Frank doesn’t seem very impressed. The bellow he lets out when I climb onto his back sounds like a cross between a car misfiring and a drain being unblocked. Barry, his handler, assures me that it is just his way of saying hello, but I can’t help feeling a little nervous perched on top of an animal weighing 700kg that’s capable of galloping at 60km/h.
After being delivered to Alice Springs in the salubrious surroundings of one of the Ghan’s private carriages, it seems appropriate that I should make the effort to meet the animal that enabled the train to start operating in the first place. Afghans first bought camels to Australia in the 1840s and the train is named after the handlers of these amazingly resilient creatures who were instrumental in building the original train line between Adelaide and Alice Springs.
The Ghan travels through the marvellous MacDonnell Ranges
After a 40-minute ride on Frank in 38-degree heat, I feel I’ve done my bit and am quite happy to be ushered back to the airconditioned comfort of the Chairman’s Carriage. While the standard self-contained sleeper cabins in The Ghan’s Gold Kangaroo Class provide a comfortable way of making the 2,979km trip from Adelaide to Darwin, for the ultimate in luxury and privacy, guests can choose to hire a private carriage.
There are four carriages that can be hired: The Chairman’s Carriage, The Prince of Wales Carriage, The Governor’s Lounge and the Sir John Forrest Carriage. Carriages can be added to any of Great Southern Railways’ iconic train journeys – The Ghan, The Indian Pacific or The Overland – with the only exception being that The Prince of Wales Carriage and The Governor’s Lounge cannot operate in NSW.
The Chairman’s Carriage is the most popular choice as it provides self-contained accommodation for up to eight people. The carriage’s two double rooms share an ensuite bathroom while the two twin rooms each have a three-seater lounge that converts into an upper and lower sleeping berth plus ensuite facilities. In addition, the carriage has a lounge area with TV and sound system plus a private dining area and kitchen.
Travelling in The Prince of Wales Carriage is like stepping back in time. Originally built in 1919 to accommodate a visit from Edward, Prince of Wales, the beautifully appointed timber carriage was refurbished last year. It still retains many original features such as cathedral glass doors, pull-down pressed metal sinks and ornate wood panelling. The carriage can sleep up to ten people in six cabins and has a private lounge area and a shared bathroom.
The more modern Sir John Forrest Carriage is especially popular for corporate events as in addition to accommodating six people, it has a lounge area with a bar, a large flat-screen TV and a 12-seat boardroom table.
The final carriage – The Governor’s Lounge – is a recent edition to the fleet and provides a seating area for up to thirty people for cocktails or twenty in theatre style.
It’s easy to see why the carriages are in such demand. For a family or group of friends, it’d be hard to imagine a more memorable venue in which to celebrate a special occasion. Per person, it doesn’t work out much more expensive than travelling in Gold Kangaroo Class, and yet you get the benefit of your own private sanctuary and a dedicated member of staff.
While the carriages have all been beautifully finished, the star of the show is still the journey itself. From the green Adelaide Plains through the red-soiled vastness of Central Australia to the lush tropics of the Top End, the scenery along the way is mesmerising.
For meals, guests can choose to pay for a dedicated chef to prepare them in their carriage or join other passengers in one of the Gold Kangaroo restaurant cars at no extra cost.
Each of the restaurant cars caters for 96 people in two sittings and the four-person booths provide an intimate setting to enjoy a varied menu matched with Australian and New Zealand wines.
Although there are only two scheduled stops along the way – one in Alice Springs and another in Katherine – the train often slows down for points of interest en route or stops in a siding to let other trains pass.
There is a range of optional tours available in both Alice Springs and Katherine, and while I enjoyed my ride on Frank, the highlight was a scenic helicopter flight over Katherine Gorge. It’s only from the air that you can really appreciate the scale of the gorge and the enormity of the landscape in which it sits.
John McDouall Stuart took nine months to first cross Australia from the south to the north back in 1861. Almost 150 years later, The Ghan takes you through the same spectacular landscape in just two-and-a-half days. It well deserves its accolade as one of the world’s great train journeys.