The Ghan Railroad Journey
The Ghan Railroad Journey
The Ghan is one of the world's great train journeys. Named after the Afghan cameleers whose animals were crucial to central Australia's exploration, settlement, and development, this train rides 2,979 km (1862 mi) of track between Adelaide, in South Australia, and Darwin, on the country's north coast. Roughly halfway between these two cities the Ghan pulls into Alice Springs, the desert city in Australia's aptly named Red Centre. A north-south transcontinental Australian railway was mooted as early as 1858, but it took 20 more years for track to start creeping northward. Alice Springs consisted of just 100 people and one hotel when a steam engine hauled the first Ghan train into town in 1929. Unfortunately, extreme desert conditions and termites wreaked havoc on the track and train services for years to come. Finally, the rerouted New Ghan was launched in 1980, but stories about the old service live on: one tells of a woman who complained to the conductor about the delays because she was due to give birth. When the conductor rebuked her for making a rail journey while pregnant she replied, "I wasn't when I got on!" In contrast to the long, stop-start construction of the Adelaide-Alice line, the northern extension to Darwin was completed in just four years, and the inaugural Darwin-bound Ghan service left Adelaide on February 1, 2004.
On its 53-hour journey, the Ghan traverses some of Australia's most unforgiving and surprisingly beautiful country. Book the whole trip, or break it into northern and southern legs—you pay a negligible premium to split the fare—and explore Alice Springs and the ancient landscape surrounding it.
The Southern Leg (from Adelaide to Alice)
South-north passengers leave Adelaide at lunchtime. Watch South Australia roll by as the Ghan motors up Spencer Gulf to Port Augusta. From there the train turns inland, passing through ephemeral salt-lake country into darkness. Dawn finds the Ghan deep in desert, with red earth flat to the horizon or occasionally gathered into ancient ranges. Enjoy the play of pastel colors on the plains from your cabin's picture window.
The Northern Leg (from Alice to Darwin)
The train leaves Alice for Darwin just in time for dinner. The next morning, after a brief whistle stop in Katherine, you'll spend your final day rolling through the desert and lonely scrubland of the Top End toward the lush tropical city of Darwin. Once in Darwin, celebrate your journey's end with Thai-style barramundi at Hanuman Darwin, one of the Top End's best restaurants.
Whistle-Stop Tours—Alice Springs
The Ghan rolls into Alice Springs around lunchtime on Day 2 for a four-hour stop. If you're up for a little adventure, a helicopter flight (A$195 per person) over the ancient MacDonnell Ranges might be to your liking. We especially like the Desert Park Tour (A$62) for its fascinating insights into Australia's desert country and the remarkable plants and animals that inhabit it. Passengers breaking their train journey in Alice Springs have three or seven days, depending on which service you rejoin (the Ghan operates weekly November to March and twice a week over winter, early April to end October). With three days, explore Alice's museums, wildlife parks, and Aboriginal art galleries, then do a self-drive or group tour of the gorges, waterholes, and Aboriginal sites in the MacDonnell Ranges. If you have a week, explore Alice Springs and surrounds and then experience the geological and spiritual wonder of Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta, which are 457 km (285 mi) southeast of Alice Springs by road or an hour by commercial flight.
You're spoiled for choice with the selection of Whistle-Stop tours during your four-hour stay in Katherine. A passenger favorite—and one of Katherine's main attractions—is the Katherine Gorge boat cruise (A$85) in Nitmiluk National Park. Passengers can cruise between the gorge's soaring sandstone walls or hire a canoe and paddle on this Northern Territory landmark (careful of the crocs!). Double canoes are A$33.50 per person, single canoes A$45 per person.
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