’s on offer in the area. This is an easy trip for most ages – just hold your nose as you pass the trees laden with cute but stinky bats.
Back at the train, the catering reminds you that this is a luxury affair. The all-inclusive food and drinks are of a high standard and meals impress with eclectic ingredients – from crocodile, duck and fillet steak to a wattleseed ice-cream dessert.
Chatwin’s novel inspired me in Alice Springs. In 1991, I was your typical, unwashed backpacker “doing” Australia, with the slight difference that I was an Australian. I eventually found myself in Alice, managing a backpacker hostel.
They were my glory days of tour guiding, mates and probably too much alcohol. Transporting so many guests from the station had me determined to one day ride that northern rail.
Now, with Alice finally minutes away, the revisit has to wait – but there’s a spectacular reason: I’m about to fly over Uluru.
The insignificance of being in a small mechanical blowfly over such majestic, eternal terrain is the highlight of my trip. Once the Cessna 210 reaches Ayers Rock Airport, we’re whisked away for lunch and a whistle-stop tour of Uluru and surrounds. The mythical desert spirit of the Northern Territory radiates from this place.
Next stop is Alice, where I spent three years. My wife has been enjoying a tour of Todd Mall and a local nature park and we meet back at the train. We quickly spruce up for a dinner under the stars at the Telegraph Station. The station grounds have been transformed into an open-air restaurant complete with a bush band.
We cut dinner short to grab a taxi to my old work. I’m soon back – with a thud.
Alice looks so tired. The cabbie says the streets aren’t safe at night. We pull into the old hotel I have romanticised for so long. The poker machines and abundant security makes me uncomfortable.
We find a spot next to the carcass of an air conditioner on the deck. I strike up a conversation with a couple of locals who talk about the plight of the town’s youth, how their only real option is to leave. The magic I once felt here has disappeared. We high-tail it back to the train and the onboard shiraz never tasted better.
You don’t expect to find fantastic baklava under tonnes of rock down a hole. Today’s Greek lunch in a Coober Pedy opal mine follows a look at the town’s approach to its extreme environment. A visit to the grassless golf course as well as churches and homes dug into the rock makes me admire the locals’ mettle.
The afternoon takes us along the dingo-proof fence and the desolate ridges of The Breakaways. Ghan staff have champagne flowing and a campfire roaring when we arrive late afternoon at the Manguri railway siding. Next stop Adelaide.
I feel that the train has now repaid me after years of teasing
This trip is a staple for middle-aged passengers. It’s overflowing with tours and activities, lubricated with a very social and well-stocked bar. The food is exceptional. I was amused by the young and eager staff looking after the older clientele, and wondered who was sometimes in charge.
It’s one of the few truly Australian transport adventures and has little to find fault with. But I would have liked a staff member available who could bring more of The Dreamtime stories alive as we made our way south.
Bruce Chatwin died with the railway line unfinished. The Ghan’s full itinerary barely let me reread The Songlines to the fourth chapter, but I feel that the train has now repaid me after years of teasing. To feel Chatwin’s impact, read the book before you go.
Parklands terminal is close, and Adelaide means this discovery is complete.
Alice Springs showed me to leave old memories alone. The Ghan showed me that new memories can be just as moving.
If you go: The Ghan Expedition travels 2979km coast to coast though the fiery red centre – both northbound and southbound – and takes three nights and four days via Katherine and Alice Springs. It will operate April to October 2018 and March 2019. From $2459 per person. For details, visit greatsouthernrail.com.au.
The writer travelled as a guest of Great Southern Rail.
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