The iconic outback train trip

Australia's red centre may be vast and empty, but Lucy Rickard finds she can't take her eyes off it.

It's the experience of a lifetime for many, riding the Ghan all the way from the balmy top end to the cooler South Australian capital, taking in the breathtaking scenery as it changes from the distinct red dirt to the green hills of Adelaide.

It's an iconic Australian journey - and it's about to begin. Little do I know that aside from seeing crocodiles in the wild, riding camels and taking part in a special Anzac Day celebration in the Northern Territory, I'm about to eat and drink my way from one end of this great country to another, taking in as much of the distinctive Territory sights as I can along the way.

The highlights for the nearly 3000-kilometre journey – aside from the culinary delights served on what seemed to be almost hourly intervals – come in thick and fast.

Our first night on board the Ghan is set to be a memorable one. After a delectable dinner in the Queen Adelaide restaurant onboard, we disembark for welcome drinks complete with a bonfire, a spirited performance by a group of local Aboriginal dancers and the first of several acoustic concerts from iconic singer-songwriter John Schumann.

It is following this that I realise my first night's sleep on board the train was upon me, and I have my first decent poke around my 'Gold Class' cabin.

A fold-down bottom bunk, prepared for me in advance by the staff, is surprisingly spacious and comfortable, and in hindsight I'm thankful for my first night spent on a stationary train, without the expected bumps and rattling to keep me awake.

The bathroom is unfortunately not yet refurbished like much of the train, and with a stainless steel fold-down toilet and basin, it left a lot to be desired. I am reassured that the refurbishments are on the way to the remainder of the carriages, and I managed a quick peek at a refurbished bathroom, immediately sparking my envy.

Nitmiluk National Park

With some gloomy weather hitting us in the afternoon, the spectacular Katherine Gorges that I had seen online before my trip wouldn't be lit up with sunshine as I had hoped, but I did get to cross one of my Northern Territory must-sees off my list.

Crocodiles.

They might make the front page of the NT News on an all-too regular basis, but as a Perth girl, I just wanted to see one in the flesh, so to speak.

It's only a few minutes into our cruise that we see our first freshwater croc. Luckily it's from a nice, safe distance, but it certainly got our boat a bit more excited, if not on edge, in the overcast conditions that back home we would refer to as 'sharky weather'.

With the formalities – and of course more food in the form of scones and jam for afternoon tea – out of the way, we're free to enjoy the tranquillity of the gorge, with the soaring rock walls and lush greenery. And just one more sneaky croc lurking in the shallows.

Katherine to Alice Springs

The second evening is spent entirely on board the train – a night of constant movement an experience in itself, especially after a few too many glasses of sparkling shiraz with my dinner – but as I wake to a faultless sunrise somewhere north of Alice Springs, the self-induced lowlights of the night are immediately forgotten.

We managed to cover nearly 1200 kilometres overnight, with our drivers working round the clock to get us into the dusty red town just after breakfast.

But the drivers aren't the only ones working while we ponder the wine list at all hours of the day – the staff and cooks seem to be awake at all hours.

Their willingness to help us throughout the journey did not go unnoticed, especially our two cooks, Russell and James, who even let me sneak into the super-tight galley kitchen for a chat and photo.

So, with the constant movement, tiny work space, huge meal sittings and days on end spent on board a train away from family and loved ones, why would you want to work on board The Ghan?

"That's easy," they say unanimously. The diversity.

"Look out your window, it changes every day," says cook Russell Seymour.

"You might see a camel, a kangaroo, an emu or dingoes on the Nullarbor.

"How often do you get to see that at work?"

The man makes a good point.

And what about the menu – what are the most popular dishes?

In my opinion, it was the beef fillet hands-down, but what would I know? According to Russell, the locally-sourced and iconic Australian barramundi is the biggest seller.

The inspiration of the train – camels

With the train named in honour of the Afghan camel drivers who arrived in Australian in the late 19th century, it is only fitting that I ride my own camel through the Alice Springs outback.

It turned out to be my personal highlight, and that of several fellow travellers. It's surprisingly relaxing on my camel, 'Greyhound' despite an unexpectedly abrupt stand-up from my new friend within seconds of mounting.

My cameleer Marcus Williams waited until I was stranded high in the air on the large beast before telling me that Greyhound isn't too fond of humans, after a rough couple of years on the racing circuit.

Thankfully we're all chained together for this walk through the outback, so if Greyhound decides to go for a bit of a run, we're all in it together.

On a lovely crisp autumn morning in Alice Springs, I learn a little more about the cameleer who started his business with less than a dollar – and he's now running a massive tourist trade on the outskirts of the growing town.

Of course, there's no easy way to describe how one becomes a cameleer – and Marcus Williams doesn't really attempt to answer this question, only to say that he "sort of fell into it".

He used to run a camel riding business in the north-west WA town of Broome before moving to the Alice about 13 years ago, and things have changed a lot not only for the humble businessman but for the camel business itself.

He has watched the region change from dry, barren land to greener, grassier grounds, and with a solid business relying solely on the tourist dollar, he's a strong advocate for getting more Australians to holiday in their own backyard.

And after the unexpectedly calming trot on Greyhound in the warm autumn sun, I couldn't agree more.

The original Ghan journey

Every year, Great Southern Rail operates a special four-day journey from Darwin to Adelaide, commemorating the role of the Australian Armed Forces during World War II.

The Ghan played an integral role in the war, transporting not only those serving in the war, but ferrying supplies between the southern and northern ends of the country, however it wasn't until recently that the train ran the full distance.

Despite being older than its east-west running cousin the Indian Pacific, until 2004, the Ghan only ran from Adelaide to Alice Springs.

There's a range of whistle stop tours that you can choose while the Ghan stops in Alice Springs – aside from the camel rides, there are tours of the town centre, shuttles between the main attractions and trips to the Desert Park - as well as the Pichi Richi in Port Augusta, a locomotive ride along the original Ghan journey to Quorn.

After three nights on board the Ghan and four jam-packed days, you would think the last thing that the passengers and staff would want to do is get on another train - but you'd be wrong.

The Pichi Richi, a special side-trip for those on board the commemorative Anzac journey, is a two-hour trip from Port Augusta to Quorn, travelling along the most scenic part of the Ghan's original route.

The huge role of the Ghan along this route to Quorn, a small town about 40 kilometres northeast of Port Augusta, is highlighted along the way, with word from the current train conductor that the ladies at the Country Women's Association served a million meals from their outpost near the station during the war.

A whole lot of nothing – but don't bother bringing a book

Probably the biggest misconception of mine about this trip was all the free time I would have to read some books, process photos – and probably get a head start on this story – but I just couldn't take my eyes off that scenery.

The seemingly endless red dirt and cloudless blue skies were mesmerising – I felt guilty looking away! The train driver slows down for landmarks along the way too, so no matter where on board I was enjoying the view, I could race back to my room to get the camera.

Be it crossing the South Australia-Northern Territory border, the Iron Man, crossing the Finke River or just some kangaroos grazing in the outback – it never seems quite worth taking a nap or getting that crime novel out, just in case you miss something you might never see again.

This reporter travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail.

The Ghan runs from Darwin to Alice Springs to Adelaide, and vice-versa, over three days. It runs twice a week in each direction from June to August, and once a week for the remainder of the year. There are a range of travel options for passengers.  Gold service tickets are $2110pp.  Red service sleeper cabins are $1465pp, and red service day-nighter seats are $774pp. For more information visit www.greatsouthernrail.com.au.

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