It was one of the train’s knowledgeable young attendants who summed it up best. “The first time I made the journey,” said Nick, in his fetching Ghan uniform of khaki Akubra hat and trousers, “I was in total awe of the complete nothingness out there.”
It’s a strange thing to set out to enjoy – mile upon mile of complete nothingness – but that’s exactly how it was for my husband, Jim, and I as we boarded The Ghan to cross Australia, north to south, on the train trip of a lifetime.
It was a steaming hot March day in Darwin when we found ourselves on this iconic train for the 49-hour journey south to Adelaide. The first thing that strikes you is that it’s a veritable beast of a train. It sits, all gleaming hot metal, wearing an impressive red livery with huge red lettering declaring its prowess as ‘The Ghan’. And it’s not only the lettering that’s huge. The train itself stretches, it seems, forever. In reality, it’s almost a kilometre long, with 37 coaches arranged in varying degrees of space and luxury to accommodate 300 passengers.
We chose a Platinum cabin, of which there are just 10, each housing 20 people in considerable style. We were welcomed aboard by George, in his smart uniform and Aussie hat, who immediately presented us with a glass of chilled pink champagne. It wasn’t even 10am, but it seemed the perfect way to start our outback adventure.
George escorted us to our home for the next two days and we weren’t disappointed. Our cabin oozed class, coolness and comfort. It was reasonably spacious, with big picture windows on either side. The large sofa was great for watching the world go by and, each night, while we were at dinner, it was miraculously transformed into a wonderfully comfortable double bed. There was a small, wooden table and a stool, and just enough storage for the luggage we’d taken on board for the journey.
Enjoying a shower in our bijou ensuite and climbing into bed to find a thoughtfully placed glass of fine brandy at my side (not to mention my dear old husband at my other side) was sheer bliss! And all the while there was the excitement of knowing we were riding through the awesome nothingness of the Australian desert.
There was plenty to explore on board The Ghan. The wood-panelled corridor that runs the length of the train led us quickly to the lounge, for the exclusive use of platinum clients. It was a great place to relax, with the double attraction of the free bar and big, landscape windows. There, several of our fellow travellers were beginning to socialise.
I discovered that a few were escaping the British winter, but quite a number were Australian. One couple from near Perth told me that The Ghan experience had been at the top of their bucket list as soon as they retired: “And we were damned if we were going to do it any other way than first class,” they added as they sipped their champagne.
The far end of the lounge car is a swish dining room, where we were soon invited to lunch. As there were only 20 of us, we could opt for a table for two or choose to share. The entire menu sounded so good I could have eaten the lot! But I plumped for grilled goldband snapper, steamed asparagus; and orange, cranberry, parsley and pepitas couscous with saffron aioli. It was superb.
I skipped the passionfruit, lemon aspen and coconut cake dessert in favour of the even more exotic cheeseplate comprising Woodside Vesuvius Goat on a Hot Tin Roof cheese, seasoned with paprika and pepperberry, and served with almonds and lavosh. It was impossible to resist and tasted great. I wasn’t surprised, as I’d been told food aboard The Ghan was excellent, but what I hadn’t expected was the chance to get off the train and venture into the outback itself.
Shortly after lunch, we came to a halt at a town called Katherine, where it was a scorching 36 degrees. I certainly hadn’t imagined there would be a complex river system running through this apparently desolate region. But here we were, being offered the choice of a cruise down the Nitmiluk Gorge, a cultural tour or a helicopter ride over the Katherine River and its huge limestone cliffs. We chose the cruise, which turned out to be two wonderful boat rides down two of the 13 gorges that have been carved by the river over 23 million years.
It was a fascinating outing, but it was heaven to get back to the coolness of the train, where George was waiting to welcome us with cold flannels and delicious iced tea. We shared sundowners – unlimited and delicious – with our fellow travellers before a dinner, featuring kangaroo and crocodile. And so to our comfy bed and brandy. We fell asleep to the gentle rhythm of the train, after assurances from Nick that the only thing we’d be missing overnight was mile upon mile of complete nothingness.
We woke early and opened the blinds to a stunning sunrise. At 7am Nick brought me a steaming hot latte and a green tea for Jim, and we lay in bed watching the great outback zoom by. It was such a perfect viewing platform that I was tempted to stay there all day. But breakfast beckoned, quickly followed by our second excursion; this one in the legendary town of Alice Springs.
Once again there was a choice of outings and we opted for the Desert Park tour. We were thrilled to see wild wedge-tailed eagles soaring high above the peaks of the MacDonnell Ranges as we watched captive birds swoop and perform for us in a shady clearing.
After a couple of hours of pretty sweaty walking around the park, we returned to our palace-on-rails much wiser about the flora and wildlife of the region – and more than ready for George’s cold flannels and iced tea. By now, the train had become our home, our haven, after each foray into the heat and dust of the outback. We quickly settled back into our comfy routine of eating, drinking and watching this strange world go by.
We had one last treat before turning in for the night. Ahead of us, we could just make out the light of a bonfire in the pitch black of the outback. It had been lit to welcome us to Manguri, a rail siding near the opal fields of Coober Pedy. There we were invited to indulge in a spot of stargazing in the balmy night air, as trays of chocolates were handed around. And so to bed, and the final leg of our journey to Adelaide.
After breakfast – I chose corn and saltbush brioche fresh out the oven, served warm with Harris Smokehouse salmon, chives and lemon-infused crème fraîche – I spent the final couple of hours of our adventure looking for kangaroos. It was a total failure, but it didn’t matter. We’d enjoyed every minute of our journey through Australia. If you have the time, it’s a brilliantly rewarding way to see the country.