The Ghan - Across Australia from Adelaide to Darwin

Right On Track

Originally published in Crème de la Crème, January 2009

David Lappin

Its construction may have taken 125 years, but the Ghan Express provides a unique insight into the Australian landscape.

First class accommodation on a cross-continental train may not necessarily take you into the red, but aboard the Ghan Express this is something that can be expected.  The trans-Australian express that runs from Adelaide to Darwin takes just 48 hours to cross the red centre of Australia.  The scale of this journey is totally incomprehensible by air, but peering out of your carriage window the vast emptiness of the desert truly hits home.  For hours on end there is absolutely no sign of life.

The track stretches for almost 3000 kilometres - a distance akin to travelling from London to Moscow and back again.  But the first trains to tackle this epic trip were not man-made.

The Ghan is named after the processions of camel-riding Afghans who opened up trade routes in Central Australia's desolate landscape.  These bold explorers were nicknamed The Afghan Express and supplied the remote stations with food and resources.  They were employed until the early 20th century when other forms of fuel powered transportation made them obsolete, but their legacy lives on.  The travellers' camels flourished in the desert, breeding in such numbers that in 1925 the South Australian Government passed the Camel Destruction Act, giving police the right to shoot any camel found trespassing or without registration.  Meanwhile The Afghan Express was shortened by slang to the Ghan to become the name for this iconic railway line.

Construction of the railway started in 1878 in the hope of a future resources boom in mining.  The early days were fraught with problems.  The desert landscape was prone to flooding and frequently disrupted the train's progress leaving passengers stranded for days in the heat.  By the time the Adelaide-to-Alice Springs connection was complete, the Ghan was running at a financial loss and plans for the connection to Darwin were put on indefinite hold.

It wasn't until 1929 that the line reached Alice Springs, 51 years after work began.  There it remained due to a lack of funds until 2003 when the railway was finally extended to Darwin in the Northern Territory.  The completion of the line was believed to be Australia's largest civil engineering project in 50 years and cost A$1.3 billion to build.

The Ghan is operated by Great Southern Railway Ltd, which now offers a Platinum Service with cabins boasting double beds, spacious ensuites and 24-hour room service.  One notable stop on the route is Katherine, a town that prides itself on being the destination “where the outback meets the tropics”.  At nearby Katherine Gorge is a small canyon with a tranquil river where visitors can kayak or take boat tours.

The Ghan runs twice weekly from Adelaide to Alice Springs and once or twice a week to Darwin depending on demand.  While it’s true that a plane trip between Adelaide and Darwin only takes five hours, the Ghan is more than a means of transportation, it’s an experience you’ll never forget.

Your carriage awaits:

The Ghan isn't Australia's only famous train journey.  

The Indian PacIfIc

From Sydney to Adelaide and Perth, the Ghan's sister train takes three nights in each directions (4352 kms) twice a week.  From east to west, or vice versa, sights include the Blue Mountains, the treeless plains of The Nullarbor desert and small outback towns on the world's longest straight stretch of railway track.

The Overland

The Melbourne-to-Adelaide train pioneered inter capital rail travel way back in 1887, its name inspired by the 19th century Overlanders who travelled the route on horseback.  The Overland runs a daylight service between Adelaide and Melbourne in both directions, three times a week.

Right On Track as published in PDF form