Through time, across a nation

Louise Southerden gains a new sense of space and time on the Ghan's 80th anniversary.

Stephen Hawking once said the absence of tourists from the future suggests that time travel is probably impossible. But he might have been persuaded otherwise if he'd travelled across Australia on the Ghan, which regularly transports its passengers back to another time.

Once, it even transported them forward in time. Stepping aboard in Darwin for our 2979-kilometre transcontinental journey, I wonder how the 120 passengers on the first Ghan felt as it drew away from the platform at Adelaide railway station on Sunday, August 4, 1929, amid crowds of handkerchief-waving spectators and clouds of steam.

They weren't just about to travel more than 1500 kilometres to Alice Springs. They were temporarily taking leave of their own time when the world was between wars, King George V was King of England, the Wall Street Crash that heralded the Great Depression was mere months away and Don Bradman had just made his Test debut and heading for a brighter, faster future.

Until then, cattle stations, mining operations and settlements dotting the remote interior had had to rely on camels imported from India to bring them everything they needed, from produce to pianos. At the helm of these ships of the desert were migrant cameleers from Afghanistan, India and Persia. They became known as "Afghans" then, inevitably, "Ghans" and subsequently gave the train its distinctive name.

The Ghan turns 80 next month and it still offers time travel back to a more genteel era but with all the comforts that 21st-century travellers have come to expect particularly in Platinum, the train's first-class experience launched in September last year.

At first, the scenery plays second fiddle to the luxury we find inside our cabin. Fully carpeted, it has a velvet two-seater couch that our cabin attendants convert into a double bed while we're at dinner each night; a marble vanity and shower in the ensuite; and, of course, windows as big as plasma television screens that allow us to look out both sides of the carriage.

As we're unpacking, perusing the pillow menu and snacking on fresh bread rolls with olive oil and dukka, our cabin attendant, Renae, appears with a bottle and glasses. So we sip champagne while she explains the procedure for dining (two meal sittings, one after the other, in the beautiful art deco Queen Adelaide restaurant) and the Whistle Stop Tour options.

It doesn't take long for the landscape to speak up for itself, however. Friends who have been on the Ghan had advised me to take a good book, or two, for the two-day trip. "It's not like Switzerland or the Trans-Siberian," others had said, hinting that the outback scenery could be monotonous. I pack a book and quietly look forward to the desert spaces that will remind me how big central Australia is and how different it is to the coastal cities most of us call home.

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We get under way at 10am, right on schedule, while listening to the on-board commentary narrated by the late Charles "Bud" Tingwell. Darwin is soon gone, replaced by savannah and mangroves, then natural fields of golden spear grass. Far from being dull, the view from our cabin is soothing, allowing us to slow down, settle in and be here. We see half a dozen brolgas standing in a clearing; at level crossings, road travellers get out of their cars to wave at us.

Before the trip I'd worried we'd be spending too much time in the two main stops, Katherine and Alice Springs, and not long enough actually moving. When travelling from Darwin, for instance, it takes less than four hours to reach Katherine, where we have a five-hour stop to stretch our legs and do some sightseeing. We take a helicopter flight over Nitmiluk National Park to see all 13 of Katherine's famous gorges as other passengers go canoeing or take a short cruise.

Back at Katherine station, we wander along the platform to the Ghan's red locomotive, bearing its famous camel logo. When the track between Alice Springs and Darwin was completed in February 2004, the Ghan was Australia's longest passenger train: its two locomotives and 43 carriages stretched more than a kilometre. Our train is not that long but it still takes us five minutes to stroll back to our carriage at the rear of the train, where Renae and another cabin attendant, Michael, welcome us back on board with glasses of iced tea.

When we leave Katherine, at 6.20pm, we have spent more time stationary than we have in motion. But the onward journey makes up for that: we're on board until we arrive in Alice Springs about 9am the next morning. After a three-hour stop in Alice, we're on the train for the rest of that second day and night, before arriving in Adelaide about noon on the third day.

On the first night we get talking to some of our fellow passengers in the lounge bar. Most are Australian (70 per cent of the Ghan's passengers are from Australia) and everyone we meet speaks of their trip as something they've long dreamt about, or saved up for, or been treated to by their family for an anniversary or birthday which gives the informal gathering a sense of occasion.

After a sumptuous dinner in the Queen Adelaide dining car, the Ghan's a la carte restaurant on rails, we return to our cabin to find that the "bed fairies" have transformed it into a boudoir with dimmed lights, two bathrobes fanned out on the double bed, a nightcap and chocolates on the pillows. Before falling into bed, we raise the blinds for some late-night star-gazing.

