On The Ghan Again

By Sue Wallace

Nitmiluk Gorge’s ancient landscape  is 20 million years old.
Nitmiluk Gorge’s ancient landscape is 20 million years old.
A journey on Australia’s famed inland train from Darwin to Adelaide reveals the visual wonder and antiquity of ancient Australia, creating priceless memories.

Im tucked up in bed with a cosy doona wrapped around me, watching ever-changing scenery roll by on a four-day expedition trip from Darwin to Adelaide on the legendary train, The Ghan.

Following a spectacular rosy red sunrise, there’s been a kaleidoscope of panoramas, colours and landscapes sweeping by as we traverse 2,979 kilometres across this vast country from the north to the south.

Silvery scrublands, vivid ochre red soils set against the brightest of blue skies and fluffy white clouds, rolling sand dunes, farmland and several urban vistas showcase the diversity of inland Australia.

I love the quick peep into some backyards and the off-train excursions at Katherine, Alice Springs and Coober Pedy that showcase experiences and locations that touch the soul. But it’s not only the iconic red locomotive with ‘The Ghan’ emblazoned on it and the kilometre-long silver carriages, or the journey – it’s the history of the train that has always intrigued me.

The name conjures up images of those first tenacious Afghan cameleers, who helped open up the Outback from the mid-1850s by transporting people and supplies on their sturdy camels across a network of routes. It’s a fitting tribute to these early pioneers who helped build the railway back in 1929. Surprisingly, it doesn’t take long to adapt to the rocking and rolling motions of train life and I soon master the train tango. It goes like this – one step to the right or one step to the left to give way to other passengers heading your way down the narrow, wavy corridors. Occasionally there’s a collision, but a sense of humour and fancy footwork is part of train travel. That rock-and-roll motion lulls me to sleep at night and sometimes wakes me with a jolt. Several times I sit upright and wonder where I am as I look out the window into pitch darkness.

Off-train excursions feature daily. Nitmiluk Gorge Cruise is our first excursion, and we are soon immersed in the ancient landscape – the cliff faces look like they have been pleated as we cruise along the Katherine River. We listen to a cicada symphony reverberating from the cliffs, as we learn about the Jawoyn people and their spiritual connection to the gorge. We visit the first two gorges of the 13 that make up Nitmiluk, swapping boats halfway to walk over natural paths and rocky terrain. Several small ‘freshies’ watch us from afar.

An off-train dinner under the stars at the old Telegraph Station near Alice Springs is a memorable night out with crackling bonfires and barbecues, along with a short camel ride and an insight into the historic site. The foot-tapping Heartbeat band entertains all, swapping the words of Willie Nelson’s hit ‘On the Road Again’ – to ‘On the Ghan Again’. Months later I find myself humming along to the tune again – like The Ghan itself, it will always be special.

Next is the poignant Standley Chasm Cultural Walk. Traditionally known as the Angkerle Atwatye meaning ‘gap of water’, the rust-coloured rock shimmering in the sunlight is the star here. Located in the West MacDonnell Ranges, the three-metre wide, 80-metre-high gorge, owned and operated by the local western Arrernte community, is a spectacular sight as it glowers in fiery shades in the midday sun. It is a sacred place of women’s dreaming of the Arrernte people.

Indigenous guide Johnson Maloney shares his knowledge of geology, flora, fauna, bush medicine and bush tucker. He asks us to put our ear to some trees to hear the lifeblood and as I listen and the wind blows, I can hear a gentle thumping in this sacred place. A dot painting class follows as we learn about the traditional techniques and significance behind them.

Back on the train, we enjoy dinner in the elegant art deco Queen Adelaide restaurant with its crisp white linen tablecloths, fine china and glassware. Gold fares include hearty breakfasts, two-course lunches and three-course dinners – the grilled saltwater barramundi with wakame seaweed and sweet potato noodles is a standout.


Interior cabin on The Ghan

Fast Facts

The Ghan travels 85km/hour with 49 crew, 25 Platinum Service beds and 258 Gold Service beds. The four-day/three-night Ghan Expedition is operated by Journey Beyond from April to October.



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