THIS is the story of one of the great train journeys. The train is the Ghan and its journey through the heart of Australia.
It starts in Adelaide where the friendly staff of Great Southern Rail welcome you at the Adelaide Parklands Terminal. Nothing is too much trouble as they assist you with your baggage, complimentary coffee and champagne is on offer. It’s only 10am but put a group of Aussies together with free drinks and you have the beginnings of a party…one big party all the way to Darwin.
The train is well decked out. We have a deluxe cabin complete with three quarter double bed, two arm chairs, ensuite and kitchenette for making coffees etc, a well-stocked mini bar and on the table an ice bucket and a welcome bottle of champagne.
There is also a parlour car for relaxing and enjoying drinks and a dining car offering fine food.
The Ghan got its name from the Afghan camel drivers who came to Australia in the 1800s to ply the outback with their camels, transporting all manner of goods through the centre of this vast country.
In 1929, the first Ghan left Adelaide for Alice Springs, then in 2004 the track was completed to Darwin and it continues to be very popular. On this journey they have fitted extra carriages to cater for the bookings. We are over 990m long and will travel over 2,900km to our destination.
This evening we dine in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant. The atmosphere and the food are excellent and so are the fine wines.
Retiring to our cabins the train rocks us to sleep. In the early hours of the morning the train stops art Marla and this is to be our first outback experience.
As we leave the Ghan, the night sky is black, but hundreds of lanterns have been set up along the side of the track to guide our way to a central point midway along the massive length of our train.
Bonfires have been lit to warm the night as we await sunrise. Hot coffee and tea are served together with bacon and egg sliders and sweet buns.
The sunrise is spectacular and so is the outback bushland that surrounds us. Marla is 160km from the Northern Territory border. Its location marks the start of the Oodnadatta Track.
Back on-board we head for Alice Springs. The outback is truly a wide open space with bright red soil, lots of saltbush, some trees but very few sighting of wildlife. No, we have just seen a kangaroo but only one and later on some cattle, and then two camels but that’s it.
Crossing into the Northern Territory we see the mighty Finke River. It’s empty and mostly is and is said to be one of the oldest rivers in the world dating back 300 million years
We now pull into Alice Springs. Our train is so big and as we slow down it takes 10 minutes to cross a level crossing, cars lined up on either side.
At either end of the train it’s a long walk to the station. Alice Springs was established just about in the dead centre of Australia. It was put there by engineers to establish a communication system between Darwin and Adelaide.
Just a few teams of men set about the back breaking work of digging holes for poles…36,000 of them to run a wire across the outback of Australia to set up the telegraph. They did and the central point of Alice Springs was born.
They tell the story how in the early days the telegraph kept breaking down. It seems the local Aboriginals took a liking to the glass bulbs at the top of each poll used to insulate the wires.
They would shimmy up the polls, take the bulb and smash it to get the sharp edges of the glass to use it for skinning animals
Teams of men were sent out to repair the wire until a bright idea. They left a box of bulbs at the base of each poll affected. With regular top-ups the problem was solved.
The Alice has a population of between 24 and 30,000 depending on the time of year. It’s home to the Royal Flying Doctor Service; one of the great achievements in medicine and care in the outback of Australia. A visit to their headquarters is a must do. The Alice is also home to an amazing camel race and a regatta held on a river with no water…the Todd. All manner of craft are built for the race. At the starter’s gun the teams lift their craft up around them and run down the dry riverbed.
From The Alice it’s an overnight ride on the Ghan to Katherine, home to the world famous Gorge. If we had arrived last week we would not have been able to see the Gorge as the floodwaters covered the road in and the Gorge carried an extra 3m of water.
Today we are lucky. Even though the second Gorge is still closed we can sail on the first and make our way to Aboriginal rock paintings high on the Gorge wall.
It’s a very beautiful experience. The high walls of the Gorge look so majestic. It is strange to think that millions of years ago this was just one big rock then a tiny crack and the trickling water cut into the rock carving over millennium a river.
This area has now been handed back to its traditional owners, the Jawoyn people and forms the Nitmiluk National Park that covers over 290,000ha. From its beginnings it has taken nature over 23 million years to create this natural wonder.
On the way back to Katherine it was pointed out to us that Katherine was the only inland town in Australia to be bombed by the Japanese during the World War II.
As the Japanese planes bombed Darwin over 60 times, they also attacked Katherine, because of its RAAF Airfield, 91 bombs were dropped killing one person.
*To Be Continued.
Until next time,