Travel on one of Australia's great rail journeys
A train trip on one of Australia's great rail journeys: Great Southern Rail.
Camels! They're the last animal a traveller might expect to find in the wild in Australia – you might as well anticipate polar bears, or zebras. And yet there are hundreds of thousands of the hardy animal roaming the Australian outback. They're the descendants of the camels brought to Australia in the 19th century along with their handlers from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
These men were grouped together under the title of 'Afghans', and they and their animal charges helped build the Australian Outback, in harsh climatic extremes in which horses struggled to cope. When motorised transport came to these places in the 20th century, the camels were set free – and thrived.
The memory of those early days is kept alive by The Ghan, the transcontinental train which crosses Australia from Darwin to Adelaide. It's a shortening of an earlier nickname, 'The Afghan Express', which referenced those early cameleers. The train's logo depicts a camel and its handler as a visual link with those times.
It's one of Australia's great rail journeys, taking three days and two nights to cover the 2979km from north to south. Along the way, there's tropical vegetation, stark desert, Mediterranean greenness and a variety of interesting activities and sights.
It's a great journey, and now there's a way to prolong the pleasure: The Ghan Expedition, an extended version of The Ghan which adds an extra day and night to this rail adventure. The result is a four-day, three-night trip from Darwin to Adelaide which is full of discovery.
As on the regular Ghan, The Ghan Expedition features fine food and drink. All meals and beverages are included in the fare, and dishes regularly feature ingredients drawn from the regions through which the train passes.
Before or after meals, guests mingle in the onboard lounge, a relaxed bar where you can chat with people from around the world, and enjoy the passing scenery with a cocktail in hand. At night, guests retire to a comfortable cabin featuring upper and lower sleeping berths, which convert to a three-seater lounge during the day.
It's not all about the onboard attractions, however. Each Ghan Expedition includes a number of Off Train Excursions, at no extra expense. With extended time to explore Alice Springs, and a full day in the opal mining town of Coober Pedy, the Expedition expands the Outback experience.
Among the Off Train Excursions are two memorable cruises of Nitmiluk Gorge, home to the Indigenous Jawoyn people. On one, you cruise the Katherine River between massive sandstone cliffs along the First and Second Gorges, and hear stories about its origins while observing its distinctive plant and animal life.
Alternatively, the gentler Nitmiluk First Gorge Rock Art Cruise focuses on the First Gorge, with a walk to a site where ancient Indigenous rock art can still be seen.
Further south in Alice Springs, there are a number of activities on offer, and The Ghan Expedition allows time to make the most of this unique city and its surrounds. One option is a visit to the Alice Springs Desert Park, a remarkable facility that presents a variety of desert landscapes, and the fauna and flora within them.
There's also an opportunity to explore the city's historic attractions, including The School of the Air which offers remote education; the Royal Flying Doctor Service which provides essential health services to outback Australia; and the National Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame. And for more outback magic, guests can join a walk of Simpsons Gap, an important spiritual site for the Arrernte Aboriginal people.
The newest of these activities is 'The Alice to Off-road' excursion. This mountain bike adventure starts at the historic Old Telegraph Station in Alice Springs, then takes in the dry Todd River bed and the Llentye Trail, through a national park that's home to black-footed rock wallabies and native birds. It's a stunning landscape that's indisputably 'Outback'.
Further south, another highlight of The Ghan Expedition is the opal mining town of Coober Pedy. Tours here take in its curious underground dwellings, including the Serbian Orthodox Church with its rock carvings and stained glass windows; the Umoona Opal Mine and Museum; and an underground home known as a dugout.
Other excursions take guests to the impressive Breakaways Lookout, and offer the chance to don a hard hat and search for opals.
In addition to the regular Off Train Excursions, there are several optional upgrades which involve taking to the skies, from a helicopter flight above Nitmiluk Gorge, to a fixed-wing aircraft flight above majestic Uluru.
Whichever selection of excursions guests choose as part of The Ghan Expedition, they end up better fed and rested than those early cameleers pushing into remote Australia. But they also gain a taste of the adventure that's always been synonymous with the Outback.
This article brought to you by Great Southern Rail. See greatsouthernrail.com.au