Riding the Ghan through Australia’s red centre

One of the world’s great railway journeys, the Ghan runs from Darwin in the far north of Australia to Adelaide in the south, a distance of 2979km – further than London to Moscow. Following the route of pioneering nineteenth-century “Afghan” cameleers, Shafik Meghji hopped on board to take in some of the country’s most dramatic landscapes.

It felt a bit like taking the Orient Express across Mars

There is a distinct pleasure to reading about great tales of exploration while you travel through the same harsh landscape in the comfort of a luxurious railway cabin. Sat on a well-stuffed seat, feet up on an ottoman, and with an icy G&T in hand, I put down my book on the pioneering cameleers who opened-up the Outback and gazed out of the window at a great expanse of ochre-red desert. It felt a bit like taking the Orient Express across Mars.

The Ghan is one of the world’s great railway journeys, but it was only made possible by an intrepid band of camel-wranglers in the nineteenth century. The first cameleers arrived in Australia with their beasts of burden in the 1860s to support the epic Burke and Wills overland expedition from Melbourne in the south to the Gulf of Carpenteria in the north. They quickly became known as “Ghans” – short for Afghans – though they actually came from across what is now India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, as well as Afghanistan.

For the next 150 years, camels were the main form of transport in the Outback, with horses and mules ill-suited for the harsh, arid environment. They enabled telegraph and railway lines – including the forerunner of the Ghan – to be laid across the parched “red centre”.

Ironically, trains brought the great age of the “Afghan” cameleer to an end. The redundant camels were set loose in the Outback, where they rapidly multiplied. At one stage there were around a million wild camels in Australia, though numbers have since been reduced by two thirds.

Originally known as the Afghan Express, the train’s maiden journey was on 4 August 1929, when it carried 100 passengers on the two-day journey from Adelaide to the remote town of Stuart (which was later renamed Alice Springs). In those early days it had to contend with searing heat, flash floods, bushfires and ferocious termites who devoured the narrow-gauge track.

A new standard-gauge line – complete with termite-proof concrete sleepers – was constructed in 1980, just to the west of the original route. But it was not until 2004 that the railway finally reached Darwin.

We soon left the city behind and signs of humanity became steadily less common

My own journey started on a blisteringly hot Wednesday morning in tropical Darwin, when I checked into my private, air-conditioned, en-suite “platinum class” cabin. The Ghan, nearly a kilometre in length and carrying around 200 passengers, travels weekly in each direction between Darwin and Adelaide. En route, over three nights and four days, it calls at the remote towns of Katherine, Alice Springs, Marla and – on extended “Ghan Expedition” trips – Coober Pedy.

After departing promptly at 10am, we soon left the city behind, crossing the Elizabeth River and passing through a pancake-flat landscape of scrubby undergrowth, thin trees and jagged termite mounds, which rose from the soil like tombstones. Wispy smoke rose in the distance from controlled fires designed to stimulate new growth. Signs of humanity became steadily less common.

Legend has it that in the 1930s the Ghan was once stranded for two weeks in the middle of the Outback. Food stocks dwindled and the driver resorted to shooting wild goats to feed the passengers. Today there’s no chance of going hungry while on board.

For lunch I settled down to smoked bush meats – emu, kangaroo and crocodile – followed by Penang-style buffalo curry, and then a mango-and-lemon-myrtle cheesecake. As we ate the landscape slowly changed again, appearing tamer, if not exactly tamed. Patches of golden grassland, neatly planted fields, and shallow escarpments appeared as we approached Katherine.

The town, the fourth biggest in the Northern Territory with around 10,000 people, is the gateway to the Nitmiluk National Park. This reserve contains the Nitmiluk Gorge, formed by the Katherine River, which has carved a route through the sandstone of the Arnhem Land plateau. Despite the name, there are actually 13 gorges here, separated by rapids and boxed in by imposing cliffs.

The river is home to over 40 species of fish, turtles, terrapins and freshwater crocodiles. During the wet season, when the deluge connects the river to the sea, the latter are joined by their larger – and much more aggressive – saltwater cousins. “Here’s how you tell the difference between the two: in the water a freshwater croc will swim away from you; a saltwater croc will swim towards you,” our guide said, as we cruised through the first two gorges. “But of course by then it’s too late.”

On either side of the boat rose soaring cliffs in a striking range of colours: grey, white, orange, yellow, copper, and all of them blended together. Some were sheer sided, others tapered, a few stepped, as if a giant had gone to work with a great chisel. The occasional thin-trunked tree poked out from high crevices, seemingly defying gravity.

It was easy to see why the region was sacred to the local Jawoyn people, who believe Bolung the painted serpent, a life-giving deity, lives in the second gorge. There are depictions of Bolung on the rock face, still evocative, 8000 years after they were first painted.

At the end of the cruise we walked back to the coach past a copse of trees whose branches were covered by what looked like black plastic bags, but turned out to be sleeping fruit bats, hanging upside down by their feet. As we passed they awoke with a cacophony of high-pitched squeals and squawks.

The Ghan set off again at 6pm, and there was a convivial atmosphere at the bar, as travellers swapped stories, aided by some excellent McLaren Vale Shiraz. Dinner was even better than lunch: Asian-spiced scallops, slow-roasted rib of beef, and a generous cheese board. I waddled back to my cabin to find my bed made up, and a digestif and saucer of chocolates waiting on the side table. I fell asleep to the click-clack of wheels on rails.

Over breakfast the next morning the mountains of the MacDonnell Ranges came into view, and we soon pulled into sunny-but-chilly Alice Springs. It was midway point for the Ghan but the end of the line for me. Trips to Uluru and Kings Canyon awaited, but it was hard not to feel a pang of regret as I left my cabin behind.

Shafik Meghji co-authors The Rough Guide to Australia. He travelled as a guest of Great Southern Rail, which runs all-inclusive trips on the Ghan.

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