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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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