Ghan to the Top End

John & Susan Simpson
Thu 18 Apr 2024 10:57
We flew into Adelaide from Western Australia for what was to be one of our shortest city breaks.  We arrived late on a Monday night and left again on Wednesday morning so there wasn’t much time to explore Adelaide and we used the time for hair cuts and clothes shopping.  We’ve been travelling for several months now with the same 15 kg each of luggage and we were in need of a refresh!   Adelaide city centre was very pleasant with Victorian style shopping arcades and pedestrianised streets.  Our only issue was that the clothes shops were preparing for winter in a city where the average temperature will be 16-19 degrees C and we were about to head to Darwin in the north where the temperature averages 32 degrees C all year round!  However, our makeovers were achieved and John was also delighted to find an excellent guitar shop where he was able to enjoy a few moments playing one or two of the guitars on display.  Not long now until we return to Casamara and John will be reunited with his own guitars again.
A brief guitar moment for John

If you look at a satellite map of Australia what’s striking is the deep red colour that covers most of the map.  The Central Australia region, centred on the town of Alice Springs, is known as the Red Centre due to the colour of its sandy soil.  When we were planning our Australia tour we heard about a train journey that ran the whole length of Australia from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north, passing through Alice Springs on the way.  The train is called ’The Ghan’ and has a similar reputation to that of the Orient Express.  We gulped a bit when we found out the price of the tickets but persuaded ourselves that it would be a great way to see Central Australia from the luxury of the train.  We took the plunge and booked our trip.
The route of The Ghan train from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north through the Red Centre of Australia and Alice Springs

The Ghan train gets its name from the Afghan cameleers who were brought to Australia in the 1860’s to help with exploration of the outback.  The camel trains remained in use until the early 1900’s carrying goods, mail, water, tools and equipment to remote areas and helping with the development of major infrastructure projects, including the train track.  Construction of the railway line connecting the southern shores of Australia with the north began in 1877 with the first 1000 miles from Adelaide to Alice Springs being completed by 1915. The final part of the line through to Darwin wasn’t finished until 2004 (yes that’s right - 2004!)  The route now stretches 1800 miles and building it was a tremendous achievement as the terrain and climate are so inhospitable. 
This Iron Man sculpture marks the laying of the millionth railway sleeper along the route.

The Ghan train with logo recognising the Afghan cameleers and the camel trains which preceded it.

Checking in for The Ghan train in Adelaide was an exciting experience.  It has a dedicated rail terminal and we gathered with other guests for champagne and canapés whilst the train was made ready.  There was a real buzz as people had their photographs taken against the welcome sign.  The trip is often booked by people celebrating a life milestone, such as an anniversary or a significant birthday, so the mood in the terminal was exuberant.  
Two happy travellers and the iconic picture of The Ghan

At 775 metres long the train is so big that boarding was across two platforms and the two halves of the train were joined together once everyone was safely on board.  The 36 carriages include sleeping compartments, restaurants, bar/lounges and crew quarters.  The sheer size of it is very impressive.  Unfortunately our sleeping compartment was less so; very cramped and with an ensuite toilet that didn’t work!  
John discovering that he was about to spend 3 days in a noisy cupboard!

It feels a bit churlish to say that we were disappointed in The Ghan after all the hype and build up.  We are very lucky to have had the opportunity to make the trip but it didn’t really live up to our expectations.  There were some aspects that we really enjoyed, such as getting off the train in the middle of the outback to watch the sunrise.  The staff had laid out lanterns, lit a bonfire and served us bacon and egg rolls whilst we waited in the dark for the orange glow to grow.  However, we found the cabin experience uncomfortable and we didn’t like the ‘cruise ship’ type feel to the excursions along the way.  We’ve come to the conclusion that we’ve done too much independent travel to enjoy being herded about in a big group with a label around our necks.
John labelled up ready for a tour

It was an all inclusive trip so we had far too much to eat and drink along the way; the restaurant cars served three three-course meals a day and each meal was taken at a table for four so we had chance to get to know some of our fellow passengers that way.  We fared rather better than the Ghan train passengers who, in the 1930’s, were stranded for two weeks when the train got stuck somewhere between Adelaide and Alice Springs.  The engine driver resorted to shooting wild goats in order to feed his passengers!
A typical view from the train.  Note the red soil.  We were told that the landscape was much greener than usual due to recent rainfall that had been unusually heavy.

We enjoyed the excursions we joined when the train stopped in the towns of Alice Springs and Katherine.  From Alice Springs we visited Simpsons Gap, a huge gap in the rocks in the West MacDonnell Ranges, named after A.A. Simpson who helped to organise the expedition that mapped the area.  He’s no relation as far as we know but we felt we had to pay a visit.
Two Simpsons visit Simpsons Gap
The gap itself…

We were in Alice Springs at a time when the town had hit the headlines for youth unrest.  After a serious of violent incidents a curfew had been imposed which prevented young people under the age of 18 from loitering in the centre of town overnight.  Admittedly we were there during the day but we saw no signs of any trouble, other than that the houses were all protected by fences and locked gates.  The Northern Territory in which Alice Springs sits has the highest rates of youth homelessness and family violence in Australia but having seen how isolated Alice Springs is it’s easy to see that growing up there could be frustrating even for children with a supportive family background.  

From the town of Katherine, between Alice Springs and Darwin, we went on a river cruise in the Nitmiluk National Park to see some of the deep gorges carved by the river.  Unfortunately the heavy rain mentioned earlier meant we were only able to see two of the gorges as the others were still too dangerous to navigate.  We were served a lunch of local dishes and ‘bush tucker’ at the visitor centre so tucked into some crocodile meat and barramundi fish.
Nitmiluk National Park river cruise

The Ghan train drew into Darwin late on Day 3 of our trip and we were pleased to disembark for a few comfortable nights in a hotel.  It’s true that we probably saw more of Australia from the train than many Australians ever do but the landscape was remarkably similar the whole way, the only difference being in how much greenery there was - sometimes more, sometimes less.  We didn’t even see much wildlife, probably because the animals had been scared away by the engine and we were towards the back of the train so by the time we got there they were long gone!  Our sum total was three kangaroos and an emu, all seen at once.

So now we were in Darwin, capital of Australia’s Norther Territory.  All over Darwin we saw signs for 'Top End’ - Top End Hairdresser, Top End river cruise, Top End visitor centre, etc.  This part of Australia is just that …... at the Top End!  There was a final excursion with our group from the Ghan Train.  We went on a sunset dinner cruise around Darwin harbour and sat next to a couple who greeted us with broad Liverpudlian accents.  We were amazed to discover they’d lived in Australia 36 years as they still spoke as if they’d just come straight from Liverpool.  It was great to be out on the water again and we kept saying how much we’re looking forward to being back on Casamara.  However, before we get back to Brisbane we have a couple more adventures booked.  Next stop the Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks for a three day tour including camping (eek - just think of all the creepy crawlies and snakes they have here!).