Viva Las Vegas

Meeting my mate Ian in Las Vegas

I hit the jackpot in Nevada, and it wasn’t because I’d run into some luck on the roulette wheel.

It was where I met my travel buddy Ian, a good mate of mine known as Laingy, who had arrived on the Las Vegas strip in style – in a convertible Mustang.

It had been some journey for him too. While I had been driving through the night to this bright light city, Ian had been flying through the night to Los Angeles from his native Australia before hiring a car and making the same journey through the desert.

It all followed on from a conversation we had on my last night in Melbourne, where I’d been talking about my onward journey and how I’d quite like to complete the trip with an overland stretch going from coast to coast in America. One of the only problems back then was finance and the fact it would mean spending a long time on my own.

“I might be up for a bit of that – its something I have always wanted to do,” Ian said over a pint.

Meeting Ian – Mustang Laingy – in Las Vegas

And from there, the idea snowballed. Fast forward a few months, and in the searing Nevada heat, I’m walking across a dusty car park just off the Las Vegas strip to once again shake Laingy’s hand.

“Welcome to Las Vegas,” I said, laughing.

“Bloody hell, 24 hours ago I was scraping ice off my car, and now its 45 degree heat,” he laughed back in his usual Aussie accent.

It was a slightly surreal meet-up, orchestrated through free wifi spots and Facebook messages thanks to the lack of a mobile phone, but we’d managed it. I’m well on the way home now, but to have a good mate with me with similar interests will make this leg all the more memorable.

The end of Santa Monica Boulevard – and the ‘official’ end of Route 66

While Ian had to travel to Vegas the quickest way possible, I had begun my Route 66 adventure from Los Angeles by starting at the end. Officially, Route 66 was the way the population migrated west from the Chicago and eastern states following the war and great depression. Known as the ‘mother road’ it was built to help people make their way towards the Pacific in search of work and riches.

Santa Monica Pier

As a result, California is often seen as the end of the road, with Santa Monica pier the finishing point for this great American journey. And so it was only natural, making the first leg of Route 66 solo, that I took our car to the far end of the road, to Santa Monica Boulevard and to Santa Monica Pier, complete with its markers that this was, indeed, as far as you can go on the 66. Any further, and you’d end up wet, which is precisely what I did.

Touching the Pacific for the final time – next ocean, the Atlantic

Having spent six months with the Pacific being the ocean I have looked at off the coasts of Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, it was time to finally say goodbye to it. I had learned to surf its waves, been washed up onto its shores at Bells Beach in Oz, spent countless hours gazing at the horizon over its glinting waters and bobbed around on boats upon it, and now it was time for a final paddle and a photo. After all, you cant make the coast to coast trip over the States without the obligatory proof shots  touching the opposing oceans of the Pacific and Atlantic.

I’ll become familiar with signs like this over coming days

I walked to the end of the pier, taking in the street entertainers, music and atmosphere along the way. The mist and smog which had shrouded LA during my three day stay began to lift, revealing the beaches of Santa Monica to be just as stunning as they appear on the big and small screen in movies and television programmes back home. They were full of people enjoying an extended holiday period, families from across the States who have made their own epic journeys to the coast. Now it was my turn to head east, and ultimately, back home – from now on, every mile I make in the car is a mile closer to home, and the end of an unforgettable nine months.

Tribute to Route 66 at the end of Santa Monica pier

The 66 starts at the junction with Ocean Boulevard, and after one last photo of the Route 66 marker tribute to Will Rogers, one of the world’s greatest celebrities back in the Twenties and Thirties, I got back in the car, took a last look at the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, and set my horizons to the Atlantic, more than 3,000 miles away.

Have map, have badge, and at the official end. Just 3,000 miles to go

It felt completely normal to be setting off, pulling away from a parking bay, knowing that there was such an epic drive ahead. It was slightly surreal if anything, getting into a car and turning the radio on as if I was just popping down to the shops. Yet for me, this was a one-way journey east.

‘Turn left at the traffic lights…and just keep going’

The drive through LA took me all the way through Beverly Hills and past the Hollywood Sign, where I stopped for one final look at the nine famous letters, before heading out to the Interstate 210 north.

Santa Monica Boulevard

Its not quite following the exact route of the 66, but then its impossible to follow it all of the way these days anyway, as much of the route has been repaved, re-routed and re-classified. Besides, passing so close to Las Vegas, it would be rude not to pass by and spend a while amid the bright lights and high rollers.

