A journey beyond expectation

A trip on board The Ghan between Darwin and Adelaide provides all kinds of surprises.

Is it pronounced gan or garn? This was the deeply philosophical question that faced me as I gazed out of my train carriage window across miles and miles of… nothing.

I knew Australia was a big country. A sunburnt country. A land of sweeping plains (props to Dorothea Mackellar for capturing this so beautifully). But growing up in Tasmania, I had never seen it. And I had no idea.

Taking The Ghan Expedition from Darwin to Adelaide certainly opened my eyes, in more ways than one. 

Train travel is not something we are accustomed to in Australia. It is more at home in the tightly packed countries of Europe, where the bustling towns are plentiful and you can cover several destinations in the space of a day.

Australia’s vast Outback is quite the opposite. The towns were built along the railway line to support the burgeoning mining industry, and some have now been left abandoned as more modern modes of transport take hold.

And yet there is something romantic about a train journey where your onboard experience is just as important as the stops in between.

I expected a lot of time on my own, appreciating the quiet moments in what has become a busy life – a common complaint among family and friends.

But from the moment I boarded the transfer bus to the train station, what I experienced was the opposite. Striking up a conversation became the norm – not something I’m prone to do but I found it necessary not just for me but for my travelling companions. It seemed a woman in her 40s travelling on her own was quite a unique situation aboard The Ghan, and I found myself reassuring more than once that yes, I was quite happy; and no, I wasn’t lonely.

The onboard community seemed determined to rally around me. The staff were extremely helpful and generous with their time and conversation; and my fellow travellers were engaging and interesting to spend time with. Every meal and excursion saw me meeting new people each day.    

After morning check-in and boarding in Darwin (complete with the customary photo in front of the main engine), we were asked to pick our preferred off-train excursions for the trip, as well as book dinner times.

Underground lunch in Coober Pedy
Underground lunch at Coober Pedy.
The Ghan departing from Darwin
Departing Darwin.

Something I’ve always struggled with on holidays is a lack of structure – I’m not a ‘go with the flow’ kind of girl – so being able to plan ahead on this trip was something that appealed to me.

After agonising over a couple of choices that required ‘medium to high levels of fitness’, my decisions were made. We were then presented with a red, branded lanyard with a card that was hole punched with our chosen tours. And we boarded a bus. I had officially been initiated into the group tour culture.

Arriving at Nitmiluk Gorge just outside Katherine, it was hot. Not searing Tassie hot. That kind of damp heat that sticks to you and makes you regret not wearing more natural fibres.

But the heat was soon forgotten as we set off on our boat tour and spotted a small crocodile sunning itself on a tree in the middle of the river. Our guide told us of the large saltwater crocs that sometimes find themselves in the gorge during flooding in wet season. Looking at the size of our boat and its proximity to the water, I was glad the day was sunny and dry.

The soaring red cliffs of the gorge made a beautiful backdrop to the guide’s tales of the area, owned by the Jawoyn people who have a rich history that they are happy to share with visitors.

I chose the two-gorge tour, which gave an insight into the formation of this natural wonder, and the fascinating cultural stories of the landscape.

My fears around ‘medium to high levels of fitness’ were unfounded. I easily traversed the rocky paths between gorges, with fellow passengers and the guides happy to lend a hand where needed.

Dinner at sunset at Telegraph Station
Dinner under the stars at the Telegraph Station, Alice Springs.

Back on board the train we had just enough time to freshen up before dinner, which on The Ghan is a silver service affair of the finest local produce and wines. I was amazed that the chefs were able to conjure up such fresh flavours given their cramped quarters and the moving train – I struggled to clean my teeth without making a mess so I can only imagine how difficult it would be cooking for a train full of people

The food and wine experience is something The Ghan prides itself on, and it does not disappoint. Reflecting the changing landscapes as we travel south, the menu provides a wide array of choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner, leaving you happily sated as you retire for the night.

But it’s not just aboard the train where the food and wine experience excels.

Dinner under the stars at Alice Springs was for me by far the highlight of the trip.

Combining an Outback barbecue with live entertainment, under the open skies pinpointed with stars, was something I will never forget. Add to this a tour of the sky by a local Indigenous guide, a chance to explore the history of the Telegraph Station surrounding us, and even camel rides for those more adventurous, and it was a one-stop Outback extravaganza.

Another unique dining experience was at Coober Pedy, where we went deep underground into a working opal mine and were treated to a feast that defied the chefs’ location. I was very impressed at how they managed to feed so many people with such limited space and resources.

Our last dinner was a poignant moment for me. The unexpected experiences, the friendships and the lasting impression of our magnificent Outback rolled through me as the last kilometres ebbed away.

I found myself reflecting on the feats of the wonderful team of staff on board The Ghan, and how challenging it must be to work in such an environment. And yet every day they were friendly, helpful and genuinely engaged and passionate about what they were doing.

With the Indian Pacific between Sydney and Perth and the new Great Southern between Adelaide and Brisbane still to explore, I have already started planning my next adventure. 

Oh and if you’re wondering, it’s pronounced ‘gan’, as in Afghan, after the original people who forged the path between Adelaide and Darwin.