Paul Miles catches the great Ghan railway across Australia's Aboriginal heartland
In an Aboriginal story of the sunrise, the daughter of the creator greets the morning by covering herself in red ochre dust and taking up her flaming torch. As my train cut through Australia’s Red Centre, I watched the creator’s daughter settle down for the night on one side of the carriage, while on the other the moon man shot sparks from his fire-stick as he began his journey across the dimming sky.
I was on the first southbound journey of the world’s only trans-continental north-south railway, chugging from Darwin in the wet tropics to Alice Springs in the dry centre, and on to Adelaide and the sea. At nearly 3,000km it’s the longest north-south railway journey in the world. And it’s been a long time coming – 100 years ago, politicians promised that the railway line running from Adelaide to Alice Springs would be continued up to Darwin. Last year, at a cost of AUS$1.3 billion, it was finally completed.
The inaugural northbound journey of the Ghan – named after the Afghan cameleers who helped open up the Outback – was a splendiferous affair of pomp and ceremony. Towards Darwin, in the true larrikin style expected of Territorians, a group of 60 people bared their bottoms to the train in a merry mass mooning. Welcome to the Top End.
There were fewer backsides on display as we pulled out of Darwin, trundling along in a train measuring more than a kilometre (future journeys will have trains half as long). We set off at 10.15am on Wednesday and arrived in Adelaide at 10.15am on Friday; the mathematically-minded may have worked out that this is no bullet train. The Ghan ambles along at some 100km/h and stops en route at Katherine and Alice Springs for a spot of sightseeing.
Although it’s been billed as the ‘new’ Ghan, it’s the track from Alice to Darwin that is new, not the rolling stock. The carriages were built in the 1960s and are silvery tubes of Retro chic; some say dated. First class – or ‘Gold Kangaroo’ – has one- and two-person sleeper compartments; the two-berth rooms have nifty en-suite showers with a space-saving foldaway toilet and handbasin. In second class – ‘Red Kangaroo’ – you can choose sleeper compartments or ‘daynighter seats’.
The daynighter carriages have 62 seats, and just two showers and two toilets; it’s certainly not a luxurious way to travel. However, with a new bargain backpacker fare of AUS$450 for six months’ unlimited travel on Great Southern Railway trains, taking in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Alice Springs and now Darwin, it is an economical one. By comparison, a one-way journey in Gold Kangaroo is a pricy AUS$1,740, but this includes three excellent meals a day, attentive service and lounge and dining cars where you can socialise over a glass of sparkling shiraz. It’s all very relaxing and pleasurable.
Whichever class you take, though, it is a good way to meet fellow travellers of all ages and nationalities. Currently, most of the bookings are being made by Australians, many of whom never thought they would see the track completed in their lifetimes.
Out of tropical Darwin, the scenery was green and lush, peppered with fields of two-metre-high cathedral termite mounds. After lunch, we stopped in Katherine for a boat tour of the famous Gorge – actually a series of 13 gorges and now renamed Nitmiluk National Park (‘the place of the cicadas’ in the local Jawoyn language). The boat sped up the rapids while Werner, our Teutonic guide, filled us in on the area
“We have one metre of rainfall in the wet season,” he explained. “The waves can be two metres high.” It was quite something to see all this water flanked by such arid-looking cliffs.
Back at the new Katherine train station, an item on the calendar of events caught my eye.
“Excuse me, but what exactly is the ‘Lazy Lizard Pig and Pussy Hunt’?” I asked. It turns out that it’s a hunt for feral pigs and cats organised by the eccentric owner of a local campsite. “There are prizes for the ugliest and the most beautiful cat,” was the reply. “Dead, of course.”
The Red Centre can seem devoid of any kind of animal life, but of course it’s not – there are all sorts of nocturnal goings-on. Nor is the Red Centre particularly red when viewed from the train. Due to several years of good rain, there’s more vegetation than most may imagine. Spinifex, mulga, eucalypts and desert oak all eke an existence from the ochre sand and rock. But there’s barely a sign of humanity and the landscape hardly changes for hour upon hour.
After our first night on the smooth-running train, we awoke to a seared landscape of apricot sand embroidered with grey-green vegetation.
Towards Alice Springs, escarpments rose up to greet us and we squeezed through a gap in the rust-coloured rocks. During the four-hour stop in Alice, I joined an excursion to the new Desert Park. Spread under the looming slopes of the MacDonnell range, the park displays the whole gamut of desert flora and fauna. A nature walk takes visitors past the tenacious plants that survive in this arid zone and enclosures hold various bizarre desert animals. In the dimly lit space of the Nocturnal House lurk creatures I’d never heard of, including the quoll and the phascogyle, notorious for its 14-hour bouts of energetic sexual activity.
The park also has outdoor shade areas where employees hold small, informal classes about subjects such as Aboriginal language and edible insects. Hugh, a young and enthusiastic Aborigine, showed us honey ants, cicadas and witchetty grubs, and explained how they were caught and eaten.
“My mum used to give me witchetty grub heads to chew on when I was a baby,” he said as he held the unappetising larvae.
Out of Alice Springs we crossed the Finke River – the oldest river in the world, but one that hardly ever runs. A sandy ribbon through the desert, to Aborigines it is a sacred place of many stories. They still meet along its length to draw water from beneath its dry bed.
As we neared Adelaide, the landscape changed from desert scrub to fields, telegraph poles, roads and houses. The Flinders Mountains were silhouetted against the morning sun as the daughter of the creator rose once more. The gourmet food, wineries and wild coastline of South Australia beckoned. From the tropical greenery of the Top End through the huge expanses of the Red Centre, I’d watched a continent slip gradually past my carriage windows. It had been a slowly unfolding drama, but then it had taken a century to create the route from conception to completion – two days didn’t seem too long to spend watching this performance.