A Train to the Tropics

Back on The Ghan through the red -and green- desert (Image © Great Southern Rail)

I’ll let you into a little secret – the so called Red Centre of Australia isn’t actually that red.

The sand, soil and rocks are red, for sure, but the days of the deep red desert stretching to the horizon have gone, at least for now.

Its all because of the weather Australia has had over recent years, and in particular, the higher rainfall in the Northern Territory. As a result, its actually surprisingly green, with trees, shrubs and grasses thriving on the damper conditions. Its still incredibly dry, but then these desert plants know how to make the most of what little water they do get.

The Ghan making its way through the Red Centre (Image © Great Southern Rail)

It means the view from The Ghan is predominantly a mesmerising conveyor belt of different plant life, but the journey north from Alice Springs promised to bring changes aside from those you could see outside of the window.

It was an evening departure from the Alice, but I made sure I was in the town centre to see the huge train arrive into the town after its 24 hour journey from Adelaide in the south. It was mainly to get a photograph from the front of the train – its actually so long, its impossible to get to the front when it stops at a station before I knew it was scheduled to arrive at around 1.45pm, but having arrived on the same train last week slightly earlier, I knew it would be worth getting to the station earlier than its due time.

The Ghan pulling into Alice Springs a few hours before I board

I rode along the Stuart Highway and waited at the level crossing, and just five minutes later, there was a tell-tale sound of a horn in the distance. Suddenly, photographers descended on the crossing from cars that were parked around the area, and then down the tracks there was a dazzling bright light as the train curved around beside the highway.

The powerful Ghan loco passes by

It seemed to take an eternity as one by one, the carriages trundled past, making the earth rumble underneath my feet. In the windows, excited passengers, all having their own adventures, waved as they arrived in this desert town. There was another blast of the horn, and the Ghan came to a halt.

I spent the afternoon buying provisions for the journey, the usual stuff to go in my backpacker fridge – a coolbag – like bread, biscuits and a fine selection of nuts and dried fruit reduced from $8 a pot to just 50 cents! My friend Laura was impressed. “What a bargain,” she smiled, looking forward to a night of chomping away on pawpaw, chocolate covered liquorice and cheap chocolate balls. A strange mixture, but it was cheap all the same.

A wave from a passenger

There was a very familiar feel about getting back onboard the Ghan. In a way, the excitement had been lost a little. When we left Adelaide, we were heading off into the unknown – what would the train be like? What will the people be like? What will the red centre look like?

Dan, Laura and I, pillows at the ready, for The Ghan at Alice Springs

We now knew all the answers to these, but we were instead looking forward to the relaxing comfort of the train. Bang on 6pm, the scheduled departure time, we began slowly inching forward before quickly gathering speed, and before we knew it we were pacing out of Alice and back into the outback.

Dan and Laura’s ‘cheap seats’ carriage – actually pretty swish!

I spent most of my time with Dan and Laura, who were again in the ‘cheap seats’ as they called them a few carriages back from me. Of course, cheap seats was an in-joke – infact, with almost full recline, a shower, more legroom than you would ever need and a nice peaceful cabin, it was about the same conditions as first class on a plane.

With most of the journey in darkness, we spent the evening playing cards and laughing and joking about our escapades over the past week.

Overnight train journey – always means the cards come out!

The route we were taking on the Ghan is actually relatively new – the railway from Alice Springs to Darwin was only opened in 2004, and in the darkness outside we were passing the famous rounded granite boulders known as the Devils Marbles, and passing through gold rush towns like Tennants Creek.

Getting nearer to Darwin (Image © Great Southern Rail)

Everyone onboard the train was awoken early in the morning by a brilliant story of Tennants Creek, dating back to the days when there were more than 600 men in the town, and just 40 women. According to the story, there was a lot of fighting for the affections of the few females around, and in the meantime, the men would mine, go to the pub and generally not look after themselves. That’s when one had a brilliant idea to attract more girls to the town, and advertised a free holiday in the outback for any women wanting to visit. Apparently, a young woman took him up on the offer, and arrived in Tennants Creek to find hundreds of men clean shaven, immaculately dressed and on their best behaviour to impress the new pretty thing in town.