First, there was another minor detour. There was an interesting place I wanted to visit on the way, a place that I had seen on a Discovery Channel programme a few years back, and was amazed by the scale of it. All I will say is have you ever wondered what happens to aeroplanes when the airlines either go bust, cut routes or simply retire some of their aircraft?

Aeroplane boneyard in the Mojave

Well, they get sent to California and to the Mojave Desert, a place that I have to drive through in order to reach Las Vegas. Because the air is so dry, and days of rainfall are so few and far between, metal doesn’t rust. And a Boeing 747 is made up of a lot of metal, which if left sitting in the elements for too long without maintenance, will corrode and render hundreds of millions of pounds worth of plane useless.

Scores of planes doing nothing

So they get flown to the aircraft graveyards and boneyards of the Mojave Desert, where attempts are made to remove or disguise logos and distinctive paintwork before the planes are left to sit in the sun on an extended holiday of their own.

Mojave Airport

They are easy to find, with the bright metal fuselages and tails sticking out for miles in the flat desert plains. During the airline slump post September 11, hundreds of aircraft were once stored here as people stopped flying and airlines cut costs. While the numbers are nowhere near as high now, it was still quite a spectacle to see so many perfectly good aircraft simply sitting on the sand instead of cruising through the skies filled with hundreds of people.

The famous Rotary Rocket on display at Mojave

After being spotted by a security van taking photos, it was time to disappear, so I took off down the road towards the famous Edwards Air Force Base, a giant development that takes up a significant proportion of land, around half the size of LA, alongside the dual lane route 58 to Barstow, one of the first major towns on Route 66 outside of Los Angeles.

Cruising through the desert

From here, I picked up the interstate 15, a motorway that shoots straight up to the Nevada border and on to Las Vegas. While Vegas was never on Route 66, most people who make the journey divert themselves to the gambling and entertainment mecca for a few days, if anything just to experience it. It only adds a couple of hours onto the journey, to and from the city, but it was a definite huge tick on the bucket list to visit the place.

Watching the sun go down in the West, behind me

I had timed my journey to arrive in Las Vegas at night, driving for some five hours through the pitch black desert with a couple of coffees and a bar of Hershey chocolate for company. I watched the mile markers tick down to just 100 to go, while hundreds of Californian registered cars would fly past me, no doubt full of LA residents and workers desperate to get to the fun-filled spot in the desert for a weekend of excitement.

I was still 60 miles out when I first noticed the sky ahead changing. There was a distinct glow up ahead, while the blinking lights of aircraft began to appear around me as they circled before landing their Vegas-hungry payload at the purpose built airport by the main strip.

Driving into Vegas

With two long drags up some incredibly long hills, complete with warnings to turn off air conditioning to prevent engines overheating in the scorching desert heat, the glow started to get brighter, and with a final push over the hilltop, suddenly my windscreen was filled with the millions of dazzling lamps from the desert oasis known as Las Vegas.

It was incredible how the city seemed to appear from nowhere, and seemingly stretching for as far as the eye could see. It was a moment that I wished I had someone with me to share it – an almost magical time at getting my first view of one of the world’s most famous playgrounds, and a sense of achievement in the fact I had managed to somehow navigate there without the help of a satnav (paper maps – how retro!)

New York, New York – my first glimpse of the main strip

I continued driving, arriving on the outskirts of the city knowing that somewhere amid the neon glow was my hostel, which according to its website was near the famous Stratosphere tower on the main strip. I saw a sign for Las Vegas Boulevard, and knowing that was the main strip, made a left turn and headed straight onto it.

It was hard to concentrate on the road ahead. As I passed the huge, mock,  New York skyline that marked the New York New York casino on one side, the famous MGM Grand on the other, I slowly made the stop-start drive along the main street. It was a Friday night, and I found myself caught up with scores of other Californian-registered cars that had clogged up the road as people made a similar getaway for the weekend.

Joining the jam with a view

For once, though, I was glad to be in a snarled-up traffic jam. It was the perfect way to take in my first Vegas experience, a place that was alien to me having never visited before, yet felt so familiar having seen it so many times in films or on television.

The names of the casinos alone roll off the tongue, mentally ticking them off as I made my way from intersection to intersection. The Mirage, Monte Carlo, Paris, The Venetian…and then on my left, the huge dancing fountains and music of the Bellagio, followed by the gigantic area taken up by Caesars Palace.

