The Ghan is one of those trips many people have on their bucket list – two nights and three days where you can sit back and be waited on hand and foot while you snake your way from Adelaide right up through the middle of our vast continent until you reach Darwin.
What a glorious chance to escape the Adelaide winter and have an adventure.
From the moment you step into the Keswick terminal to check in, you sense that everyone is there to make it a pleasurable experience. Music, coffee and champagne is on tap. Once you’re settled into your cabin in your designated carriage, a charming attendant arrives to answer any questions, as well as booking your dining preferences and off-train experiences.
There is nothing quite like that first glide out of the station when you know the journey is about to begin.
My travelling companion, Mary Beasley, and I (both mature women) toss a coin to see who will sleep on the top bunk. I lose. Space is at a premium, so I wouldn’t suggest that – like Mary – you pack as if for the Orient Express. One carry-on bag each with casual clothes and comfortable shoes is the sensible limit. (Our fellow passengers nicknamed Mary Imelda – as in Marcos – because of her range of footwear; I wore the same sneakers every day and so did most of the others.)
Lunch is the first item on the agenda, so we make our way to the Outback Explorer Lounge to share a drink and mingle with the other guests. This lounge is our social hub during the next three days.
Everyone is cheerful and chatty, which continues when we are called into our sitting at the Queen Adelaide Restaurant. Tables are set with white linen and generous wine glasses for four people. If you want to have a table for two, I recommend the late sitting. We sit with different people every meal and, without wanting to sound like Pollyanna, they are all warm and keen to exchange life stories or opinions about national issues or just have a laugh.
The average age of those on board is over 50, but some passengers have brought their children or grandchildren along to share in the experience. There are retired and working people, single and married, male and female, all shapes and sizes.
The train decor is art deco, and the menu is three courses of fresh delicious choices including kangaroo, emu and buffalo. The wine is among South Australia’s best. The service is exceptional and no request is too much.
Outside, the landscape rolls seamlessly by, from scrubby bush to red-earth desert. Every meal is a new three-course menu and you can sit afterwards in the lounge until late evening, enjoying drinks and conversations.
The first night I am not too chirpy about climbing the ladder to the top bunk, which is definitely narrower than the bottom one. I pull up the sliding rail and sleep clinging onto it so I don’t roll out.
It is possible to sleep in a cabin with either two singles or a double-bed cabin (no bunks) and much more space if you book in Platinum, but it costs an extra $1200 per person. You also have to book about a year ahead, as there are only four Platinum carriages, and prices vary depending on cabins size, season, etc. I asked to see a Platinum cabin, and if you have the money, it is worth it for the extra space and the exclusivity of the lounge and the dining room – but I am not sure it would be as jolly as Gold Class.
Mary and I do not get up at 6.30am the first morning to see the sunrise at Marla, but those who do are impressed. There’s also the opportunity for a camel ride when we stop in Alice Springs. Our train is named after the Afghan cameleers who migrated to Australia in the mid 1800s to transport goods across the country’s interior. They said the camels were very tame “ships of the desert” who took them on a guided leisurely journey to White Gums station through avenues of ironbark and mulga trees and across clay pan flats.
Later in the day, over a G&T, our previous night’s dinner companions are excited to tell Mary she is in the Alice Springs National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame, which they visited on a different excursion. They have the photos from 1985 to prove it – clearly she was not just a pretty pair of shoes.
The next day, when we stop in Katherine, we choose to go on the Nitmiluk First Gorge Art Cruise. Our Indigenous guide tells us Dreamtime stories from the Jawoyn people. Basking in warm sunshine on a low, comfortable boat, we glide down the Katherine River dwarfed by the towering cathedrals of jagged sandstone rock either side of us while he plays the didgeridoo. It is sheer magic.
A short stroll from the boat takes us to Nitmiluk National Park, where the rock paintings make us feel like we are stepping into a 40,000-year-old art gallery and the local experts share more Indigenous stories. As we depart the boat, our guide points out the hundreds of black bats in the nearby trees who have arrived to eat all the vegetation: “We have a deal – take one and get 500 free,” he says.
He refuses to say “goodbye” because it is too final a word, preferring instead “boh boh”, which roughly translated is like “au revoir” or “till we meet again”.
Back on the train, running beside us is the ever-faithful mesmerising landscape. The small scrubby brown bushes have now turned into light green lithe trees. As we sip our drinks, our eyes are constantly drawn to its seeming endlessness until darkness finally descends.
At our last lunch on the final day, when the full bloom of the white magnolia trees welcome us into Darwin, I ask other passengers for their honest assessment of the trip. All say they have loved every aspect of it – the food, the wine, the landscape, the off-train excursions and the history of the Ghan – but most are particularly impressed by the dedicated attendants.
We all love to feel special and spoiled. If you are needing a bit of this, seize the day. As the bus takes off to take us to our hotels, I look back at the 1km-long silver snake we are leaving behind and whisper: “boh boh”.
Dr Susan Mitchell is an author, a journalist, a broadcaster and a film critic. She travelled on The Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin as a guest of Journey Beyond.
Details of journeys available on The Ghan can be found here.
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