March 3 - 9, 2013: Issue 100

 Ghan Through the Red Centre
by Robyn McWilliam

Mid-summer is not considered the ideal time to travel in the Red Centre of Australia. But in air-conditioned comfort The Ghan can whisk you through the Outback. Ochre landscapes,  brilliant blue skies and whistle-stop tours make this train journey an experience to remember.

After securing a two-for-one deal from Great Southern Rail, we fly to Darwin on a Tuesday arriving in the afternoon. A number of hotels on The Esplanade overlook Bicentennial Park and out to sea. The shops along Smith Street are uncrowded; Paspaley Pearls is worth a peek. Tropical foliage lines our walk to the Darwin waterfront to see the Wavepool. Locals and holiday makers are surfing and boogie boarding the artificially-created waves.

Wavepool in Darwin and Cabin on The Ghan

Next morning at the station we see a long line of silver carriages. On their sides The Ghan’s logo featuring a camel and its handler acknowledges the pioneering Afghan cameleers. We are shown to our cabin complete with ensuite and before long the jiggling train begins its journey south. Sitting in the lounge car, we watch low trees, termite mounds and a few Brahmin cattle slip by.

Robyn before boarding

Lunch in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant begins the culinary delights: tender beef with mash, a glass of sauvignon blanc and lemon meringue pie. The staff is friendly; the table service superb. Travelling in Gold Service is definitely the way to go.

The landscape constantly changes: a flash of yellow wattle and in the distance granitic boulders. Approaching Katherine we see a vast orchard of mango trees. A variety of tours are offered on our first stop of four hours duration. Our choice is scenery over the township.

We alight from the train into scorching heat but are soon in air-conditioned buses heading for Nitmiluk National Park. My husband takes a helicopter flight over the gorges while I see the visitors’ centre and take a swim in the camping ground’s pool. The park is jointly managed by the Jawoyn people and the Northern Territory Government. Displays about the Aboriginal way of life are on offer as well as the difficulties faced by the pioneers.

Nitmiluk Tours helicopter

The heavy rains of the Wet are yet to arrive and flood the stepped gorges. That evening back on board, we are treated to a dark grey sky forked with lightning flashes. At dusk light fades from the bush as we eat another gourmet meal. Mine is lamb cutlets and a to-die-for chocolate pudding. Beyond the windows it’s inky black. Our bunks are set up. The train jostles through the night making a brief stop at Tennant Creek.


After a breakfast of eggs Florentine we get ready for our excursions in Alice Springs. At the Royal Flying Doctor base we learn how this amazing service, founded by Reverend John Flynn, cares for people of the Outback.

A short walk away is the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame in the Old Gaol. Molly Clark, its founder, represents one of the many women who thrived in our country’s centre. Molly worked on grazing properties, lost her husband and eldest son in accidents and then her livelihood when her cattle were destroyed due to disease. She set up the Old Andado homestead as a tourist venture and then launched the Hall of Fame in 1993.

Molly Clark – founder of the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame

Back on the train, we gaze at the countryside around the South Australian border. A few more cattle and a car chassis are sighted among the khaki green of saltbush. In rare spots there’s bare red dirt speckled with tussocks of grass. Late afternoon I see five small kangaroos. Wildlife is surprisingly rare.

‘Did you see the camel?’ my friend asks on the way to the dining car. ‘Oh no. Ian was on camel watch while I dressed.’ I so wanted see one. The feral camels are descendants of those who helped settle the inland. We are spoilt with more fine dining then another night sliding through darkness.

After Port Augusta we travel through farmland. Paddocks of golden stubble are left from freshly harvested wheat and hay bales dot other fields. All too soon we enter the city of Adelaide.

The completion of the railway north from Alice Springs only occurred this century. On 1 February 2004 The Ghan made its first trip from Adelaide right through to Darwin. Nowadays the trip can be taken either way.

For us, a rail journey from the Top End down through the Red Centre is a trip of a lifetime. We have chosen a jiggling container of cool air when all around is searing heat but a train journey through Australia’s heartland is an attractive venture all year round.

Above:  Waterfall in the gorges and Below: Rocky outcrop near SA border.

Copyright Robyn McWilliam, 2013. All Rights Reserved.