Everywhere I looked, there was something going on. From street performers to musicians, magicians and tourists all jockeying for position on the sidewalks, to fellow wide-eyed motorists driving along, taking photographs and smiling as this adult wonderland we’d suddenly found ourselves in.

It was quite a spectacle outside!

And still the familiar names passed by the window – Treasure Island, with its pirate ship frontage, Circus Circus with the huge clowns and big top, or the sleek-looking Wynn complex. In fact, while I was expecting a substantial amount of neon, flashing lights and huge, money-no-object structures and hotels, the overall size of the place was the main surprise for me. It took well over an hour to make my way in the car from the south end of the strip to the north, finally spotting the familiar mast-like Stratosphere structure, and eventually, after a couple of stops outside McDonalds to use their free wifi, pulling up at the Hostel Cat. My $19 bed couldn’t have come soon enough.

Friday night, my first night in Las Vegas, and I was in bed by 2am!

I’ve arrived!

The earlyish night, by Vegas standards, paid dividends the following day however. For one, the heat in the Nevada desert can sap the energy out of you – the thermometer hit 47 degrees, and just walking outside the air conditioned comfort of the hostel was enough to send you running for immediate shade. Door handles become red hot, the metal panels on the car could quite easily double as a griddle plate, and a day of sight seeing was out of the question.

“We’re going to the pool at the Monte Carlo,” came a cry from reception, raising a cheer from the fed-up looking hostel guests who were clearly sick of the heatwave gripping this part of the States.

It sounded like a good idea, and besides, it meant I would see some of the Vegas strip during the day, even if it was from the window of the hostel transport.

Erm, this could be a squeeze

Except, what the guys from the hostel failed to explain was that we’d be sneaking-in to the Monte Carlo casino, to use their pool, and that the transport was a beaten up minivan without any seats. And when they said it would be a hostel outing, it really was, as 26 hot and sweaty backpackers began the difficult job of packing into a van the size of a small Transit.

“Let me just close the anti-police device,” said Chandler, from the hostel, as he pulled a cloth curtain across the windows to stop authority eyes from seeing just how many people had been crammed into the back.

They’ll be my hands then…and i’m probably gasping for air

And still more people were climbing in through the door. I’d wedged myself into a back corner, where gradually the air began to thin and sweat began to drip from the mass of packed in bodies amid the heat and the greenhouse effect that the van had without a breeze. Thankfully, and with a record of 29 people once stuffed into the van, someone was prepared and brought along a water spray to cool us down as we made our way to the far end of Vegas.

And out everyone gets!

“Right, we can’t all go in as one group,” said Chandler as a steady stream of people clambered, fell and dragged themselves out from the back of the van, resembling something from a game of Twister that had gone badly wrong.

“They won’t let us in, so we have to pretend we’re going to the bar. Look at the menu, then just drift through the door to the left, grab a towel from the guy at the towel stall and meet back over to the right,” he continued.

Having sneaked into a fair few VIP areas over the years, I can honestly say this was the most blatant blag I have ever been a part of. Standing outside the glass windows of the bar, a group of 26 was whittled down into a few separated groups of threes and fours. Within a couple of minutes, we’d more or less tripled the patronage of the bar, yet nobody had ordered a drink. The barstaff looked confused at this mass of new customers, yet had very little to do. And as quickly as we’d all appeared, we’d all disappeared through a door and into a pool, amid a variety of excuses. I opted for the ‘I fancy a hotdog outside on the terrace,” excuse, before exiting stage left.

We’re in! Vegas pool party!

Somehow, we’d managed it. We had access to a huge pool, posh deckchairs, a river rapids area and even a DJ putting out some of the latest tunes for us all to listen to. It was a great pool party that we’d crashed, and all for the price of a dollar towards the hostel van’s gas account. I guess this was all part of the Vegas vibe.

Bright light city gonna get my soul…

After a few hours of doing everything I could to avoid the attractive, bikini-clad waitresses who were offering to fetch me a very expensive drink, I made my way to one of the casino halls to use yet more free wifi. Ian had arrived, according to Facebook, so I caught one of the Vegas buses and managed to spot where to jump off. As if by magic, and standing by his jet black Mustang that he’d hired for the same price as a flight from LA, was Ian. We headed straight to the airport, so he could return his car, get him signed up as a driver on ‘our’ car and headed back for more free wifi to book some accommodation.

