Red Sleeper to the red centre

Sean Mooney and his children enjoy a 'cubby house' on rails.

When it comes to beating boredom on long family trips, you can usually count on animals. The tally from our creature-spotting session through the train window is 62 cows, 43 sheep, 17 birds of prey, 12 kangaroos and one goat. The last fellow looks a bit lonely, but he doesn't hang around as 700 metres of the Ghan hurtles past. Perhaps he had heard what occurred after the old Afghan Express was stranded in the 1930s: when the food ran out, the engine driver began shooting feral goats to feed his passengers.

Baluchi, Pashtun, Punjabi and Sindhi cameleers once transported goods along a track connecting the South Australian coast with the towns of Marree, Oodnadatta and Alice Springs. What began as an overland camel-train route has became one of the world's great rail journeys.

Up to 1500 tonnes of modern rolling stock take travellers from the shores of the Southern Ocean through deserts, past lakes and over rivers to the edge of the Timor Sea. Passengers have comforts unimaginable to those Afghani pioneers: soft beds, en suites, well-stocked bars and restaurant-quality dining. The toughest challenge the modern traveller faces is choosing from the menu.

We're travelling about 3000 kilometres from Adelaide to Darwin, a trip that will take more than 50 hours (two nights, three days), including whistle-stops at Alice Springs and Katherine. The allure of transcontinental train travel attracts about 60,000 people to the Ghan each year, from backpackers to seniors to those of us raised on Paul Theroux-style stories of chance encounters with eccentric fellow travellers riding the railways of the world.

But where are the families? Surely crossing the country without the tedium of day-long drives and dodgy motels at night should be great fun. After our first night on the Ghan, I'm convinced it is - and the children, aged seven and nine, love it. Their compact cabin becomes a cubby house with hide-away sink, chairs that convert to bunk beds and a big window that they call the TV. Then there's a relaxed lounge car to explore, fellow passengers who are up for a chat and toilets that flush with a satisfying roar.

We pull out of Adelaide just after noon and spend the remaining daylight hours watching settlements flash by, framed by hills that seem to rise like loaves of bread from chocolate-brown soil. A day later we're crossing the sandy bed of the Finke River, which runs through a landscape of dry earth and tough shrubs. We pass sheds that run so red with rust they seem to bleed into the ground. We're already deep in the heart of the continent, in the Northern Territory, with Alice Springs just a few hours down the track.

My wife and I nurse cuppas in the lounge car and, as the kids count critters nearby, it occurs to me we might have stumbled on the secret of a successful family train trip by travelling in the Red Sleeper, the cheapest cabin category. Here's my theory: It seems that about 60 per cent of Ghan passengers opt for Gold or Platinum services with en suites, upscale dining cars and roving entertainers. Most of the remaining passengers are backpackers with rail passes, sitting in Red Service day/night seats.

However, almost all the children who travel on the Ghan can be found in the Red Sleeper, where cabins are small but comfortable, the (surprisingly spacious) showers and toilets are shared with other passengers, and the ticket price doesn't include meals. All of which contributes to a more economical and laid-back experience. In short, a perfect choice for families.


We enjoy the relaxed vibe of the recently renovated Red Gum Lounge, the public carriage for Red Sleeper passengers and for those in the day/night seats who pay a bit extra for entry. With chairs, lounges, tables and power points, this is where we spend most of our time. We eat when and where we like. The train's Matilda Cafe has a simple selection of salads, wraps and hot meals. The fruit, nuts and snacks we have brought with us turn out to be a great idea - it's hungry work watching the world go by.

Lunch on day two is at Alice Springs, and the third and final day features a stop in Katherine after breakfast. There are short tours at both stops; we choose the camel trek in Alice Springs, on well-trained beasts led by a local camel man, Marcus Williams. In Katherine, we join a cruise through Nitmiluk Gorge, short enough to keep youngsters interested but long enough to take in freshwater crocodiles and indigenous rock art.

The remainder of our final day takes us into the tropics, past rows of mango trees, over fast-running rivers and through a lush landscape that's a world away from our starting point.

Our arrival in Darwin at dusk has us imagining that we're riding the sunset express into the great red ball of fire sinking below the horizon. It's an appropriately dramatic way to complete the crossing of a continent.

Sean Mooney travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail.


Getting there

The Ghan leaves Adelaide on Sunday at 12.20pm and arrives in Darwin on Tuesday at 5.30pm. It departs Darwin on Wednesday at 10am and arrives in Adelaide on Friday at 12.30pm.

A Red Service Sleeper cabin accommodates two passengers and costs $1469 an adult and $902 a child, one way. However, children can travel free (one per adult passenger) before January 31 if the booking is made before September 30. Phone 13 21 47; see

While there

The Pyndan Camel Tracks ride in Alice Springs costs $50 adults, $30 children. See The whistle-stop Nitmiluk Gorge tour in Katherine costs $96 adults, $76 children. See