Justine Tyerman snakes her way through Australia’s Red Centre on board the luxurious train The Ghan
An indication of an exceptional travel experience is how often you revisit your photographs and videos, lingering at favourite places along the way. Back home from The Ghan Expedition, I find myself meandering through the past instead of living life in the present. If my Ghan photos were old-fashioned prints, they would already have tatty edges.
The four-day, three-night, 2979km Ghan Expedition from Darwin to Adelaide through the ‘Red Centre’ of Australia has left an indelible imprint on my psyche. Unlike my experience on her sister, The Indian Pacific, where much of my time travelling from Perth to Sydney was spent on the train, the itinerary on The Ghan revolved around off-train excursions.
Katherine River, Nitmiluk National Park, Northern Territory
The first was a cruise through two of 13 gorges on the Katherine River in the Northern Territory’s magnificent 292,000-hectare Nitmiluk National Park. Boarding barges, we cruised slowly up spectacular, steep-sided sandstone canyons carved by the Katherine over millions of years. Hiking from one gorge to the next we viewed aboriginal rock paintings still intact after thousands of years, and discovered that some indigenous art in the region dates back an unfathomable 40,000 years, making it the oldest known art form on the planet.
The deeply-furrowed, weathered old faces of the rocks towering above the river gave me a sense of the ancientness and dignity of this land. I immediately understood the spiritual relationship and veneration for land of the indigenous Jawoyn people, who regard the Earth – wise, all-knowing, and all-seeing – as their mother.
Alice Springs, Northern Territory
In Alice Springs we learned about the history, geology, flora and fauna of Australia’s most famous Outback town. Just 200km south of the geographical centre of Australia, Alice is located halfway between Darwin and Adelaide, literally at the ‘Red Centre’ of Australia. Called ‘Mpwante’ by the indigenous Arrernte people, the area has been inhabited for around 40,000 years.
At the train station stands an impressive bronze statue of an Afghan cameleer and we found out that The ghan was originally known as the Afghan Express, having taken its name from the 19th century Afghan cameleers who helped blaze a trail through the country’s remote interior. Today, the massive twin diesel-electric locomotives and the 38 sleek silver carriages on the 903-metre, 1700-tonne train all proudly bear the emblem of an Afghan riding a camel.
After a stop at a memorial to John Flynn (1880-1951) who pioneered the Royal Flying Doctor Service – the world’s first air ambulance, we climbed up Cassia Hill to a lookout with breath-taking views of the Alice Valley and surrounding mountains.
900 million years ago the ancient rust-stained ranges were the sandy bottom of an inland sea, and the schist rock beneath our feet is 1600 million years old, among the oldest rock formations in Australia.
Then there’s Simpson’s Gap, a deep gash in the West MacDonnell Ranges, which dates back 60 million years. Known to the Arrernte as ‘Rungutjirpa’, the gap is the mythological home of their giant goanna ancestors and the site of several Dreaming trails.
The craggy, red rock faces soaring high above us on both sides glowed in the reflected light of a pool at the foot of the gap where the canyon walls nearly intersect. As my fingers traced the crevices of the ancient rocks, I wondered what stories they could tell after 60 million years.
Outback pioneer dinner
The cuisine on The Ghan was exceptional every day but dinner outside under a chandelier of stars at the historic Alice Springs Telegraph Station was unforgettable. Established in 1871, the station was one of 12 along the 2900km line from Port Augusta in South Australia, to Darwin in the Northern Territory, and when it opened in August 1872, it linked with an underwater cable network to London, connecting Australia to the world.
Our brilliant chefs from The Ghan prepared a delicious four-course feast of chicken and leak pie, succulent beef tenderloins, salads, roast vegetables, pavlova, chocolate brownies, cheeses and dried fruits. My favourite bubbly seemed to possess an extra effervescence on that warm, spring evening.
As the stars began to twinkle in the clearest sky in years, an astronomer named Dan, armed with a powerful laser beam, gave us a tour of the night sky, before we all danced in the red sand and rode camels in the moonlight.
Coober Pedy, South Australia
Overnight we travelled to Manguri near Coober Pedy, renowned for its underground dwellings and exquisite opals.
When opals were discovered here in 1915, miners came in their droves. Summer temperatures here often reach 45C with ground temperatures of 65C, while in winter, the mercury can plunge to zero. But underground, the temperatures are 21-24C year-round and so miners made their homes underground to escape the intense elements in one of the harshest climates in Australia.
Intrigued by this strange practice, the aboriginal people described the living conditions as ‘kupa piti’ meaning ‘white man in a hole’. The name stuck and the settlement became known as Coober Pedy.
At the Umoona Mine and Museum, we had an opportunity to buy exquisite, high-quality opals, visit an opal mine, an old underground dwelling dug out by hand and a modern home built using tunnelling machinery. Seventy percent of the population of 1900 live underground. The houses have normal-looking frontages and are surprisingly spacious. Each room has at least one airshaft.
Even the town’s ornately-decorated St Elijah’s Serbian Orthodox Church is underground. Built in 1993, a striking feature of the church is the beautiful cinquefoil arched ceiling created with a round tunnelling machine.
After a delicious, subterranean lunch, we travelled by coach to the Breakaways, a surreal landscape where a series of colourful flat-topped hills or ‘mesa’ appear to have broken free and drifted away from the main plateau of the Stuart Ranges. The mesa are a kaleidoscope of vibrant colours – white, cream, pale pink, orange, mossy green, red, ochre, brown and black.
Our next stop was the world’s longest fence, at 5300km – ‘Dog Fence’. Built in the 1880s to protect sheep against dingo attacks, the surrounding terrain is known as the ‘Moon Plains’ because of its uncanny resemblance to a lunar landscape.
Coober Pedy’s 18-hole golf course, one of the top 10 most unique golf courses in the world, is a must-see, being totally grassless and using oiled earth for the ‘green’.
Returning to Manguri we were delighted to find a sunset bonfire with canapés and drinks, set against a backdrop of the lantern-lit Ghan.
En route to Adelaide
I was awake before dawn on our last day to witness a stunning sunrise over the Flinders Ranges. On the other side of the train were the blue waters of the Spencer Gulf, and as we neared Adelaide, golden wheat fields, green pastures, rolling hills and the massive turbines of the Snowdon Wind Farm came into view – such a contrast to the landscape of the preceding days.
As we neared Adelaide, I savoured the rare quiet time and my last few moments in my cabin, reading about the colourful history of The Ghan, due to celebrate its 90th birthday in 2019.
Weeks later, I’m still having vivid flashbacks of ancient red rocks, dazzling sunrises and sunsets, the smoky taste of beef tenderloins barbecued under the stars, the taste of champagne around an open fire, the warm-hearted strangers who befriended a solo traveller, and above all, and the grandeur of The Ghan.