Following Mustang Laingy down the Vegas freeway

Here came another surprise. I knew hotel rooms could be cheap in the city, but I had no idea just how cheap. For just £5 in the week, you can secure a double room near the strip. It was cheaper than my hostel, and I’d had no idea. It was partly down to this that we made a snap decision.

“I think we’re going to need longer in Vegas,” I said, knowing there was far too much for us to see in just the few hours we had initially put aside after Laingy’s arrival.

Brilliant rooms for peanuts

The fact that we could book a double queen bed room at the Stratosphere for just $35 was another factor. It would mean that we’d now just have just five days to drive the entire length of Route 66 and make the 12 hour trip from the end of it in Chicago to the east coast, but we’d calculated it was just about achievable.

Ignition on, aircon cooling the car – was a tad warm!

There had been a few people in recent weeks who acted with surprise when I told them about the short time frame we had to complete the journey. “You’ll never get to see anything, or stop anywhere,” was the usual word of warning.

But Ian and I were in agreement that driving the Route 66, and making a coast to coast journey and seeing all the changes in scenery along the way, was the experience and what we were both in the States to do.

Beautiful Bellagio gardens. Impressive, considering its next to the lobby!

It gave us a couple of days and nights to explore this magnificent place. From wandering around the incredible malls and hidden cities that lay at the base of all the casino resorts, to taking in some of the free shows on the street, to losing the obligatory few bucks on the casino tables and putting a couple of dollar bills in the penny slots, we pretty much managed to ‘do’ Vegas.

The Strip

It is a place that I am finding difficult to describe in words, which for a wordsmith, I know, is a pretty poor show. But Las Vegas is simply one of those places that it is very difficult to comprehend unless you experience it with your own eyes, ears and senses. We spent our sightseeing day visiting as many of the casinos as possible, and when I say ‘casino’ I don’t necessarily mean the gambling halls.

Film-set feel to malls in Caesar’s Palace

For Vegas is more than just Blackjack, Poker and Roulette, or placing bets of up to $15,000 on the roll of a dice (and that was just the top maximum bet we’d managed to spot) Deep in the bowels of the towering hotels and casino complexes, I was surprised by how much there was to do aside from feed money into machines. There are, of course, the glitzy big money shows featuring anyone from Celine Dion to David Copperfield, a whole range of restaurants and dining facilities, exciting white knuckle rides and experiences, but for Ian and I, the fun was in just being in Las Vegas itself.

Vegas -it even has curly escalators!

It was about walking around the streets and through the blissful air conditioned malls, complete with clever sky effects on the ceiling to make it feel like you’re outside, and the famous canals of the Venetian. It was wandering around and suddenly stumbling across statues that move and breathe fire as part of an hourly show. Or looking closely at the incredibly intricate detail on the walls, decorations, ceilings and décor that, at times, makes it feel like you are sightseeing on a big budget film set, rather than browsing through a shopping centre. Even the security people in each casino wear different outfits to match the surroundings.

And they sing on the gondolas too!

For people watching, soaking up the atmosphere, smiling at the power of the Bellagio’s water fountains as they thunder into the sky, watching the free shows such as the Sirens pirates at Treasure Island or marvelling at the fire and water show at the Mirage Volcano, there really was plenty to do – and on the whole, it doesn’t have to cost a penny. And, another surprise for me, was just how many families were in town on holiday to enjoy the experience with young children, even toddlers.

You don’t get this in Grimsby’s Freshney Place Shopping Centre

Infact, after hours – and miles – of walking around the desert delight, I think Ian hit the nail on the head when it came to describing what Vegas feels like.

“It’s like being part of a huge theatrical production,” he smiled as we dived for another blast of air conditioning in one of the malls.

The Stratosphere, my home for the final night in Vegas

He was right. It was so easy to lose all sense of reality here. There are very few clocks around, so time is no issue – as Elvis said in his song about the place, ‘turning day into nighttime, turning night into daytime’ – is a Vegas speciality. And the casinos have a very clever way of making sure everything is on hand, should you need it. The fact that most resorts have a McDonalds, Starbucks, Burger King or Subway incorporated somewhere within them is, of course, great for convenience, but the simple fact is that it’s a deliberate ploy to keep you in their four (or many more) walls for as long as possible. The longer you are, the more you spend, the happier the casino boss is and the bigger the next construction project for the brand will no doubt be.