The idea caught on, and in the end, busloads of women were signed up to visit the town on a freebie stay in the outback. The only problem was the wives of the few men who did initially set up homes as couples in the town grew increasingly frustrated with the new competition, and pulled the plug on the scheme. It was a great story to wake up to, and I’m sure it put a smile on many travellers’ faces.

Early morning arrival into Katherine

One of the reasons the story was played was to wake everyone up onboard, as we were about to pull into Katherine, a town some 300km south of Darwin. The Ghan stops in Katherine for about three hours, during which time we were encouraged to get off and have a look around the town. It was $15 for the shuttle to the town centre, so we bought a ticket and got driven to the town. Apart from shops, there wasn’t much else to see, apart from a visitor centre which showed how devastating the frequent floods can be in the area.

Enforced stop-off at the Katherine River

It’s a chance for people on the train to take up the rail company’s tours – splashing out on anything from helicopter tours of Katherine Gorge to a few holes on the local golf course. They come at a price, but there was no shortage of takers. Dan and I laughed a lot about how we’d have rather had a sleep-in on the train, being rocked away by the sway of the carriages.

“Its like being on the East Coast mainline back home, being kicked off at Grantham and told to have a tour of the place whether you like it or not,” I joked.

Katherine River – when it floods, it covers the bridge…

We walked to the Katherine River, which runs far below the bridge we were walking across. Then we saw some metre markings on another bridge a short distance away, showing how high the river flows at times of flood. A frightening prospect.

Road Train. Long. Fun fact – it can take 2km to overtake one at 80km/hr!

We sat and had a picnic breakfast, sheltering under a tree and watching the dozens of long road trains making their way up and down the Stuart Highway, from one end of the country to the other.

We walked back to the pick up point, only to have to wait for the third return trip due to the number of people trying to get back to the train on the small minibus that was being used. Back at the terminal though, the two powerful locomotives were being inched back towards the main train, ready for the final section of its mammoth journey north.

Watching it turn greener again outside

By now, it was noticeably warmer. The joining sections between the carriages, which are the only parts of the train where you can feel the outside temperature, had changed from the slight fresh chill in the south, to a warm and warm and humid place to stand and take photos. Outside, the red desert and shrubs were turning into lush greenery, jungles and palm trees dominating the landscape as we passed through Adelaide River and the Litchfield National Park, arriving into Darwin just before nightfall.

Darwin comes into view on the horizon

It had been a brilliant journey in comfortable surroundings and with some very friendly staff, who clearly love their jobs. This train, while being a vital link between the coasts and the centre of this massive country, is far more than just a way of getting around. People I spoke to had been saving for years for a chance to ride the tracks in one of the gold or platinum classes, complete with all the lavish luxury and gourmet food. But those of us in the standard Red class were also made to feel special, with the train having an overall feeling of an interesting tour, rather than the straightforward, faceless point-to-point transport we’re normally accustomed to.

Backpack and the backpacker’s fridge – a coolbag – reunited by the Ghan

Yes, I could have caught a plane and flown the distance in about five hours, but it wouldn’t have been the adventure it seemed to be onboard the Ghan. It was 2,979 kilometres of meeting new people, having a laugh, enjoying a coffee, relaxing in a lounge and watching a fantastic landscape glide by your window. I left the train with the feeling that I had actually ‘seen’ Australia, a feeling you definitely don’t get when you walk off a plane.

Welcome to Darwin, the end of the line!

As we waited for a taxi, we noticed how hot it was. We’d definitely arrived in the tropics, with high humidity and that ‘holiday smell’ of somewhere far away that spends its time baking in the sun. It was strange to think how different the weather could be, just from one train ride.

The taxi took a while, so I rang the HSBC bank back home to find out why my card wasn’t working anymore, having tried to use it online in Alice Springs. It turns out my details had been stolen by fraudsters and so they’d had to stop my card, leaving me without any way of getting money out.

Except, I’d also found a way of stopping myself getting money out. I looked in my wallet for my card, as a result of the fraud problem, and couldn’t find it. Cleverly, I’d left it in Alice Springs, down the side of my mate Neil’s sofa. Thankfully, Dan and Laura were on hand to pay for my hostel until I sorted something out. Another little problem to find a solution to – the joys of travelling…and of misplacing bank cards!

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

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