On board The Ghan: Travelling Adelaide to Darwin on a luxury train

Silhouetted against infinite blue skies and a dusty, red background, surrounded by old friends such as Bernie the Buffalo, Tin Shaker the Brahmin cow and Cecil the Mule, Tom Curtain climbs atop an old favourite, "Legend the Trick Horse".

From the centre of one of several stockyards   – hung with boards bearing messages such as "You're in cattle country… eat meat, you bastard" – he plays his guitar, banging out a few tracks from his award-winning album Smack Bang.

Earlier, he has held a big, predominantly townie audience, entranced as, before our eyes, he breaks in a wild horse with a mix of cajolery, gentle pushes and prods, rewards and, of course, whispers.

Clearly, Legend is, in the words of celebrity chefs, "one I prepared earlier": he and Tom make a moving double act. Or triple, if his attractive, hard-working cowgirl partner Annabel Mclarty is included.

They, their animals – and, it seems, the noisy jets from the nearby Tindal air base – are all part of the Katherine Outback Experience.

Like the alternative, "dreamtime" river cruise-walk, up the nearby  Nitmiluk Gorge, the outback experience offers a glimpse of the slow-beating heart of Australia from a stopping train. The magnificent. The luxurious. The historic. The Ghan.

Katherine is just the first stop on a memorable, three-night, four-day, 2979-kilometre trip from Darwin to Adelaide, on a 902-metre-long train that, in the course of a year, travels 369,000 kilometres, serves 585,000 meals and – a private interest – 23,000 cans of Coke.

Throughout its trip, the train offers 330 or so guests not just a measure of ingeniously  engineered comfort, good company, cheerful service and fine dining, but a cultural, historical and, in the burning-hot, backblocks of Coober Pedy, an underground experience.

As The Ghan guest brochure notes approvingly, famous travel writer and train enthusiast Paul Theroux, author of The Great Railway Bazaar, once suggested, "our dreams often begin with a consciousness of exotic place names".

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In Australia – described hereabouts by one guide as "the land beyond the horizon" – few place names come more exotic than that of Coober Pedy, a name which comes from the local, Aboriginal term "kupa-piti".

It means, roughly, "boys in a hole": possibly waterhole, or possibly a hole dug by those who have come in their tens of thousands in search of the elusive, starry blue opal upon which the fortunes of the town have wildly waxed and waned.

There is a magic, too, in many of the evocative names of the places through which The Ghan travels. They include, from north to south, Muchaty, Illoquara, Coondambo,  Pimba, Bookaloo, Hesso, Crystal Brook, Rocky River, Dry Creek.

As our guides explain, The Ghan's guest "explorers" of day are the latest in a long history of "modern" transcontinental travellers.

See also: Sleeping with uninterrupted views of Uluru

In the 1830s came the first "cameleers" who were, for the most part, mistakenly thought to be from Afghanistan, and were therefore called Afghans or 'Ghans.

They were followed into the vast inland of Australia by explorers, such as the Scotsman John McDouall Stuart, Charles Sturt, William  Gosse, who gave Uluru its European title "Ayers Rock", and, most famous of all, the ill-fated Burke and Wills.

In the first half of the 20th century, there came other adventurers, such as Charles Mountford, in search of another long-lost explorer Ludwig Leichhardt. No luxury for him. He shared the train with "other passengers, goods, livestock motor cars, and a family of four hens".

It was not until 2001 that The Ghan line was extended by 1420 kilometres to connect Alice Springs to Darwin, the guide explains as we rejoin the train to resume  our trip south.

That night, our first on board, we dine on such local delicacies as scallops, crocodile sausage, smoked duck and grilled barramundi, washed down by a wide choice of top, predominantly Australian wines.

That night, too, we experience the deft way in which cabin seats and side tables, are replaced by drop-down beds.

As all guests are warned in advance – especially in the main, gold class – space on The Ghan is at a premium. Bulky bags should be stowed elsewhere on the train. Most people seem to have heeded the advice, they are tired after a day in the sun and…zzz….

…. good morning! Well, if this is Wednesday, this must be, coming up soon, Alice Springs, where the early morning temperature is a chilly, 1 degree. . "But it will warm up fast," a disembodied voice, quickly adds.

Outside, our driver and guide for a full day's entertainment – which includes walking in the MacDonnell Ranges and visiting the local Desert Park, before returning to town at sunset for an "outback pioneer dinner" – looks vaguely familiar.

Aren't you that man who was on TV last week? Well, yes he is. Really. Andrew Langford is the all-Aussie local who entertained globe-trotting English entertainer Tony Robinson, host of the show Time Walks, on his Alice Springs visit.

"Yes, that's me. I was the bloke who played the didgeridoo." He has cut his own CD (who hasn't, hereabouts?), runs a downtown art gallery, The Sounds of Starlight Theatre and The Didgeridoo Show Outback.

Langford, who grew up in Belrose, on Sydney's northern beaches, settled in the Alice  30 years ago and became enthralled by Aboriginal art and music.

"The Aborigines gave me the name Wadiwarra. I was really pleased. I thought, this means, 'great white tracker'. I was very disappointed when they told me it meant 'tall man'."