Bellagio by night

You see, Vegas is a city built on gambling. It is only as stunningly impressive as it is, thanks to countless millions before me making a journey to the desert, and leaving with pockets and bank balances empty. It is a strange thought to look around and wonder at all the fortunes lost – and being lost at any one moment – which in turn will be put back into building bigger and even better resorts for future generations to enjoy. For this small part of Nevada, the recession is merely a word under ‘R’ in a dictionary.

Famous fountain fun

I could write for hours in depth about all that there is to see – in just a couple of days, we barely scratched the surface. My top tips will always be to make use of the free parking underneath each casino, and not to be afraid of driving half a mile down the road to the next complex. It really is a deceptively huge place, with the scale and size of the hotels proving deceptive when it comes to walking around.

And I could write all about the free shows too, such as the fountains set to music outside the Bellagio every 15 minutes. But I did very little research about attractions like these, and to be honest, it came as more of an enjoyable surprise when I watched them. I wasn’t expecting the fountains to be powered so high by some of the most sophisticated water jet systems in the world – the ‘boom’ that comes out of the fountain as air powers gallons of water into the sky is impressive, echoing around the strip and rattling through your body.

The Volcano erupts

The impressive jets of fire from the volcano, which erupts every hour outside the Mirage at night, combined with atmospheric music and lighting, attracted hundreds of people even late at night, while the Sirens pirate show at TI, complete with cast, fireworks, cannons and a sinking ship, brought the feel of a West End show to the street – and for free, four times a night.

Driving along the Vegas strip

Visiting Vegas on a backpacker budget was always going to be tricky, but with careful planning in the time we had, we set a schedule of all the free shows and made our way along the strip seeing all that there was on offer. It was proof that you don’t necessarily need buckets of cash to visit the place, and infact, there were many people using the cheap accommodation to relax by the pool by day, and just take in the atmosphere at night.

Backpacking…Vegas style!

I did, of course, have a flutter, setting myself a tight limit of $50 to play with during my three nights in the city. With $40 still burning a hole in my wallet on the final night, it was time to hit the blackjack table in the Stratosphere before bed. Well, you can’t come to Vegas without at least having a little bit of a gamble, right?

Half an hour in, I was holding my own. My piles of $5 had actually grown, and I’d hit blackjack a couple of times. I sensed I was having a run of luck, and started adding more chips to my stake. For a while, it went well, almost doubling my initial playing fund.

One of the casinos

And then I began to listen to the croupier, a lovely Chinese woman who I think enjoyed the experience as much as Ian and I, laughing along as we made jovial remarks about the way the hands were falling. But then, as quickly as the good run began, the bad luck came in, probably helped by her not so good advice. The dealer began hitting 21 on almost every hand, beating my 19s and 20s even when pulling up to five or six cards from the stack. By 3am, I was down to my last few chips. I put all of them on the table, apart from one.

I promptly lost, but put my final remaining, white, $1 chip in my camera case.

It’s true, the casino, in the end, will always win, especially here. But my last chip from Las Vegas wasn’t going back into the Stratosphere bank. It was joining us on the Route 66 adventure, and coming home with me.

I will…when I’ve saved up some more pennies!

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Railroading north on The Ghan

The Ghan – one of the world’s great rail journeys

When it comes to famous railway journeys, this trip has already allowed me to experience the world’s longest, the trans-Siberian from Moscow to Beijing.

But for sheer wow factor, The Ghan must take the absolute crown.

Leaving Adelaide, and the south of Australia

The train’s name honours the Afghan camel drivers, who set off years ago, long before engines, diesel and rail, to help find a way to reach Australia’s unexplored interior. The honour is bestowed upon one of the finest trains you will find in the world. With 28 pristine carriages, it stretches back almost three quarters of a kilometre along Platform One at Adelaide’s Parkland Terminal. In front of me, 1,344 tonnes of pure rail journey heaven, its shiny silver consist glinting in the warm South Australian sun as I walk its entire length.

Ready for the trip north

At the front, its bright red powerful locomotive muscle, emblazoned with the famous Ghan camel insignia, waits for a green light and the signal to start hauling the behemoth through the iconic deserts of Australia’s red centre.

