It’s a geography lesson in motion: bluffs as straight as a ruler emerge from behind misted foregrounds; lustrous fields of tall maize sway like waves into the distance; tumbleweeds cartwheel by as red sand is whipped into small towers; silver slivers of water appear like a mirage on the horizon; and faded swathes of oldman saltbush and lone trees freckle crumpled hills.
Outback Australia is infamous for its unforgiving landscapes, butunlike the pioneering cameleers, buffalo hunters and jackaroos (young, cattle station hands) before me, I’m sailing through its interior with starched white napkins at hand, South Australia’s finest sparkling on tap, air conditioning and even a shower.
One of the world’s most iconic train journeys, The Ghan distills Australia’s quintessential landscapes – from empty ochre deserts to tropical grasslands, arid mountain ranges and vast segments of scrubland – into a three-day nature documentary that unfolds before your eyes. All from the luxury of your own mobilehotel room. And travelling from coast to coast, toe to tip, exploring three dramatically different regions (south, central and north), I begin to understand why green and gold are Australia’s national colours.
It’s not just nature’s feats that will fill your clients with awe, however. The Ghan itself is a bewildering triumph of engineering, 127 years in the making, with sleepers laid in some of the most desolate and flood-prone floodprone pockets of Australia.
The first section of track between Adelaide and Alice Springs was completed in 1929, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the final portion from the Red Centre to Darwin was finished.
Since its inception, the onboard offering has undergone several transformations too. Gone are the economy sleeper seats that once housed backpackers and budget travellers, as are the numerousstops at outback towns that allowed passengers to board and disembark at will along the way.
Today there are just two classes – Gold Service and the more premium Platinum – and just three Outback Experience stops. The journey, however, can be diced any of seven different ways.
Many guests I meet choose to alight in Alice Springs and explore Uluru and its wider national park, then continue on to Darwin a week later, when the train returns northbound. Some merely travel on the Adelaide to Alice Springs leg, or vice versa. But nearly all have one thing in common: The Ghan represents only one small part of a much bigger itinerary that typically takes in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and the Great Barrier Reef.
After travelling for almost a day just to reach the continent, the European travellers I meet are tired of wasting time in sterile airport departure lounges but lack the time and energy to traverse the entire country at the wheel of a hire car.
There is, however, one striking similarity between air travel and The Ghan – my Gold Service single cabin is as sleek and ergonomic as anything you’ll find when turning left on a legacy airline.
Renovated in 2016, these compact cabins are the train’s most modern, featuring distinctive, winding corridors and spacious new shared bathrooms. Each compartment is decked in natural materials (a seamless timber finish, leather headrest and woven cotton upholstered chair) and features an array of handy amenities, such as a fold-down armrest, a pullout tray table and plug sockets next to your chair-cum-bed, an in-room sink and towels and plenty of storage space, not to mention a toiletries bag filled with products from homegrown botanicals brand Appelles.
The Queen Adelaide Restaurant carriage, on the other hand, is a study in elegance and old-school glamour. A regal-esque insignia of “QAR” is emblazoned in curly gold writing around the restaurant’s perimeter. A window into the outback, complete with its own set of curtains, graces every snug booth. And naturally, the place settings have already been immaculately set by the time the food and beverage manager leads us to our table for dinner.
Almost every meal boasts a threecourse menu (yes, even brunch), and is designed to complement the exact region you’re travelling through. On day one, as we venture towards the northernmost reaches of South Australia, I devour Spencer Gulf prawn and pork dumplings, bathed in a delicately fragranced chicken broth for starters. Next is a plate of tender, blushing pink South Rock Lamb from Kangaroo Island, accompaniedby a sweet beetroot tart and brussel sprout puree. It’s a struggle to make it to dessert, but as the train is all-inclusive it would be rude to skip the finale – a platter of local cheeses, crackers an muscatels somehow finds its way into my belly.
Indulging in the romance of train travel and watching the landscape sweep past is of course just one aspect of the trip. In the town of Marla, with its population of 72, we step off the train to watch the sun rise over the outback around bonfires with a brew and a bacon roll.
At Nitmiluk Gorge we cruise the olive green waters, eyeing flying foxes and rock shelves that creep over the water, and listening to the indigenous dreamtime stories from our Jawoyn tribe boat captain. At Alice Springs we explore the dusty paths of the West MacDonnell Ranges, ambling along hillsides fringed with gnarled, sun-scorched tree trunks and jagged sandstone that resemble a millefeuille pastry made of rocks.
Albert Namatjira – the most famous Aboriginal artist to work in a European style – painted most of his watercolour landscapes here, in the dreamtime places of the Aranda people.
“People weren’t too sure if he was= painting true colours or not,” says our guide Chop as we gaze out at the escarpment.
With few souls making it out into this arid wilderness, I can understand their disbelief – this barren yet ethereally beautiful landscape demands a first-hand look.
Book it: Travel 2 offers return flights from London (arriving Darwin, departing Ayers Rock), including travel on The Ghan from Darwin to Alice Springs, a six-day Top End Adventure self-drive, one night roomonly at the four-star Alice in the Territory hotel, and a three-day Red Centre Experience independent tour from £3,059pp.
■ The Single Cabins are well suited to (and aimed at) solo travellers, but many friends travelling together on the train had booked these cabins to help maintain a little personal space.
■ The beds in the Single Cabins are small and wouldn’t be best suited to your more ample-sized clients, or those who are very tall.
■ If booking less mobile passengers on to the train, it’s important to consider the logistics of the Twin Cabins: while one guest sleeps on the lower berth the other must climb a small ladder to access the upper berth. Instead, consider booking these guests into single cabins, or for people with reduced mobility there are a handful of specially designed Access Cabins.
■ The journey can be hard on smokers: no windows onboard open and there are often long stretches between stops. Between Adelaide and Darwin, for example, the first opportunity to disembark isn’t until 6am on day two (some 18 hours after boarding).
■ Tech heads and millennials may feel uneasy at the prospect of no Wi-Fi (and no TV).
■ For customers with time and money to burn, there’s the seasonal Ghan Expedition, which spans four days and three nights and allows for more time in the small towns and remote areas deep in this continent’s never-never.
■ The vast majority of travellers on The Ghan are aged 60-plus, but a few families do board and cots are available for those travelling with infants.