Journeying by rail to Australia's Red Centre is hardly the fastest way to travel - but that's exactly why thousands do it. The Ghan has been crossing the desert from Adelaide into Alice Springs for more than 70 years, but these days it also collects passengers from Sydney and Melbourne. We boarded the Ghan in Melbourne after flying from Sydney.
It is one of the greatest ways to experience the Northern Territory Outback while not leaving the human comfort-zone of bunk beds, cooked meals and proper bathroom facilities. For those intent on having a motoring holiday but not wanting to risk a breakdown in the desert on the way, it is also possible to take the car aboard.
The Ghan inherited its name from the Afghan camel drivers who arrived in Australia almost 150 years ago to transport goods through the inhospitable terrain. Telegraph linesman later relied on camels before they were replaced by trains in the late 20s, when the Government decided to build a railway line.
The 1 1/2 day trip is one of the best ways to appreciate the vastness of the land. Panoramic windows in each of the cabins ensure passengers do not miss any of the sights, in daylight at least. There is also something to be said for the old-fashioned feel of the wooden-panelled interiors and uniformed conductors strolling the corridors.
Passengers ranged from families with young children, couples and backpackers to pensioners and war veterans. For most, it was their first trip, although one train buff named Frank, a war veteran, said he'd made the trip more than 10 times, simply because he relishes the experience. He doesn't even get off at the Alice but stays on board for the return journey.
We travelled overnight to Adelaide, with the few hours before bedtime spent in the lounge car, swapping travel tales with the other passengers and taking advantage of the bar. While some of the guests retired to the smoking lounge for port and cigars, I decided to give in to sleepiness and crawl into my first-class cabin bunk-bed where, despite the rocking and odd bump, it was surprisingly easy to sleep.
Brilliant sunshine blazing through the window took the place of a regular alarm clock, waking me naturally. But for those who might otherwise accidentally sleep through breakfast, a friendly announcement is made before food is served. Meals on the Ghan, unlike pre-prepared airline offerings, are cooked by on-board chefs and range from bacon-and-egg breakfasts to gourmet dinners. Later that night a grilled lime and ginger snapper went down extremely well with wine for dinner, while a picture-perfect orange sunset provided the backdrop in the restaurant car.
The Ghan passes through several key tourist spots on its way from Melbourne to Adelaide, including Geelong, the sandstone ranges of the Grampians, Victoria's wheat district and Bordertown. We arrived in Adelaide shortly after 10am and disembarked to explore the local sights for five hours before starting the final leg of the trip. There's a choice of tours but we decided to hit the local shopping strip before enjoying a long lunch in one of the city's many restaurants. The most scenic leg of the 2387km journey is from Adelaide. The lush green coastal vegetation rapidly turns more scrub-like as we pass by spinifex plains and salt pans across to the rugged MacDonnell Ranges.
Just in case of monotony, I had brought some books. A conductor took a bet that I would not get through one. He won. It is amazing how satisfying it is simply to watch the landscape, the changing colours of the sky and the sunset.
Most travellers watching their budget choose the day-nighter cars with reclining seats. But for those wanting a proper bed, sleeper cabins are available with almost all the facilities of first class, the only difference being they have to share a bathroom.
Overseas travellers are expected to make up the bulk of passengers on the Ghan when it embarks on a new route to Darwin. Construction on the long-awaited link has started and is expected to be completed by early 2004.
A Top End Club has been established to register the names of people who want to be first on the Ghan's historic first crossing to Darwin. But for us, when the Ghan rolled into the Alice Springs station at 10 am, everyone disembarked to begin the next leg of their outback adventure - everyone, that is, except Frank.
Our writer Linda's outback travel tips
- Drink lots of water. It can get hot in the Territory at any time of year. Drink at least eight glasses of water daily and carry plenty of water with you whenever you are walking, climbing or cycling - at least two litres for every one hour of activity.
- Fossicking. Prospecting is a Territory tradition and all you need is a fossicker permit to go on your own quest for agate, amethyst, garnet, jasper, zircon, and of course gold. For permission to fossick on freehold land and mineral leases you must ask the owner or leaseholder. Individual fossicking permits are not required if you are on a tour.
- Crocodiles. The need for caution and commonsense cannot be stressed too strongly in areas containing, or suspected of containing, the dangerous saltwater crocodile. Despite its name, the saltwater crocodile is equally at home in both salt and fresh water and is often found considerable distances from the coast and estuarine river systems.
- What to wear. You should dress in cool protective cotton clothing, a wide-brimmed hat and sturdy shoes. Sandals are not appropriate and can be hazardous in some situations, including slippery rocky terrain around watercourses.