You can feel the anticipation in the air as the crew and porters busily load hundreds of suitcases and bags onto the train. Ahead, a 54 hour marathon through some of Australia’s most inhospitable, baron and empty landscape, straight up through the centre to Alice Springs and on to the very north. A trans-continental adventure that clocks up just shy of 3,000km before it slows to a halt in Darwin, turns around, and does it all over again.

Awaiting departure from Adelaide

This station is no stranger to impressive railway feats – the Overland to Melbourne, the Southern Spirit to Brisbane and the awe-inspiring Indian Pacific, which takes passengers from the east coast to the west coast of this huge nation, all pass through Adelaide. Yet there was almost a feeling that this was the first time anyone had ever made this particular journey, a feeling of celebration, summed up by the welcome meeting from the crew by the train.

“The party starts right here,” bellows one of the immaculately-dressed staff over the station tannoy.

The train crew introduction show – you dont get this on Hull Trains!

There then follows a brilliant run-down of who was who, who was in charge, who was at the controls and who would be reading the map on the way. There was a huge sense of fun mixed with pride – it was clear that everyone who lives and works onboard this incredible train loves every bit of it.

“Alllll aboard,” was the simultaneous cry from the crew as they made their way to their respective carriages, a walk that can take some time. Hundreds of passengers and travellers dispersed along the platform, eagerly looking forward to stepping onboard and settling down.

I met up with my two friends I met at the Backpack Oz hostel in Adelaide, Laura and Dan, both of whom have been travelling just a couple of weeks longer than me. They are in the Red section of the train, while I’m in the Red Kangaroo sleeper section, a couple of carriages in front of them, but they are both getting off at Alice Springs too. They have arms full of pillows and bags, but we all stop to take photos of each other.

All aboard…well, almost!

I’m in carriage N, berth 25, and we soon see the carriage label on the side of the train. I am welcomed onboard by the carriage attendant, Danielle, who directs me to my room.

The ever-smiley and helpful crew member Danielle

“I’ll come and find you later on,” I say to my new friends as I step onboard, waving them off as they walk further down the platform.

Inside, the beautifully furnished carriage swallows me, a sweeping, curving corridor through the centre winding its way past all the private cabins. Mine is towards the end of the carriage, the door already ajar to welcome me. I put my bags down onto the floor and take a minute to have a look around, and smile to myself. I think back to my experiences in some of the ‘second class’ carriages across Russia and Mongolia. This is the ‘basic’ service on this train, yet compared to my times on the trans-Siberian, it was like a palace.

My private cabin

Huge comfortable chairs, storage space, a clever little sink that folds down, smart red carpets and power sockets. Relaxing music is being piped into the room thanks to an individual radio in the ceiling, there are towels neatly folded up on the side, and on my table, a beautiful red toiletries bag, complete with shampoo, conditioner, earplugs and soap.

A proper shower on a train – and yes, you can watch the world go by when you’re in it!

Just a few steps away, a spacious and fully-functioning shower awaits on either side of the corridor. Its hard to believe it is all packed inside a normal sized railway carriage, a cleverly designed carriage at that, an example of some fine ergonomics to maximise space

As I marvelled at the shower, I immediately thought back to my times on the trans-Siberian through the depths of Russia, and of my long stint lasting four days and four nights on one train without getting off. What I would have done for a shower and facilities like this over there. Somehow, I don’t think my squash ball improvised plug, that came oh so handy to block the sinks back then, will be needed on here.

With departure imminent, there is an announcement for staff to remove all the flags and markers from outside the train. I settled down into my seat, wondering if anyone else would be sharing the cabin with me. Nobody else arrived – I’ve got it to myself.

And we’re off – the rest of Australia beckons

Just a couple of minutes after the scheduled departure time of 12.20pm, I could feel a slight vibration, and then movement. Outside, friends and family were waving to loved ones as they disappeared down the tracks. Workmen, who just a few minutes ago were loading bags and suitcases, leaned on the steering wheels of their carts and watched as the mammoth train began to slip out of the station. Adelaide began to move past my window ever faster, the train being waved on by many who had made a special trip out to watch its departure.

The locals turn out to wave the train off

The Ghan is held in such high regard, it wasn’t just your typical train spotters that had turned out to jot a number down in a pad, or take a photo as it passed. As we inched our way over the points and crossings in the city, a young boy on his father’s shoulders waved at every passing carriage. It must have been something to see the passengers waving back, and I joined them, giving the young lad a big wave back. His father pointed at me and smiled.

