I’ve done the road trip between Adelaide in South Australia through to Darwin at the top end of the country’s Northern Territory. A massive journey covering more than 3,000 kilometres – much of it through vast remote deserts and pastoral stations.
But the most relaxing way I’ve tackled this journey has been by rail on Australia’s iconic GHAN train. Operating since 1929, the Ghan is expensive. It’s a journey that hubby and I enjoyed a lot – a one time experience for us because of the high cost. I kept an eye on the operator’s website until a good deal was offered, and I suggest you do the same unless money is no problem.
Included in your ticket price is a range of enjoyable off-train activity options at stops en route. We rode camels on a property just out of Alice Springs, and enjoyed a cruise along the stunning Nitmiluk Gorge at Katherine.
Camels, by the way, were imported into Australia from Afghanistan, India and the Middle East in the 19th century to haul freight and transport people in the harsh outback They were often the choice animal for Europeans exploring the country. Today, hundreds of thousands of them run feral in Australia and they are a road hazard when travelling in many outback areas.
Pre and Post tours can be organised to dovetail with your departure or arrival on the Ghan.
The top range compartment is Platinum, with full size twins or a double bed – and access to a Platinum club restaurant.
Did I say top range? I forgot the Chairman’s carriage that’s available for private charter on selected departures. An offering for the seriously rich!
We settled for Gold class that provided a small, but comfortable private compartment for two, with seats that turned into reasonably restful bunks at night. Up to you to toss as to who climbs the ladder to the top bunk!
A Gold class compartment includes a very small ensuite with a basin, shower and toilet. Squeeze in one at a time! I’ve read that the famous Orient Express doesn’t provide private ensuites. So I was content with the privacy of our tiny one.
There are single gold cabins. Let me put this nicely -they are compact. VERY compact! A little claustrophobic for my liking. But if you aren’t troubled by weeny spaces, this might be for you if travelling by yourself. Even the passageway leading into the single compartment car is incredibly narrow and winding. I thought I was entering a maze when I checked it out! Passengers using the gold single cabins share bathroom and toilet facilities.
The Ghan trip includes all meals, quality wines, beer and other beverages. These are good restaurant quality chef meals. You know you’ve liked the menu when you try to recreate some of the dishes at home! I was impressed.
You have a choice of dining times, and unless you are travelling with friends, you’ll have different dining companions for every meal. We found this a great way to get to know other people on the journey with us.
You can also get coffee, drinks and snacks in a comfortable lounge carriage – a great place to meet up with friends old and new!
The average age in gold class on our trip was definitely into the retirement golden years! Anyone still working, even if they were in their 60’s, was regarded as a young’un!
Because of the small compartment sizes, your larger luggage is loaded into a special carriage for the journey. You can’t access it until the end of the journey, so you take into your cabin a small bag with what you need for the trip. Keep it minimal, as you’ll find every inch of space in your compartment counts.
I loved the passing scenery as we crossed from South Australia into the Northern Territory. I soaked in amazing sunsets and sunrises over the Australian outback landscape from the train. I rested, relaxed and enjoyed. My tip … definitely ensure you are awake for sunrise and know which side of the train to see it.
There is no wifi on board the Ghan. But remarkably, I was able to access mobile phone coverage (and the internet) throughout a lot of the journey. Reception could depend on who you use as a mobile phone provider.
Our trip included a dinner under the stars in Katherine. The menu provided a chance to experience the taste of crocodile and kangaroo. I understand the open air evening event is now held at the historical old Telegraph Station in Alice Springs.
The trip back from Darwin to Adelaide includes a stop to allow you to visit the stunning moonscape vista of the famous opal mining town of Coober Pedy. Miners have been digging holes here since an opal was first discovered in the area in 1915. And they dig not just to find seams of world class quality opal, but to burrow out underground homes and businesses. Modern cave people!
My Ghan trip going north didn’t include this stop, but I’ve visited Coober Pedy several times on road trips. It’s unlike anything you’ve probably ever seen before.
Most people here live under the ground in their dug-out homes to escape the scorching summer heat. My youngest sister was a teacher in Coober Pedy for many years, and her home was partly underground, built into a hill. If you feel you need to extend your house, simply dig out another room! Sealing the dug out walls is advised, or the rooms get very dusty!
You can experience sleeping underground yourself as many of the town’s hotels have rooms underground. Tours of underground mines and homes are on offer. I’ll be writing a separate blog on Coober Pedy soon!
The mood on the Ghan is casual – shorts and t-shirts are fine. You might want something a bit more smart for dinner at night, but nothing too glam is needed. Blokes can definitely leave their ties at home!
This is a journey where you get the opportunity to meet a lot of people, or simply choose to relax with your own music or book in the privacy of your compartment.
An early morning cuppa is offered, delivered to your compartment before breakfast in the dining car.
Covid, of course, has provided some bumps for the Ghan. Last year the service was suspended for five months because of COVID-19 restrictions and State border closures – the longest suspension in the train’s existence.
Covid outbreaks continue to affect the service. At the time of writing at the beginning of April 2021, passengers from some States were not able to board because of Covid cases in their areas. It’s a changing situation, so worthwhile to check cancellations conditions before you book.
Perhaps the romance of this unique Ghan journey through the heart of Australia is one to dream about in these difficult times – and reward yourself with when the pandemic crisis passes.