Melbourne Scene blogger, Catherine Sietkiewicz, escaped the big smoke and set off into the outback from Adelaide to Darwin over 3 days…
“How’s it Ghan mate?!” Arriving in Darwin my first thought was this, “how do I write a review when I’m totally speechless?” Lets rewind 56 hours and 2,979 kilometres to my first moments aboard The Ghan.
On a less-than-sunny Sunday morning in Adelaide I was warmly welcomed with other passengers by the Great Southern Rail staff who make it clear from the get go that it’s time for them to start work – and for you to stop and savour your journey through the heart of Australia. I never quite understood term “conductor,” in a locomotive sense, until I met Johnny – a friendly conductor complete with genuine Ringo Starr accent (Thomas Tank anyone?), Doug and their fellow crew aboard The Ghan who orchestrate the movements of the carriages with all the skill and precision of a musical conductor; hitting all the right notes to make sure you’re comfortable and at home aboard their beloved Ghan. Though they’re professional and always around to cater to passengers needs, it’s their genuine, infectious enthusiasm to share this once-in-a-lifetime experience of the outback with others that sets them apart.
To set foot aboard The Ghan is to be taken back in time. A charming wooden coridoor snakes down the centre of the Red Sleeper Service carriage with boutique style berths to the left and the right. The rooms are cosy, but generous. There’s ample space with two comfy arm chairs that at night transform into upper and lower bunk beds with crisp white sheets, luxurious duvet’s or “doonas,” as the locals will tell you, and soft pillows. As a Red Sleeper passenger you’ll have access to the lounge and dining carrages, but the intricacy of the individual berth design is something to marvel at itself. I was astounded by the skill of the designers who somehow managed to pack into a berth that still felt spacious; two beds, a pair of arm chars, a vanity, two cupboards, a table and a storage space for luggage when I had struggled with the simple task of packing clothes into a suitcase!
The first evening The Ghan guides you though South Australian farmland nestled beside the Flinders Ranges as she travels west nudging your first hint of desert – the Nullabor Plains and just as the blistering sun sinks into the desert to cool off at sunset, the moon and stars sneak out to steal the show.
Night time on The Ghan is magical, stars carpet the sky all the way to greet the earth and dazzle without a hint of light pollution; at times you’ll find yourself convinced you could scoop up a handful of them from your berth window! I slept with the blinds in my berth open and upon being woken in the night as she made a turn to head north, I caught the most brilliant display of the milky way I have ever seen.
Day two is full of vivid, vibrant colours as the train arrives in Alice Springs; greeted by rust coloured earth against cloudless blue sky. The Ghan stops to rest in Alice where a variety of “Whistle Stop,” tours are organised for the afternoon. Me? I went riding through mountain ranges on an exceptionally affectionate ex-racing camel, called “Greyhound.” What could be more fitting when on a train following a trail originally trekked by Afghani Camaleers!
After falling asleep on the train in the desert for another starry night, waking up in tropical rainforest the very next day is unbelievable. Lush green trees, pools of water and rust-red termite stacks usher you into the train’s second stop – Katherine. Katherine is a small town (boasting one whole set of traffic lights mind you!) whose population booms this time of year with holidayers making the most of the Katherine River that winds through a stunning gorge in nearby Nitmiluk National Park. I made sure to race up a steep rock path on one side of the river for a happy snap with some fellow Ghan-ers, making it safely back without being chased by a crocodile in time for the final leg of her journey.
After a few short hours, most of it spent wishing the trip wouldn’t end, The Ghan coasts along the longest bridge on the Trans-Continental line over the Elizabeth River and into Darwin. There’s a buzz in thick, tropical air of excitement as passengers exhange smiles with a look of “we did it!” on our faces – and I’m pretty sure we all cast one final, goodbye glance back at The Ghan before we left her and went our separate ways.