Further along, a couple walking their dog had stopped by the fence to watch the departing spectacle. Even their pets were standing to attention. This wasn’t just your average 10am departure to Kings Cross like you or I are used to. This was special. This was a journey that even now, even for those who live here, captures the imagination. We were not just passengers getting from A to B – we were being waved off as if we were explorers, early adventurers setting off on a ship into the unknown.

Heading out into the bush

Soon, the cityscape of Adelaide and its suburbs began to change into open fields and plains, peppered with gum trees and sheep. I went for a wander through the carriage and into the lounge area, full of similarly-minded travellers just getting stuck into a book, sipping a coffee or with their noses pressed against the window, watching as the Australian landscape unfurled in front of them.

I sent a text to my new friends Dan and Laura, a few carriages away in the reclining seat section, and asked how it was back there.

“Hey Phil, its really good! Can’t believe how much room we have! What’s yours like?” came the reply.

I sent a cheeky one back.

“Just tucking into some caviar with a personal hostess fanning me. Heaven knows what Gold and Platinum class must be like.” I pressed send, and laughed to myself as I imagined what the reaction would be just a few dozen metres behind me.

I quickly sent a follow-up, telling them about my cabin and that I’d meet up with them later.

“Sounds quality mate! It’s even good back here in the cheap seats. Will let you know when we venture forward later,” came the reply.

“Careful of the guards if you venture forwards from steerage – meaner than those on the Titanic,” I quickly sent back, putting another cheeky smile on my face.

With Dan and Laura in the onboard cafe bar

I can see us becoming good friends – we’re already planning to spend time in Alice Springs and around Ayers Rock together, and we’ve all got similar interests and a sense of humour. I’m looking forward to dinner with them later.

Outside, there’s definitely a changing colour to the landscape, the pale green of dried grass and fields is being interspersed with a browny orange soil. I lost phone signal, so decided to have a wander through the train to find Dan and Laura. It didn’t take me long, they’re only a couple of carriages back, and I sat with them over a coffee, watching the world go by and chatting about our travels.

Dan told me how he’d been working on a syrup mixing plant at a Schweppes factory in the south, making Pepsi and Solo. He explained how he was earning more money pouring citric acid into a vat than what he was ever earning as a teacher at an inner city school back home. Somehow it doesn’t seem quite right, but I’ve met a surprising number of people with similar stories, of giving up careers they have worked so hard for because they realised they can earn more money by doing something that needs far less in the way of skills.

A quick glimpse of the front of the huge train snaking ahead

Obviously, with travelling, most save for a few months and then use that cash for the next adventure, but it does explain why there are so many older people on the backpacking circuit, out in Australia having learned they can live a comfortable life on their travels, yet still save money.

Sunset in the outback

As the sun set, the sky turned a beautiful shade of fuchsia, casting an array of bright colours across the clouds over the plains. I settled in the lounge carriage with a complimentary coffee, and splashed out on a Kit Kat. It has a very relaxed feel about it, with comfortable bucket chairs and sofas to sink into. I spent the evening in the Matilda restaurant car, talking to fellow travellers who were all enjoying the experience just as much as me.

The comfortable lounge car

They included Cathy, a 60 year old woman from New Zealand who moved to Australia in the 1990s, and is living proof you are never too old for backpacking. She’s currently taking a year-long tour of the country with her beloved car, which she occasionally waves to on the Motorail carriage as the front of the long train negotiates a bend ahead, briefly becoming visible through the window.

“I love just meeting so many different people, of different ages, from all around the world,” she beams, talking to us all like the friends we already are, if only for a few hours.

Cathy (left) and fellow travellers from across Europe relaxing in the Matilda cafe

By 11pm, most of the train had gone to bed, and I made my way through the curvy corridor to my room, unhitched the bed from the wall and laid it down.

Cosy bed!

I looked out of the window at the blackness outside, only illuminated by a feint light shining out from the shower cubicle a few metres in front of me. I closed my eyes, and it wasn’t long before the gentle rocking of the train worked its magic, sending me into a deep sleep as we made our way north through the outback.

The next morning, an announcement for breakfast service woke me. I slowly opened the blind. Outside, the landscape had changed – a repetitive scene of bushes and small trees rolling by my window, the greenery contrasting with the deep red sand which stretches from the tracks below, far and beyond the horizon. This is the outback, Australia’s red centre.

