The Ghan: As good as gold

Robert Upe joins the Ghan's 10th anniversary journey from Adelaide to Darwin.

The European tourist at Adelaide's Parklands Train Terminal has finished his cold drink in Choo-Choo's Cafe but there is little relief for him from the potentially rail-buckling 42-degree heatwave.

So he wanders on to Platform 1 to look for his airconditioned carriage on the Ghan, scheduled to leave soon on its regular three-day run to Darwin. He walks back and forth eyeing the train and heaving a bag, and becomes flustered at being unable to find his place on this 2979-kilometre transcontinental rail journey.

As passengers take photos of the famous red locomotives with the camel logo and beetroot-faced porters help others find their private cabins - with carpets, soft-cushioned couches, fold-out beds and en suites - the European asks a rail worker for directions.

He is directed to Platform 2, out of sight via an underground walkway, on the other side of the train. "But how can that be? The Ghan is right here on Platform 1," he protests.

You wouldn't be anywhere else as its mighty NR class diesel-electric locomotives start up.

The answer is that the train is split into two. It is almost one kilometre long, with two locomotives and 34 carriages that won't fit along a single platform.

Depending on demand, even more carriages can be added to stretch it to 1.2 kilometres, putting it among the longest passenger trains in the world.

It will be coupled together only when it is ready to nose out of the station on a track that will take it past Port Augusta, the Flinders Ranges, Woomera, Alice Springs, Katherine and finally Darwin.

Stops are scheduled at Alice Springs, where some passengers go camel riding, perhaps spurred by the release of Robyn Davidson's movie, Tracks, and at Katherine Gorge where they cruise through ancient sandstone country.

Paul Theroux, in his book, The Great Railway Bazaar, writes: "I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it."

And so it is with the Ghan. You wouldn't be anywhere else as its mighty NR class diesel-electric locomotives start up and the two sections of train shunt together with a jolt, ready to speed across the continent through wheatbelt and red-sand desert as the upper-class passengers eat barramundi and spanner crab.

Former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer is a rail enthusiast and in his 2011 book, Trains Unlimited in the 21st Century, he selects 10 long-distance trains he regards as stellar.

"The Ghan is among those," he says. "You can sit back and not have a worry in the world. You can have a gin and tonic and a decent conversation."

Fischer first travelled on the Ghan in 1966 with two mates and his Holden strapped down on a cargo wagon.

"I recommend it as a rite of passage for every Australian," he says.

But the typical Ghan passenger appears older than someone just out of their teens, as Fischer was when he embarked on his northern adventure with his mates.

The Ghan's tickets are inclusive of food and drink served in the exquisite federation-inspired lounge and dining cars for the Platinum and Gold classes.

These passengers also have private cabins with en suites and windows with venetian blinds, through which they can view the changing landscape.

I occasionally see a kangaroo eyeing us curiously as we speed along (the average speed is 85km/h, but the train gets up to 115km/h) and even more curious train spotters armed with cameras and notebooks at level crossings.

The advantage of Platinum class is that the cabin is larger, there is a personal concierge and passengers enjoy chauffeured transfers.

The bed is cosy in my Gold cabin, but in the night the train's creaks and groans are accentuated until its mesmerising "rat-a-tat-tat" rhythm sends you to sleep.

A world away, at the back of the train, are the people in Red class, who sit up for the entire journey in aircraft-style seats. They have shared bathrooms and toilets and a cafeteria, with a small diner, selling food and drink.

At the other extreme is the Chairman's Carriage, which has space for eight, a private dining room and a large lounge with video equipment.

The Ghan's inaugural journey from Adelaide to Alice Springs was in 1929, but this trip is to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the route extending all the way to Darwin, on February 1, 2004.

James Reyne, former frontman for rock band Australian Crawl, is on board for the anniversary run, which includes a one-off desert concert for passengers and locals from Pimba, an isolated settlement of 50 beside the railway track.

Fischer is here too, as well as two of the Ghan's drivers, Graham Sharp, who has been with the railways for 57 years, and Graham Dadleh, who is a descendant of the pioneering Afghan cameleers, after whom the train is named.

Both were drivers on the inaugural Ghan journey to Darwin 10 years ago.

The drivers don't take the train from start to finish, but they work in relay teams and only on the sections of track for which they are qualified.

On a train such as the Ghan, which can take 1.5 kilometres to stop, they need to know intricacies such as the gradient, curves and speeds.

Sharp says one of the toughest things about the job is staying alert. To help drivers do this, there is a "vigilance" button in the driver's cabin that needs to be pushed every 90 seconds. If the button is not pressed, a bell rings in the locomotive cabin and gets progressively louder. If there is still no reaction, the train undergoes an emergency stop.

Except for the ever-vigilant drivers, the journey on the Ghan is punctuated by drinks (gin and tonic, as Fischer suggests) and meals.

The drinks are served in the comfortable and spacious lounge cars, where passengers mingle, play board games or read.

The meals are served by waiters in the Queen Adelaide dining car, where diners are seated at tables of four with white tablecloths.

Nullarbor Plains kangaroo loin mignon, saltbush lasagne, beef cheek with shitake mushrooms and medium-rare lamb cutlets are among the three-course lunch and dinner mains, while breakfasts and brunch are equally exciting, with wild-peach parfait, eggs florentine, crispy-skinned salmon and Barossa Valley chorizo.

The train's senior chef de partie, Joseph Cobiac, says the Ghan serves 1.3 million dishes a year from the narrow kitchens that have limited storage and fridge space, and only two ovens.

"Obviously, we can't have big pots of sauces simmering away for eight hours, so the sauces are pre-made to our recipes. In that sense, this becomes like a satellite kitchen," he says. "But everything else is done fresh, including the herbs and spices."

The most popular choices are lemon meringue and barramundi.

Cobiac says in future he wants to create menus with more emphasis on regional produce, including crocodile sausage as the train reaches the Top End.

After dinner one evening, I go for a long walk to the Red class at the back of the train.

There, the European gives me a wave. He is reclined in his aircraft-type seat and is happy to have found his place on Australia's most iconic train trip.

The writer travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Adelaide-Darwin one way: Platinum $3489; Gold twin $2349; Gold single $2099; Red $889. A 25 per cent discount applies if booked six months ahead. Except in Red, the fare includes meals and drinks.

Jetstar flies daily between Darwin and Adelaide. Low-season fares between October and June start at $189 and high-season between June and October at $219.

EXCURSIONS THERE

Stops of up to four hours are scheduled at Alice Springs and Katherine. The Alice Springs stop includes either a visit to the town's desert park or attractions such as the Royal Flying Doctor base. Camel rides are an optional upgrade for $40 or a helicopter flight for $145. At Katherine, a gorge cruise is included, or a cultural experience that includes Dreamtime storytelling and throwing a spear with a woomera. A gorge helicopter flight is an optional extra at $182.

MORE INFORMATION

greatsouthernrail.com.au.

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