We’re thundering through one of the harshest landscapes in Australia, happily ensconced in an oasis of comfort and luxury.
The destination is Alice Springs and the mode of transport is The Ghan, the legendary train that’s 1760 tonnes of stone cold proof it’s as much about the journey as the destination.
That’s certainly the response I’m getting on Instagram, where I’ve posted a few photos from the trip so far. Snaps of the famous sunset in Darwin, where we boarded The Ghan, and the spectacular landscape in Katherine, where we stopped along the way, have drawn some envy from friends and followers; but photos aboard the train itself — of its art deco dining cart, and the Outback scenes from my cabin window — are really driving them wild.
I don’t think they’ve ever been as interested in anywhere I’ve been or anything I’ve done.
But it’s little surprise. No train in Australia captures the imagination as much as The Ghan, the almost kilometre-long sleeper train that has snaked up and down the country between Adelaide and Alice Springs since 1929, and Adelaide and Darwin since 2004.
The 2979km rail line tracks the transcontinental journey taken by migrant cameleers who couriered mail and essential supplies across the desert more than 150 years ago. The train was originally called The Afghan Express in honour of those Outback pioneers; its current name derives from there.
It takes 73 hours to travel the full length of the journey between Darwin and Adelaide, plus off-train excursions along the way, with stops at Katherine, Alice Springs and Coober Pedy.
I’m on The Ghan for just one night, from Darwin to the Alice, with an excursion to Nitmiluk National Park near Katherine part of the package deal.
Trains are often considered a cheaper, if rougher, alternative to flying but The Ghan — a romantic recall of a bygone era in long-distance travel — is a luxury destination in itself. And it’s made the experience very popular.
The train’s top-tier Platinum cabins are booked out between six to nine months in advance and bookings for 2021 are pretty much spent, so if you’re interested, it’s best to reach for 2022.
Excesses of holiday money, unspent by those who would normally be holidaying overseas right now, is driving luxury holiday demand in Australia, including The Ghan.
Platinum double and twin cabins cost $5995 per person for the three-night, four-day Ghan Expedition trip from Darwin to Adelaide, while the same trip costs $3595 per person in the general admission Gold twin cabins, and $3235 for Gold single cabins.
It’s not quite a budget holiday, but from the moment you board, you’ll have no need to pull out your wallet — everything you need is included in your fare.
I’m staying in a Gold twin cabin, quaint and cosy but just big enough for two, with a private bathroom. There’s not a massive amount of room for large suitcases, although I’ve made mine fit — and you can stow larger luggage pieces for the journey. But the cabin designs make clever use of the limited space.
The single beds — there were two in my cabin — are more comfortable than they even appear, and the crisp white linen is turned down at night by the helpful cabin attendants, a nice touch that’s in keeping with The Ghan’s old-world charm.
There are dedicated lounge carriages, where passengers can sit back and enjoy complimentary hot, cold and stronger drinks, with snacks, including cheese platters, available as and when desired.
On-board meals are also included in the cost and served in the Queen Adelaide restaurant. With its white linen tablecloths and ornate art deco styling, it looks to have leapt from the pages of an Agatha Christie novel.
The meals served here are excellent — better than they need to be, a fellow traveller points out, given the limited options available to us on a train hurtling fast through the middle of the desert. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are multiple course meals, with options like grilled saltwater barramundi, buffalo curry and chocolate praline mousse gateau.
At dinner, after our Nitmiluk excursion, we order an entree of crocodile tail in what we think is a hilarious nod to our Top End adventure. Tender, tasty and elegantly plated with the native beach succulent karkalla, it ended up being our favourite dish.
As we knock back our second or third nightcap in the lounge cart before bed, somewhere between Katherine and Tennant Creek, we all decide to set our alarms for sunrise, so we can wake up to see that first glorious kiss of sunlight on the red desert. We also get the brilliant idea to sleep with our window shades open and pillows arranged so we’re facing the view the moment we open our eyes.
I highly recommend it.
I actually woke up much earlier than sunrise during my one night on The Ghan. The gentle rocking of the train had lulled me to sleep but around midnight, some way past Tennant Creek, my eyes blinked open when the mighty train slowed to a complete and unexpected stop.
We were stopped for about an hour, in the pitch-black middle of nowhere, yet snug as bugs in our hermetically sealed chamber of comfort.
In the morning, we’re told a broken-down freight train ahead had delayed us for an hour — an occasional reality when relying on the single track that cuts through the middle of the country.
The conductor says we’ll make up lost time to arrive at our next stop, Alice Springs, on schedule. And we do, because that’s the excellence you can expect on a train service like this.
But I was almost disappointed we didn’t stay on board for longer — I could have spent many more hours gazing lovingly out the window at that view.
The writer travelled on The Ghan as a guest of Journey Beyond and Tourism NT