Red.

I relaxed with a coffee and began talking to Paul, a skin cancer specialist from Hamburg in Germany. He’s in Australia for a conference in Brisbane, but decided to tick some things off his bucket list before getting down to work in a few weeks time.

Paul, from Germany, and who realised the joy of overland travel

“Going by train gives an entirely different perspective, doesn’t it,” he said, watching as a dry river bed passes beneath us.

He’s well travelled, having backpacked through southeast Asia back in the 70s, and a keen photographer. Our first conversation actually began thanks to me finding out the door windows between carriages offer better photographs of the world outside thanks to a single glass pane cutting down on reflections.

“Doesn’t it give you an idea of the vastness of this place. It looks so different to how it looks from a plane.”

I couldn’t agree more – its one of the reasons why, with time on my side, I decided to make most of my way Down Under by keeping my feet on the ground. There are some parts where you have to fly, but on the whole, making your way over vast distances by land only gives more of an adventure, more of an experience. And it’s a social experience too, wandering through the carriages to meet friends along the way. There are no seatbelt signs here to keep you in your seat!

Another brilliant touch is the regular updates of what we are seeing outside the window from the train manager, with informative and interesting anecdotes about sites and scenery along the way. Its all broadcast via the onboard radio, giving the journey the feel of a tour more than just a way of getting from point to point in Australia. At one point, he came onto the radio to explain how the drivers were slowing the train down so we could see a unique statue at the side of the track, that of Iron Man, a figure holding up the one millionth concrete sleeper.

It was erected as a tribute to the work of those who built this huge line, which was actually re-routed in 1980 to avoid flooding problems around 100km to the east which had plagued the service. We had plenty of time to take photos, before the engine powered on and we accelerated back to normal speed.

The Iron Man carrying the 1,000,000th sleeper

With the kilometre posts alongside the track knocking on through 1,500km, we are just a few minutes away from Alice Springs, the magnificent Macdonnell Ranges looming ever closer. A Qantas jet plane flies overhead, the first reminder of civilization for a good few hours, with only desert and outback bush to look at for most of the morning.

Crossing a dry riverbed before Alice Springs

As we creep around a gentle bend, the Stuart Highway comes into view, full of cars and road trains making as equally an impressive trans-continental journey. The length of the train brings the town to a standstill as carriage after carriage rolls across the railroad crossing and alongside the platform, the halfway point for this train’s epic journey.

Pulling into Alice and holding up the traffic for a while

For me, it offers a week-long stay in the outback, a chance to visit the world famous sights of Uluru, the Olgas, Kings Canyon and the terracotta red sands of the Northern Territory. While I’m doing all that, this very train will make its way on to Darwin, turn around, go all the way back to Adelaide, and then come back to pick me up in exactly a week.

Arrival in The Alice – and its warm again!

As I step off into the warm sunshine, Paul comes up to me.

“I forgot to ask, where in England are you from?” he said, camera over his shoulder.

“Ah, it’s a little town on the east coast, you’ve probably never heard of it. Grimsby.” I replied.

He stepped back, gasped and smiled, gently shaking his head.

“I know Grimsby so well, I can’t believe it,” he laughed. “I have friends there. Whenever I go to the UK, I visit the town.”

A statue remembering the roots of the Ghan in Alice Springs

The irony is that it’s partly down to Grimsby why I’m here – to visit Neil, a good friend from years back who I used to work with in the town’s Pizza Hut restaurant.

Backpack back on, adventures continue

I grabbed my backpack, bid farewell to the Ghan for now, and set off with Dan and Laura into the town centre and to their hostel, Toddys, which will be my home for a few hours until Neil finishes work later in the afternoon. The last time we saw each other, I was 18, driving a gold Fiat Panda, had my university days ahead of me and had no idea how or what I would do to get into my journalism career. And when we said goodbye back then, how could anyone predict our next handshake would be on the other side of the world, and quite literally in the middle of nowhere. We’ve got almost 13 years-worth of catching up ahead. This week should be fun!

*This journey was made as a guest of Great Southern Rail, www.greatsouthernrail.com.au

Has this made you want to read about my time on the trans-Siberian railway? Try A Trans-Siberian Adventure, Still on Track and The Wheels Come Off