Riding The Ghan train through Australia’s heart
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The Ghan - Image courtesy Journey Beyond

Journey beyond the tracks to the red centre from Darwin to Adelaide, on The Ghan Expedition.

We are sitting down to a divine three-course meal accompanied by fine wines and served on crisp, white linen tablecloths in an elegant dining room with impeccable service provided by the friendly and smiling wait staff. Nothing special about that right?

Wrong. We are not in a capital city or even a regional centre. Nor in a fancy lodge or far-flung resort. In fact, we are in the middle of outback Australia, rolling down the twin silver threads of railway track that link Darwin and Adelaide. Outside the big picture windows, the unmistakable red ochre sand dotted with hardy shrubs and the occasional camel drifts past; a mesmerising landscape that is a worthy partner to this excellent meal of grilled halloumi, South Rock lamb from Kangaroo Island and a dessert of Chocolate Obsession ice cream that is ridiculously good. We are on The Ghan.

And not just any Ghan service. We are on a Ghan Expedition, a four-day, three-night tour of some of the best sights you can see in Australia’s heart. Think of it like a cruise ship, cruising between ports with passengers getting off to see the sights and attractions of each place. But with no big seas.

We pull out of Darwin on time, the two locomotives taking a bit of time to pull the 902-metre-long metallic serpent with 36 carriages carrying 292 guests, up to speed. We fall in love with our Gold Cabin, with its lounge by day and upper and lower berths with a comfy doona by night. It is compact but clever, with the little bathroom with toilet and shower really easy to use.

We spend a lot of time staring out the window, leaving the blind up all day and all night, so we don’t miss any of the entertainment outside – the landscape changing like a Broadway set.

For even better views, we also hang out with our new friends in the bar off the Queen Adelaide Restaurant car, indulging in a beer here and there and maybe even an Expresso Martini or three.

The third martini and fun goings on in the lounge with people from all around the world does not seem like such a good idea the next morning, but any headaches soon disappear with the spectacular scenery of Katherine to explore.

We are cruising through the ancient gorges in Nitmuluk National Park, carved out of the sandstone over a billion years by the Katherine River. Its ancient rock cliffs and swirling water whisper the secrets of its past and we hear some of the legends of the indigenous Jawoyn people. This is our first visit to Katherine and we find the gorges entrancing and beautiful, and we even see rock art on the short walk between the First and Second gorges.

Sleeping is surprisingly easy, with the slight rocking motion and clickety-clack of steel on the rails sending us off into our own dreamtimes. The next day we rise early to a wonderful two-course breakfast before heading to the airport for our tour to Uluru. This tour is not included in your package but we figure we might not get another chance to fly over and around Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

We are in a fixed-wing plane and pilot Rhys acts as a tour guide on the one hour flight, pointing out Pine Gap, the McDonnell Ranges, the timeless Finke River and the incredible Lake Amadeus, which stretches for 100-kilometres.

The unmistakable Uluru emerges from the horizon and we all grab our cameras or phones and click away like mad contortionists pointing this way and that. From above we see its cracks and crevices and marvel again at its beautiful red colour, caused by oxidising iron.

After a textbook landing, we are whisked off on a tour, driving around the 9.4-kilometre circumference of this spiritual icon, our knowledgeable guide full of information about the rock, and the Anangu people who call this land home. We stop at Mutitjula Waterhole and walk in on the Koonya Track to see some incredible rock art, gorgeous purple parakeelias in flower, the waterhole itself and to hear about the legend of Kuniya Tjukurpa – the battle between the python and the poisonous snake man. We marvel at the textures of the rock and feel as if touching it could instil magical powers.

Back on the train, we do a quick change before heading out for a special dinner at the historic Alice Springs Telegraph Station. And special it is. This place played a vital role in connecting Darwin to Adelaide, and more importantly, Australia to London, when it began transmissions in 1871. Situated on the Todd River, the various buildings are all open to us and we browse through all them, seeing what life was like in the fledgeling Alice Springs over 150 years ago.

The whole setting is magical, with delicious canapes and drinks happily devoured before we take our seats at the beautifully set, pristine white tables. The meal is incredible – the tenderloin steak is one of the best I have ever had – and the individual pavlovas and other sweet treats are divine.

Just as good was the astronomy tour which has us craning our necks to look at Scorpio, the Southern Cross and other astral features far, far away. The entertainment – a brilliant trio called the Expeditioners – immediately launch into Starry, Starry Night when the lights come back on, and keep us all grooving on the sandy dancefloor under the stars to classics by the likes of Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and Paul Kelly. It is so good that many guests have to be rounded up to get back to the train ready for the onward journey into the night, towards what looks like it too could be on another planet - Coober Pedy.

We don’t pull into this weird and wonderful place on the train. We stop at the Manguri siding in the middle of nowhere and bus it on a dusty road into town. Our mouths hang agape as we see the mounds popping up all around, all mines that have been dug by fortune seekers. Over half a million mines have been dug here. This isolated place is the world’s biggest producer of opal, and because of the 50-degree temperatures in summer, most people live underground. ...Donwload the full story below.

(1420 WORDS)

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