It’s easy to romanticise rail travel when you lay eyes on Australia’s iconic locomotive, The Ghan. Her fiery red front carriages steal your attention before you’re led down her silver body that seemingly never ends. Beside carriage doors, hospitality attendants wait to usher travelers onboard for an Outback adventure like no other. Say goodbye to the heat, dust and stress of a desert road trip and embrace the comfort, style and camaraderie of The Ghan Expedition.
Over four days, you will be whisked from Darwin in the Northern Territory to Adelaide in South Australia, a 1851-mile (2,979-kilometer) journey that slices vertically through the center of Australia. It’s an incredible part of the country to see and not only will you set your feet on ancient lands, you will also discover places far off the typical tourist trail.
Traveling on The Ghan is a lifetime goal for many of its passengers, and there is plenty of excitement as people collect their tickets at Darwin Berrimah Terminal. It’s 10 am as women in frocks and smartly dressed men meander next to the almost 3280-foot-long train, suitcases in tow.
Passengers are then led to their cabin in one of three categories – the popular Gold Service Twin and Single cabins, and the more spacious Platinum suites. Then, it’s time to explore the dining room and lounge, all the while savouring the fact you are about to embark on one of the world’s greatest railway adventures. What awaits are all-inclusive three-course meals and beverages, stress-free Off Train Experiences, plenty of mingling with new friends, and a landscape so stark, large and mesmerising that you’ll be dreaming about it for years.
The first stop is one of the most magical. Cruise down the calm waters of Katherine River between the sheer walls of Nitmiluk Gorge (also known as Katherine Gorge), which is home to the Indigenous Jawoyn people. Glide peacefully past banks of river pandanus and towering rust-coloured cliffs, and briefly stroll over rocks, soaking in this ancient environment. You can even opt for a helicopter flight (additional cost) so you can see the gorge in all its glory.
Next, The Ghan steers guests toward the ‘real Outback‘, headed for Alice Springs. Although surrounded by desert, Alice is your first taste of Australia’s famous Red Centre. A comprehensive town tour will take you to the top of ANZAC Hill, where you can get the lay of the land. You will then visit the Royal Flying Doctor Service to learn about this life-saving medical service, Alice Springs School of the Air for children in remote areas, the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame and the Alice Springs Reptile Centre, home to some of Australia’s deadliest snakes. If you’ve already visited these attractions, opt for alternative Off Train Experiences such as guided walks through Simpsons Gap to learn about Indigenous culture and native plants; a tour of the fabulous Alice Springs Desert Park to get to know nocturnal desert animals; and, at an additional cost, you can even take a flight over one of Australia’s most iconic landmarks, Uluru, for an incredible bird’s-eye view.
If you’re travelling on the southbound Ghan Expedition itinerary, your time in Alice will end with a spectacular dinner under the stars at Alice Springs Telegraph Station. This is where Europeans first settled in the town and this evening’s dinner is set between heritage stone buildings. An unexpected astronomy lesson loosens up the crowd, while a lively band gets everyone dancing.
You haven’t seen Australia until you have visited Coober Pedy. This iconic Outback town is in a league of its own, with more than half of the residents living underground. That’s right. Homes, shops, hotels and even churches have been built into the hard earth here, allowing locals to escape the searing desert heat. Digging deep has also allowed eccentric miners from around the world to continue their search for opals. You can explore some of their tunnels running from lounge rooms during an Off Train Experience. A tour guide will take you from the train and along the streets of this dry outpost, and into homes and an opal shop where you can pick up a souvenir. You also get to explore the Serbian Orthodox Church, with a corridor leading you underground into a cavernous room with high ceilings, carvings in the rock walls and even stained-glass windows. Rounding out your tour, you will get to enjoy lunch underground in what will likely be one of your most memorable dining experiences ever.
Your Coober Pedy tour shows you some of the most desolate but fascinating landscapes in South Australia. As you travel by coach, a fence appears seemingly out of nowhere and cuts across the desert. Although there are no homes or obvious farms here, the 3355-mile (5400- kilometer) fence is one of the most historically significant attractions in Australia. It’s also called the dingo fence and it was erected in the late 1880s to protect South Australia’s sheep-farming industry from wild dogs. It forms a curious history lesson in schools around the country.
Before returning to your comfortable cabin, there is one last, striking stop – Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park. Although remarkable, these strawberry-and-cream flat-topped mesas are off tourists’ radars. Their remote location can be blamed for that, and you will be thankful to have a guide leading the way. You don’t have to worry about directions or the nearest gas station and can instead relax in the air-conditioned coach as the painted hills roll by. When you reach ‘The Breakaways’ as they’re casually called, you will have a 360-degree view of an empty, vast environment from atop a natural lookout. It’s best enjoyed with a sparkling wine in one hand and your camera in the other.
The outback adventure continues when you arrive back at the train at Manguri. Located 30 minutes from Coober Pedy, this rail siding stop is in the middle of the desert, making it a fabulous opportunity for watching one last mesmerising sunset over the outback while enjoying a pre-dinner drink with your new friends before boarding to enjoy your final dinner and evening of the expedition.
Back on board The Ghan, it’s time to farewell the Outback and relish the final moments of your incredible journey. You’ve been to some of the most remote parts of the country and made friends with fellow explorers from around the world. As journey manager Dean Duka aptly notes: there is far more to The Ghan Expedition than red dust.
The Ghan Expedition, the four-day journey from Darwin to Adelaide, runs from April to October, while The Ghan, a three-day northbound trip, runs from February to November. The train is one of several iconic Australian experiences in the Journey Beyond portfolio. There is a sister train, The Indian Pacific, which takes passengers from Sydney to Perth; the premium eco-resort Sal Salis in Western Australia; and Reefsuites, Australia’s first underwater accommodation on the Great Barrier Reef.
Visit journeybeyond.com for more.