Our 54-hour train ride on the Ghan was an experience to remember. Billed as one of the world’s “Great Train Journeys,” the Ghan cuts right through the center of the country, connecting Adelaide in the south with Darwin in the north. It was named for the Afghani cameleers who in earlier days had made the trek through the desert and Red Center. The train only started taking passengers the full length in 2004, after numerous challenges and delays brought on by storms and the remote location of where the track had to be laid. We got an amazing deal on the ticket, which is usually $450 even at the “backpackers” rate. Sleeper cabins are around $1000, and the new Platinum Service is much more than that. That being said, our seats were in carriages R and S, at the back of the train. Seats reclined just a little further than they do in a plane, and it was made clear there was a diner car just for our “Red Kangaroo” service level. The lounge car had been eliminated for economic reasons, and the diner car was only to be used by those who had made a purchase. Prices weren’t excessive though, and we splurged on a $3.50 coffee each one morning, just so we could sip it slowly and look out the big windows. There were showers available though, and even a thin towel.
The train left Adelaide at noon, and time flew as we read and watched the soil turn ruddy red with sparse scrub, bright blue sky and streaky clouds as a background. We watched for animals, hoping to spot one of the 30,000 or so feral camels left over from the days they were the primary form of transportation, but everyone was hiding from the intense afternoon heat. We had done some grocery shopping, so we wouldn’t have to buy all our food on the train, and had lots of fruit, bread, spreads, a bit of ham and salami (for the first day), etc. to snack on. The train was quite full, so there was a lot of coming and going, chatting, coughing and sneezing. Lights were turned out at 10 pm, and we got as comfortable as possible for the night. The rising sun woke me in the morning, and I was able to snap a few beautiful sunrise photos before heading to the bathroom. Carriage “R” had clogged their ladies room by stuffing something down the toilet, and we’d have to share until it could be fixed at Alice Springs.
We arrived there in the early afternoon. We had signed on for one of the Ghan’s “Whistle Stop Tours,” knowing our time to explore was limited. This was a regret when we figured out we could have organized the same tour on our own for less than half the price, but at least we had the confidence we’d get back on time and not get left behind. We visited the Alice Springs Desert Park with open air exhibits of a wide variety of flora and fauna from Central Australia, divided into different eco-systems. Audio guides gave background on each area and some of the exhibits, and included several stories and recollections from Aboriginal original owners and park managers. On the way back, we stopped at a lookout over the town before returning to the Ghan. It felt good to be back on the train, as even for Alice Springs it had been a HOT day (40 C/105 or so Farenheit!). What a contrast from cool comfortable Adelaide.
Alice Springs is a common jumping-off point for Uluru (Ayers Rock) and the Olgas. These rock formations in the middle of the desert are icons said to have formed 500 to 600 million years ago, and we were sorry to have to forego a trip to see them. The rock is of great spiritual and cultural significance to many, especially the Aboriginal people who have lived here for thousands of years. They still officially own the area, including the national park, which is leased to the government, and jointly administered. Accommodation is extremely limited, and the area is 400 kms from Alice Springs, making a pretty uncomfortable day-trip, in our estimation. We were also a bit worried about the numbers of tourists that would be around, so between that and the added expense, the famous Uluru will have to wait for a future visit.
There were far fewer new passengers joining the trip than the number that had left, and we were able to swivel our two seats around to face the two behind us, giving us double the space! What a luxury. We spent most of that evening playing cards, since I had long before finished all my reading material. Sleeping that night was almost comfortable.
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