One of the problems of transcontinental journeys is that you miss the bits you pass in the night. To overcome this, the Ghan stops periodically each night, when everyone but the driver is fast asleep, to increase the hours spent travelling during the day. The operating company, Great Southern Rail, recently added six daylight hours to the trip, in both directions, making the total travelling time just over 46 hours, not including the two sightseeing stops.

Forty-six hours might sound like a long time to spend on a train, even one as delightful as the Ghan, but one of the joys of train travel is having the time to see the country you're travelling through and to experience actually moving through the landscape, which makes a nice change from flying across the continent and arriving, after dinner and a movie, by aeronautical magic.

On day two, at first light, our "wake-up call" is a knock on the door. My partner sits up, leans across the bed to open the door and there's Renae with a tray of coffee and tea. You can also request a continental breakfast in bed could there be a more decadent way to begin a day of train travel?

It takes us a few moments to realise the scenery has changed. While we were dreaming, our mobile hotel room has transported us from the tropical Top End to a drier landscape of stocky mulga trees, saltbush and red earth. The weather has changed, too; after breakfast we put on fleeces before disembarking at Alice Springs.

Instead of riding camels or visiting the Alice Springs Telegraph Station or Alice Springs Desert Park, we opt for an Aboriginal cultural tour. As our guide drives us to the outskirts of town, through Heavitree Gap where the Stuart Highway and the rail line lead south to Adelaide he points out sacred sites past and present, including three ceremonial caves that were inadvertently destroyed by the Ghan's railway workers in the 1920s.

On our way back to the station we pass the oldest date-palm plantation in Australia, which had its origins in the fruit eaten by Afghan cameleers, who tossed the seeds onto the ground as they passed by in the late 1800s.

A couple of hours after leaving Alice Springs there's an unscheduled stop: a passenger needing medical treatment must return to town. It's a two-hour wait for an ambulance but, far from being an inconvenience for the other 248 passengers, it's an opportunity to climb down off the train and walk out into the view.

As soon as my feet touch the ground, I can't resist the urge to run around on the red dirt, luxuriating in the space.

We take photos of the train in the desert landscape, of each other and of the stunted bushes, until someone discovers a patch of yellow paddy melon growing by the tracks and an impromptu game of bush cricket ensues, with a wind-gnarled stick for a bat (though the paddy melon shatter on impact).

Our attendants bring out a crate of wine and glasses and the scene takes on the air of an English garden party, which is only enhanced when we reboard the train and Renae brings us warm scones with jam and cream for afternoon tea. I try to imagine how out of place the first Europeans must have felt here, surrounded by what must have seemed like endless nothingness.

Later, we cross the Finke River while we're playing Scrabble I gaze out the window when it's not my turn. Little more than an inland beach hemmed by river gums the day we see it, it is in fact one of the largest rivers in central Australia. It was named by explorer John McDouall Stuart, who spent nine months travelling overland from Adelaide to Darwin in 1862 the route he took became the telegraph line and, later, the railway we're travelling on.

After dinner on the second night we're in South Australia and the next morning we watch a pink sunrise colouring in the clouds over the Flinders Ranges.

By the time we're tucking into poached eggs or banana bread with maple syrup for breakfast, we're speeding past Port Augusta, then fields and wind farms and, despite having been on the move for two days, it seems too soon when we reach Adelaide.

Travelling by train across the Northern Territory and South Australia is more than just a reminder of how big this country is.

On arrival in Adelaide we're each presented with a commemorative certificate that includes a few lines from Dorothea Mackellar's poem My Country. Her words seem to get to the heart of why a trip on the Ghan and the incredible landscape we time-travel through are so special: they're both truly Australian.

"I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains. I love her far horizons, I love her jewel sea, her beauty and her terror the wide brown land for me."

Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail.

FAST FACTS

The Ghan travels between Darwin and Adelaide via Katherine and Alice Springs twice weekly all year. All-inclusive fares for the two-night trip in either direction are: $363 for a Daynighter seat in Red Service; $1312 a person for a twin-share sleeper cabin in Red Service; $1973 a person for a twin-share or single-sleeper cabin in Gold Service; and $2987 a person, twin share, for a Platinum cabin. Fares from Adelaide or Darwin to Alice Springs start at $182. Various rail passes are also available, such as the Oz Tracks Pass for $690, for 14 city-to-city trips within six months. Platinum service is available only from Darwin to Adelaide or vice versa. See gsr.com.au.

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