Not surprisingly, perhaps, he proves a patient, witty, expert guide on matters historical, geological and meteorological, as well as local bush fires, flora and fauna, as we walk, first in a loop across Cassia Hill, and then through to Simpsons Gap.

See also: Where it's too hot to worry about wearing bathers

Appropriately, he completes the tour with a brief lesson on playing the "didge": how to use the teeth, the smile, the lower abdominals to produce such  a wide range of tones and meters.

Then, all too soon, it's back to Alice Springs Desert Park, for lunch followed by a stroll through extensive grounds full of colourful birds, some caged, some flying free.

It is a far prettier place now than when I last visited it, as a newspaper reporter, in 2005 on the visit of Prince Charles. He snubbed all requests to eat a live witchetty grub, but did agree to be photographed emerging, sheepishly, from a high-tech, long-drop, bush dunny! Moving on…

That night, The Ghan guests dine under the stars and the spreading gum trees at a truly historic location: the old Alice Springs Telegraph Station which, appropriately for passengers on the modern train, was used to relay messages between Darwin and Adelaide

Waiters and waitresses, dressed in checkered black and white shirts, serve guests sitting at dazzling, wedding-white tables, from a menu including poached chicken and saffron shallots, followed by Thousand Guineas tenderloin and the chef's selection of pavlova and chocolate brownies.

The atmosphere is laid-back. Some guests are happy to sit around chatting to new-found friends. Some go, aptly, for a camel ride. Some inspect the old telegraph station and its fascinating museum pieces.

Others dance away the night to the music of a local country singer or, best of all, enjoy the trip through the starry, starry skies by a local astronomer. It is a wonderful, memorable night.

The next day, the last full day out on the rails, is spent exploring the long-anticipated Coober Pedy opal field.

So much has been written about its discovery in 1915 – by Will Hutchison, a 16-year-old kid who was left in charge of a mining camp while the men went off in search of gold and, more pressingly, water – that some feared that it might prove an anti-climax.

Not so. Little could Will and the grown-ups have guessed that they were laying the foundations of deliciously frustrating mining and, a century or so later, one of the world's strangest tourist attractions.

There is just so much to see and do. From the moment we jump off the train (once a deadly brown snake is relocated) at isolated Manguri Siding, to the moment we return for well-earned refreshments (once the site has been checked for brown snakes).

It's a bumpy, dusty, cloudy 42-kilometre ride through a landscape made famous by movies such as Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Until the End of the World.

First come the mullocks: hundreds, thousands, of heaps of waste excavated from the mine shafts, and crawled over by rusting machinery, and hopeful diggers attracted by the $60 mining licence. Then the underground "dugouts", then a town of sorts.

Anyone can have a go, opening a fresh site, digging a dugout or "noodling". That is, revisiting abandoned sites. But "DANGER" and "NO ENTRY" warnings abound.

See also: The secret mountains of Australia's north

"The fields are pitted with abandoned prospecting drill holes up to 30 metres deep. Don't trespass on pegged-out sites. Beware of machinery. Do not go out to the fields at night. Do not walk backwards, especially when taking photographs."

On the way downtown, we visit, in quick succession, the Coober Pedy horse-racing track; the grassless, nine-hole golf course which is "twinned" with the ultra-famous and expensive St Andrew's in Scotland; and, the immaculate, underground Serbian Orthodox Church of Elijah.

Lunch is taken in the Umoona Opal Mine and Museum. It's underground, of course, in an abandoned tunnel, after a lightning tour given by George, whose family came to find its fortune from Greece, one of 45 nationalities represented in a town of… well, how many live here?

Two? Three? Four thousand? "Yeah, something like that," our driver mumbles, cautiously adding, "People come and go, you know… it would be interesting to see how many filled in the recent census."

Despite being, almost literally, in the middle of nowhere, the town centre is busy. There are shops, banks, hotels, pubs, bars, service stations, and caravan parks.

There are police, doctors, sports clubs, council offices, a kangaroo orphanage, and seven television channels.

"Obviously, things aren't like they are in Sydney, or Melbourne. The water's a terrible price. It's difficult to recruit teachers. And, yes, we have our stressful moments, but, by and large, it's really not a bad place to live. Or visit."

All too soon, we run out of time. But a short drive away, there are two more excursion treats, before we head back to The Ghan and enjoy the 882-kilometre home stretch to Adelaide.

The first is a quick look at what is still believed – despite objections from supporters of the Great Wall of China – to be the longest continual construction in the world of The Dog (or Dingo) Fence, designed to keep the nuisances out. Or in, depending which side you're on

The second is a more leisurely stop – celebrated with elegant, white tablecloths, drinks and nibbles – to admire "The Breakaways", a set of light, flattish hills that stretch into infinity, across a vast area once covered in a great inland lake.

They are an enduring memory  of a magical trip.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.northernterritory.com

www.greatsouthernrail.com.au

GETTING THERE

Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia have regular flights to Darwin.

STAYING THERE

Darwin has accommodation to suit every pocket. The writer stayed at the Adina Apartment Hotel, Darwin Waterfront.

TOURING THERE

The Ghan platinum fare from Darwin to Adelaide is $3149   a person and gold $2119 in low season. Check the website for deals and updates.

John Huxley was a guest of Tourism NT and The Ghan.

See also: Meet Roger, the most ripped kangaroo

See also: The world's most bizarre animals and where to see them

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