Where Camels Once Trod, a Train Crosses Australia

Where Camels Once Trod, a Train Crosses Australia
By IVER PETERSON - New York Times, 8/11/2009
THE Ghan, part cruise train, part the working train that it started as, 90 years ago, is Australia’s transcontinental north-south line — a private railroad now running for 1,900 miles with just four stops through the vast interior of the country (and 1,900 miles back) twice each week. Northbound, it rolls from Adelaide on the temperate southern coast, through low desert plateau at Alice Springs, and on to the tropical lushness of the Top End, as Aussies call their northern coast, at Darwin on the Timor Sea.

The train was originally called the Afghan, after the camels that provided earlier transportation into the Australian interior; it has since been shortened to the Ghan, and a camel with its rider is the train’s ubiquitous trademark.

As old as the name may be, the nearly 1,000-mile track from Alice Springs to Darwin was finished only in 2004; Australian friends of my wife, Christine, who was then working in East Timor, likened its completion to the meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads in Utah in 1869. We were intrigued, and this year our chance finally came to ride the Ghan.

The entire trip from Adelaide to Darwin lasts 48 hours. Choosing to take only the second half, we flew from Sydney to pick up the train at the inland city of Alice Springs. A busy, sun-baked tourist and commercial center, Alice, as it is known, is an old sheepherding outpost transformed into a hub for outback travel that could be Moab, Utah, or Flagstaff, Ariz., for all the young backpackers, trekking outfitters and ostentatiously tricked-out four-wheel-drive rigs.

We had an excellent steak sandwich, easily big enough for two, at Aurora, the only restaurant we could find that was serving food in the midafternoon, and then, at 6 p.m., the Ghan rolled out of Alice with us onboard.

We had chosen Gold Service, the middle of three levels, or classes; each of our tickets was 1,004 Australian dollars, or about $810 U.S. at 1.24 Australian dollars to the U.S. dollar, which bought us a small private room, much wider than it was deep, with a single front-facing seat that converted into a bed and a second bed that folded out of the wall above. Getting to that top bunk demanded agility; it was reached by a very vertical, very narrow ladder. Luggage space was tight; the train urges passengers to check some bags.

The room also came with a small private toilet/shower, no bigger than a phone booth, when phone booths existed — the stainless-steel sink and toilet tipped out of the wall. The windows did not open, but the air-conditioning worked well without overdoing it — important in such a small space. Wood paneling, nickel-plated fittings and etched glass gave an aura of luxury to otherwise utilitarian settings.

Over the next night and day, as we rolled along at about 65 miles per hour, we noticed that, like us, other passengers tended to leave their doors open during the day, giving our car an open and sociable feeling.

Once under way out of Alice Springs, we saw from the ground what the flight in had already told us: with its vast landmass, and less than 22 million people, it is an empty place away from the coastline. Within minutes we left the last human developments behind us, and we rolled for hours that first evening past desert scrub of acacia and gum trees and comically steepled termite hills. There were no ranches, no roads, no grazing animals — not even the railroad crossings, with their lines of waiting cars and the ding-ding-ding of crossing barriers, that are such a part of train travel in more populated places.

The soothing sameness of the view out the big, clean window was soon interrupted by our first venture to the dining car. The Ghan’s two top service levels include all meals, served on heavy china service set down on rich white tablecloths. For dinner, we were offered roast duck salad, roast vegetables and rice served as little fried balls called arancini, curry of kingfish or kangaroo steak. For breakfast the next day, it was gammon steak (think jambon) and red capsicum ragout or an excellent warm smoked salmon crepe with asparagus, or the usual eggs to order. For lunch, it was smoked lamb with zucchini and bean salad or roasted pumpkin and artichoke tart.

My kangaroo steak, pink in the middle and resting on a fragrant cherry reduction, was tasty, a bit gamy but tender and grainy like good beef.

The dining car operates on the old railroad tradition of seating strangers together to fill a table for four, and we soon exchanged e-mail addresses and heartfelt promises to keep in touch with other couples. Most were Australians, middle-aged and older; there were a handful of Britons and only one other American couple. Most were taking the train for pleasure and intended to fly home from Darwin. But others were on business or making long-term moves, their cars loaded on open car carriers behind the twin locomotives.

Over drinks in the club car after dinner, we found the atmosphere cheerful and matey, as the Australians would put it; the middle-aged travelers in Gold and Platinum classes who mingled there clearly had no intention of missing the social possibilities of train travel. This was in contrast, we found in a visit to the less pricey part of the train, to the studious quiet among the mainly young people riding in the Red Service coach. They were sprawled, all legs and arms akimbo across their seats, absorbed in their cellphones or speaking quietly in small knots.

Through the night, the Ghan rolled on, with only one brief stop at Tennant Creek. In the morning, the landscape changed into a green, wet lowland watered by the monsoon, and the dry heat of the desert seemed far behind us.

The next stop was at Katherine, where everyone got off the train for a break of several hours. Passengers could take one of several tours the railroad had organized, from a shuttle bus into town to a helicopter ride. We chose the Katherine River Gorge cruise, to see Aboriginal petroglyphs on the canyon walls in Nitmiluk National Park, for 80 Australian dollars each.

At dusk that day, our second onboard and just over 24 hours after we boarded at Alice Springs, the Ghan rolled into a nondescript freight-container yard a good distance outside Darwin. Our Gold Service tickets entitled us to a free shuttle to our hotel, with a driver who expected no tips, while the Red Service passengers had the non-option of paying to reach the town. With practiced efficiency, the bus dropped us off at our respective hotels, and there was hardly time for goodbyes. After so many hours in such intimate company with friendly strangers, Christine and I felt suddenly very alone.


The Ghan offers three levels of service: Red, Gold and Platinum, with Gold and Platinum passengers eating together in the dining car — three meals a day included for them — and Red passengers bringing their own or ordering from the snack bar in their section.

In place of the small private room with a toilet/shower that tips out of the wall and a narrow ladder to the top bunk that accommodates a Gold passenger, a customer at the Platinum level gets a comfortable stateroom with a double Murphy bed and an attached small private bathroom. The Red level offers either a tiny sleeping alcove or a reclining seat.

The range of amenities is reflected in the range in prices, which were adjusted slightly upward on April 1, 2009, according to the train’s Web site (www.gsr.com.au). For the full journey from Adelaide to Darwin or vice versa, the rates are Red, 716 Australian dollars (about $577 U.S. at 1.24 Australian dollars to the U.S. dollar) for a reclining seat and 1,312 dollars for a sleeping alcove; Gold, 1,973 Australian dollars; and Platinum, 2,987 dollars.

Tickets can be booked through the Ghan Web site, but international transactions can be confusing. A more straightforward option is to call the Adelaide ticket office directly at (61- 8) 8213 4592 for booking.