Riding the Ghan
In Europe, an InterCity train is often a practicable alternative to flying. Users of the Eurostar service often boast than, in the time it takes to check in at one of the London airports, they can be halfway to Paris.
That’s not the case in Australia. You don’t take a long-distance train because it’s cheaper, or you’re in a hurry. I once described it as a rail-borne coach tour … but, of course, it’s far more comfortable than a coach, and the food is much better.
Probably, the most famous of Australia’s trains is the Ghan service, between Darwin and Adelaide. The line was only completed in 2004, although, since 1980, it was possible to journey to Alice Springs along a line which replaced an older, narrow gauge line to that town.
A journey along that old line was an adventure indeed, for the track was prone to flooding, and to the sleepers (cross-ties) being eaten by termites. The train was often delayed for several days … sometimes, weeks even … and, because of the condition of the track, used to average only 17 mph.
A similar line ran south from Darwin and, although it was originally intended to join up with the Ghan at Alice Springs, never got further south than Birdum, about 300 miles south of Darwin, and was abandoned in 1976.
Everything has now been replaced by a luxurious, modern, standard-gauge train, and all that remains of the original train is the name. The Officially, that first rail service to Alice Springs was called the ‘Afghan Express’, after the so-called Afghan cameleers who pioneered the route. I say ‘so-called’, because most of those ‘Afghans’ actually came from a part of the world now called Pakistan.
We travelled on the train from Darwin to Alice Springs in a Gold-class sleeper, a comfortable compartment with an ensuite shower and toilet, and a marvellous view out of the window.
At Katherine, there’s a four-hour stop, and various tours are on offer to passengers. We went on a Gorge Cruise, and saw crocodiles, various birds and, above all, stupendous scenery..
Meals were served in the ‘Queen Adelaide’ restaurant car … such a far cry from the overpriced sandwiches and MaxPax coffee served on British trains! The service was impeccable, and the meals delicious.
After dinner, they had the ‘Welcome Reception’ … on the cruise lines, they call it ‘Captain’s Cocktails’. They gave us information about the train, and told us that if, through the night, the train felt like it wasn’t moving … it wasn’t!
At about 2 a.m., it would stop at Tennant Creek for some hours. Now, I don’t have any first-hand experience of Tennant Creek, but I’m told it’s not the sort of place you would take Mum for a Mothers’ Day treat. However, we wouldn’t getting off; the only reason the train stops there is so that passengers see as much of the country as possible by daylight, and to ensure that the train doesn’t arrive at Alice Springs at O God o’ clock in the morning.
If we had done that, we might have missed the spectacular sunrise at Tennant Creek. Jessica, our smiling attendant, had just woken us with a cup of coffee, and I happened to glance out of the window. I immediately reached for my bag and my camera … and, just as I got them, the train started moving!