The Rail Deal: The Ghan

Aleta Fimbres 15/07/2009

Explore the Outback by train and get a true feel for Australia

In 2004, Great Southern Rail inaugurated its Adelaide to Darwin route on The Ghan, a ride covering 13,000km over three days right through the Outback – The Red Centre – the vast swath of desert that spans the majority of the Northern Territory and Western Australia…

The Red Centre is harsh country, yet there’s beauty there, too, and you can’t say you’ve seen Australia without spending some time in its defining region.

There’s a relaxed, iconic, romanticism to train travel and The Ghan has services to fit all budgets. It operates like an airline and features multiple service levels – Red, Gold and Platinum. In Red, popular with the backpacking fraternity, there’s a dining car and day/night seats to make sleeping a little more comfortable.

Platinum room on the Ghan TrainThe all-inclusive Gold cars are where the atmosphere of long-haul train travel really kicks in, replete with old school dining and lounge cars.

Bunk beds extend from the walls and the bathroom is all compact stainless steel that also extends from the wall.

Beyond that is Platinum, cars that amount to mobile hotel rooms, with real beds, porcelain bathroom amenities and 24-hour room service.

Assuming you don’t opt for one of GSR’s own holiday packages, plan for at least two weeks, beginning in Adelaide with a few days in the nearby Barossa Valley wine region. The Ghan – a name inspired by the pioneering Afghan cameleers, who blazed a trail into the Red Centre 150 years ago – chugs out of Keswick Terminal just after lunch.

Australians love to eat, and while the train is rolling it seems as though every hour is meal hour, with the galley kitchen preparing restaurant-standard meals with a distinctly Australian bent; don’t be surprised to see kangaroo on the menu.

Uuru (Ayers Rock)

Stopovers in Alice Springs, the de facto capital of the Outback are a given, though extended stays for Platinum travellers aren’t allowed (there are, however, several whistle-stop tours). Charming though it is, the attraction at The Alice is Uuru (Ayers Rock).

The Ghan Train AustraliaRent a car (it’s 400km away) and follow the signs through some of Australia’s most breathtaking and significant scenery – much of it Aboriginal land.

The Voyages Ayers Rock Resort at Yulara will provide a few nights oasis in the middle of the desert, complete with pool, spa and spectacular views and tours of Uluru and nearby Kata Tjuta.

Back on the (next) train north, the landscape changes yet again as you approach the subtropical Top End. Desert gives way to palms and rivers that actually flow and a whistle-stop tour of Katherine to see the Gorge is well worth the effort.

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The final destination of Darwin is notable for being nearly leveled by the Japanese during World War 11, and by a devastating cyclone in 1974. Though historically an outpost town, Darwin has morphed into a modem mini-metropolis.

Like Alice, one of Darwin’s biggest draws is its proximity to Kakadu National Park, a must-see and a four-day trip in itself – and another 250km away. Some of the country’s finest examples of Aboriginal rock art can be found here as well as an alligator-shaped hotel.

The train is never the fastest way to see a country – and that’s just the point. Take a book, sit in the lounge, have a glass of vine, enjoy the world rolling by and let the sound of the steel wheels lull you to sleep. In the end, you’ll be sorry you have to fly home.

Sight seeing

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Adult admission AUD25 +61 (0) 8 8956 1128

Kakadu National Park Admission Free +61 (0) 8 8938 1120

Getting there

The Ghan Great Southern Rail Adult fare, one way: AUD710-AUD2,975 +61 (0) 8 8213 4592

Hotel choice

Mercure Grosvenor Hotel: AUD178 – AUD612 / night 125 North Terrace Adelaide, SA +61 (0)8 8407 8888

Voyages Ayers Rock Resort: AUD89 – AUD460 / night Ywara, NT +61 (0)2 8296 8010

Mantra Pandanas: AUD123 – AUD434 / night 43 Knuckey Street Darwin, NT +61 (0)8 89012900

Travel tips

Australia is almost exclusively warm and, as a rule, the wet season runs from November to April (summer), when it’s hot, humid and stormy. The Red Centre is generally extremely hot and sunny. And it’s a desert – so there’s little shade and sub-zero night-time temperatures in winter are common. If you’re looking for wildlife, the season you travel will also affect what you see.

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