The Ghan is named after former outback cameleers

Between tropical Darwin and arid Adelaide, The Ghan scythes along Australia’s red heart on one of the world's most iconic train journeys. Words and pictures by Marie Barbieri.

I’ve never been chatted up by a septuagenarian before, especially one propping up the bar while sporting a monocle. Okay, so this is a different kind of bar, where wine glasses jingle and teacups clank as steady-handed bartenders pour drinks while riding the rails. As I pour milk from a jug into a tea cup, Monocle Man asks me abruptly: “Into self-harm are you?” I’m unsure how to take this. “Why don’t you add some tea to that milk?” he pursues. I get it. It’s a wisecrack about my embarrassingly milky brew. This journey is set to intrigue.

Settling in
Sipping in the Outback Explorer lounge, we abandon tropical Darwin, its steamy 32°C (89°F) snap-locked out as doors fasten around the chilly air-conditioning of the train. The flow of South Australian Shiraz then signals the beginning of our 54-hour, 2,979km (1,851 miles) slither south towards Adelaide.

Mango orchards flash by, as if through a horizontal juicer. Then noses twitch as aromas escape the kitchen. Entering the Queen Adelaide Restaurant, we ogle at its classical décor: cosy dining booths draped with golden curtains above snowy tablecloths, and waiters with smiles as wide as the rails.

FoodghanFood and wine flow liberally on The Ghan

Lunch brings native damper rolls, followed by incredibly tender Coorong Angus beef medallion. I bathe it in Shiraz jus on a pillow of roasted garlic mash. I break my diet rules, flirting with a tart, dressed in dark couverture ganache, and veiled in crème de menthe.

Satiated, I sashay along to my Gold Class cabin. It’s a modest size but soaked in charm. Wood-panelling edges a vanity mirror, a wardrobe almost big enough swing a wallaby in, and a flip-up table beside two bunks. The bathroom threatens with an airplane-style loo (watch your parts—its suction is ballistic), a dainty sink and a hand-held shower, which conceals a fluffy towel-filled closet.

Cultural exchanges
Trickling off the train for our first excursion, Katherine whirs with cicadas. It squats ruggedly within Nitmiluk National Park, where rusty-red sandstone gorges are the traditional land of the Jawoyn people, some of whom I meet for an authentic indigenous experience.

At tranquil Maud Creek, Aboriginal elders clasp a selection of nature’s tools. One asks: “Anyone wanna help me weave a dillybag?” “I do!” I reply, hopping up unfashionably fast. She gestures me to sit back down. Life is chilled in the tropics. The lady, her face etched with wisdom, demonstrates weaving with sundried pandanus leaves. I make a tangle of mine.

ArtgorgeghanLong John Dewer's artwork and Katherine Gorge

Three indigenous artists paint using charcoal, white clay, yellow and red ochre, and acrylics. I gasp in wonderment as artist-in-residence, Long-John Dewar, paints a fish using dots and lines, with a reed for a brush. The stillness within his hands is spellbinding.

Long-John’s nephew emerges with a weapon. “This spear is made from wattle tree,” he says, miming an athletic throw. “And we throw it with this woomera, made from grevillea trees, to catch fish…..and tourists!” Nervous laughter ensues.

Next is the skinning of a kangaroo tail. The sight is not for the queasy, but it’s a staple in the Aboriginal diet. Trays of previously-roasted tail arrive for sampling.  “Tastes like veal!” compares the Brit. “More like buffalo!” adds the Canadian. Crocodile soup is then served and an Aussie quips: “Tastes like crocodile soup, mate!” The locals laugh, gutturally.

We reboard our sinuous silver snake, branded with a camel logo on each of its 31 carriages in recognition of the pioneering Afghan cameleers that trudged the continent’s vertebra. The windows project a living slideshow of auburn soil, pin-cushioned by spinifex, as the tropics dehydrate into desert.

Rise and shine

sunriseghanThe rising yolk of a desert sunrise

After breakfast ensnares my cholesterol levels with bacon, bush sausage and eggs, the remote expanse of the outback begins to blister with the fiery MacDonnell Ranges.

Jerking to a halt, we arrive at Alice Springs, the birthplace of modern Aboriginal art and home to some of the country’s finest examples found in bespoke galleries. After a town tour, I pop into Araluen Arts Centre to see works by 1930s artist, Albert Namatjira. His authentic eye depicted the spirit and raw beauty of the MacDonnell Ranges through unconventional watercolours (dot paintings were the dominant genre). Namatjira swiftly became the first Aboriginal artist to achieve national recognition.

Back on board, dinner treats the palate to a zingy lentil soup, seared Tasmanian salmon, and lavender pannacotta wearing a headdress of pink pashmak (Persian candyfloss).


Now evening, the Outback Explorer Lounge is abuzz. Gregarious Aussies exchange fair-dinkum yarns and crack jokes on first-name terms. A reserved English couple dunk cookies into their Earl Grey tea. One group play poker. Merriness spreads as Jimmy Barnes classics are howled by the tone-deaf (myself included), before a surreal rendition of Waltzing Matilda is delivered by a German (in German!). We wonder if it’s the complimentary drinks cascading from the bar, or the rails that are causing the train to mambo.

BedghanA night time treat in the cosy Gold Class cabin

I retire to my cabin. It’s been cozied with nightlights and soft music. A chocolate snoozes on my bed. Life is, quite literally, sweet.

Awaking to an incandescent sunrise, we languidly chug alongside the crumpled crinkles of the Flinders Ranges, suffused in a palette of scorched reds. Its layers of time sprout gum trees sunning beneath high skies. The journey’s final stretch pales to the yellows and browns of Adelaide’s pastoral plains. I have no idea what time it is, or what day even. If I could freeze time to a halt, it would be right now.

Prices on board The Ghan with Great Southern Rail between Darwin and Adelaide or vice versa start from AU$1,718 per adult one way, for advance purchase fares, including a Gold Service two-bunked cabin, meals, drinks and off-train excursions.

Visa and passport information is updated regularly and is correct at the time of publishing. You should verify critical travel information independently with the relevant embassy before you travel.