From the get go the anticipation about the journey on the Ghan train was a reflection of the importance of this part of the trip. Not that we were great train enthusiasts, on the contrary nothing could be further from the truth. Despite residing only 15 minutes from the famous Cantilever Forth Rail Bridge, a couple of hours from the infamous Harry Potter Glenfinnan Viaduct and a short drive from the author of Trainspotters there is no way we might be classified as enthusiasts. But there was something about the prospect of an overnight train journey through the outback that brought out the romantic in me and I think the promise of romance in any form is not to be sniffed at when you’re this age.
The railway line that links the South of Australia, Adelaide, with the North, Darwin, has taken many years to complete. In 1929 the Adelaide to Alice Springs stretch was completed but it would be 1980 before it was completed to Darwin. Katherine, just south of Darwin, did have it’s own line linking it with the City in the North but the railway line that completed the journey from Alice Springs was a long time in planning and completion. Having visited the terrain there it is easy to see why it might take some time or indeed some enthusiasm. The Ghan journey takes 54 hours travelling a total of 2 979 kilometres. Not all of the journey is confined to the train, for the tourists booked on it, there are stopovers in Alice Springs for 4 hours and Katherine, 3 hours to enable you to explore the precious landmarks on route to Darwin.
The name, the Ghan is disputed, but thought to be a shortened version of the Afghan Express, this story predicated on the first passenger to make the long journey who was allegedly an Afghan. The popularity of the train journey when it was first launched was not entirely fulfilled. Many thought the whole prospect of travel by train to the North was a bit of waste of their time. Delays were often caused through track washouts. Other’s believe the Ghan was so called after the camels imported from there who would take travellers onward from Alice Springs long before the track was completed. Whichever you prefer the Ghan creates a majesty, mystery and the promise of a journey of a lifetime, should you choose to do it. I won’t lie the scenery along the way is monotonous and bland, the only added interest are the termite hills and how innovative their design, shape and colours were. Other than that it’s desert.
We were boarding the Ghan from Alice Springs at 1730. The train station was buzzing with excited travellers, while train staff offered us complimentary drinks of the non-alcoholic variety. A solo artist was paid to strum his guitar covering Passenger and Ed Sheeran songs as he hopelessly tried to drown out the constant shrill of excited chatter from eager passengers. The Ghan was privatised in 1997 and the company who operate the Ghan “Journey Beyond Rail Expeditions“ meet and greet you in the Alice Springs train station, their navy blue trousers, bush hats and blue, cream and burgundy striped shirts smartly identifying them among the colourful characters waiting to travel. Dining times and room numbers allocated we wandered outside to survey the Ghan in the metal.
There are two locomotives providing a hefty 132 tonne pulling power, bright red in colour it stands aloof, nonchalantly waiting for things to get going. Coming along behind are just a few Annie and Clarabelles (Thomas the Tank engine fans I apologise), 38 carriages in shiny stainless steel making the average length of the train about 774 meters long. Doubtless a bit much for Thomas or even Big Gordon to pull. There was a constant stream of people walking back and forth along its lengthy carriages, dwarfed like ants against this huge monster, diminished even further by the lack of a platform. Every passenger was keen to have a photographic memory of the giant locomotive pulling them north to Darwin. We noticed one of these hopefuls limping along with a walking stick, halting 200 meters from the front he appeared to turn back, exhausted by the sheer length and searing heat. I sympathised with him, given my experience with the hamstring injury so I stopped to talk to him. Having established he was trying to get the obligatory picture I introduced him to the delights of airdrop and shared mine with an ecstatic new German friend.
Suddenly the bell tolled and automatically all 38 carriage doors swung open and an access frenzy began. A steel step ladder had been slotted into position easing our entry and standing astride the pavement and the ladder was our carriage host. The parrot was ours, a tall slim young man, with a warm welcome and nervous smile. We had a room J2, which was near the entrance and he directed us to wait in our cabin until he arrived before we left. We got our first glimpse of inside the train as we navigated the narrow walkway almost sideways as we searched for our cabin. At first sight it’s hard to imagine how James Bond fought so violently with Jaws in the train scene from ‘The Spy who loved me’ when you consider the actual size of the room. A comfortable bench seat covered in pale green embossed fabric backed onto a walnut facia, concealing the top bunk, that would later be our sleeping arrangements. There was approximately 2 feet between the seat and the facing wall that neatly contained a mirror, wardrobe complete with safe, refuse bin and door leading to the all important en suite. Within this little cubicle were an array of high quality shower gels, shampoos and conditioner to use with the shower. A shower curtain fixed with bright ribbon and a stud to the wall caressed a rail that circumnavigated the space and neatly consumed you while protecting the loo and sink while you showered. Towels were concealed behind a frosted glass cupboard sunk into the rear shower wall. All perfectly bijou and still relevant despite being designed in the 60’s.
The Parrot arrived to advise us where everything was and how it worked, clearly for the non-inquisitive who would not have explored the minute they arrived in their cabin. Once we had passed his muster we were advised we were free to join the bar carriage and when we returned from dinner that night he would have our beds ready to enjoy our overnight ride in the train.
All drinks and food are included in the package and this made for a jolly atmosphere. There are currently two packages on the train; platinum (we were not this) and gold. It’s all inclusive and according to the staff, the food and drinks are the same in both packages just the sleeping accommodation differs. Our single passengers had a roomette but much to their consternation no en suite. The elegant antelope on our trip had made a really relevant point about paying extra as a single traveller for second best accommodation. It did seem a bit unfair. One of the staff, a tall peacock from Prague, advised us she had travelled in Red service as a back packer which was the no frills side of the train but this service had long since been dispensed with in favour of the gold and platinum premium paying passengers.
As this monster got under way, we let our excitement get the better of us and cheered, raising a glass of whatever we had in our hand to a right good trip…….and whatever awaited us.