Stanley Johnson discovers the best way to experience the beating heart of Australia
On my personal bucket list, taking the Ghan train to cross Australia from north to south had long been a priority. I knew that the Ghan, with its famous camel logo, was so named in honour of the cameleers who for many years guided their trains (animals, not mechanical, of course) across Australia’s vast interior. These hardy men were called ‘Ghans’ or ‘Afghans’ because, rightly or wrongly, they were thought to come from that mystique-shrouded country.
This is reputed to be one of the world’s great railway journeys. In the course of a 3,000km trip, you travel from Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory, through the hot, dry, vast ‘Red Centre’ of the country, to arrive two nights and three days later in Adelaide, capital of South Australia. It was one of the most enthralling trips I have undertaken in my life, and it began in style.
A car from the Great Southern Rail company, which owns and runs the Ghan, came to collect me from the Adina Darwin Waterfront hotel around 9am. ‘I’ll take you to the top of the train first,’ the driver said, ‘so you can have your photo taken by the locomotive. After that, since you’re Platinum Class, I’ll drive you right up to your carriage.’
She looked at my bags. ‘You’ll be glad of that. The train is 800 metres long, with 31 carriages. It can be a long walk if you’ve got luggage.’
Being driven right up to the door of your carriage is not the only advantage of booking a ticket in the Ghan’s Platinum Class. I also had a compartment all to myself, with a large window to look out at the passing scenery, as well as a toilet and shower en suite.
Jessica, a charming young woman assigned to look after the Platinum passengers, handed me a glass of champagne as I settled in. ‘Do you think Australia will win the Rugby World Cup?’ I asked. ‘They jolly well better,’ she replied. ‘We certainly don’t want to be beaten by the Kiwis.’ Her service was better than her futurology.
One of the most attractive aspects of the whole Ghan experience is the way the schedule allows time for sightseeing en route. Four hours after we left Darwin, we arrived around lunchtime at Katherine, a town of some 10,000 people; 60 years ago there were only 400, but the town has expanded with the development of transport and mining. With departure from Katherine scheduled soon after six that evening, we had time to explore.
Various options are available: a cruise on the Katherine river; a cultural tour aimed at offering insights into the history of the Jawoyn people, the traditional owners of the area; or a helicopter flight over Kakadu and Nitmiluk National Parks. I was tempted by the helicopter (apparently Platinum passengers were eligible for a free flight), but in the end I chose the river cruise. I don’t regret it.
The Katherine river passes though thirteen gorges, with towering sandstone cliffs and fine examples of aboriginal rock art. If you have the time to spare, you could get off the train and take the 66km Nitmiluk trek. Unfortunately I didn’t have two weeks to spare, not this time anyway. And anyway, there was dinner on the Ghan to look forward to.
I still have the menu from that first day on the train, where options included Goldband snapper, saltwater barramundi, kangaroo steak and crocodile, all nationally sourced and sustainable. The kangaroo steak hit the spot — tender and juicy — but I wasn’t so sure about the crocodile, which appeared as boudin blanc, a kind of white sausage. It was tasty enough, but I couldn’t help think about the strange reversal in roles. Man eats crocodile!
When I came back to my compartment after dinner, the bed had been prepared and a night-cap (Johnnie Walker Black Label, as requested) had been placed on the bedside table. I slept soundly while the Ghan thundered south.
We arrived at Alice Springs at nine the next morning, with a three-hour stop scheduled, so passengers were able to visit the town’s highlights. I found the Alice Springs Telegraph Station totally fascinating. They have kept it almost exactly as it was around the year 1900.
The telegraph connected Australia’s north and south. Eventually, with the laying of the undersea cables, it connected Australia to the rest of the world. At that time, the station was home to a cook, a blacksmith-stockman, a governess, four linesman-telegraph operators, plus the stationmaster and his family. You can still see holes in the back wall where a Sydney-to-London telegraph message would enter on wires which ran down grooved wooden insulators to the repeating instruments on the table.
I also had time for a visit to the Royal Flying Doctor Service. In 1928, when the RFDS was set up, flying was still in its early days. The first Flying Doctor pilots had no navigational aids, no radio — only a compass and inadequate maps. They navigated by landmarks such as fences, rivers, riverbeds and telegraph lines and flew in an open cockpit, fully exposed to the weather. Airstrips were, at the best, claypans or, at the worst, hastily cleared paddocks.
Twenty years ago, when I visited Alice Springs for the first time, I remember sitting in on an evening surgery while the doctor on duty — headphones clamped to his ears — fielded shortwave radio messages from the outback.
Now there are so many tourists in Alice Springs that RFDS has built a special visitor centre. You may not meet a Flying Doctor in person but you can look inside the replica fuselage of a Pilatus 12, the single-engine turbo-prop aircraft which RFDS now operates across Australia, and you can see a twenty-minute film about the service.
Alice Springs serves also as a convenient departure point for Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock. Since I had actually climbed it on that previous visit to Australia’s Red Centre, I felt there was no need to return on this occasion. But Ghan passengers who have never been to Uluru should consider making the detour, even though climbing Uluru itself is now discouraged, both for safety reasons and out of respect for aboriginal culture.
We left Alice Springs around 1pm. Soon after nine, having crossed the border between the Northern Territory and South Australia, we stopped at Manguri. This is just a wayside station, where in the old days they used to light a bonfire beside the tracks to signal to the driver. That night there was no bonfire, but I could see a car parked by the tracks, headlights blazing. John Kenneally, a former broadcasting executive, had driven up from Adelaide to greet me, and half an hour later in his car we reached Coober Pedy.
I have been to many amazing places in my life, but Coober Pedy takes the biscuit. Here two-thirds of the population not only work underground, they live underground too. Weird? Actually, no. When daytime temperatures, even in the shade, can exceed 35°C, tunnelling into the sandstone rocks to make houses, restaurants, a hotel and even a church makes a lot of sense.
2015 was Coober Pedy’s centenary. On 1 February 1915, Willie Hutchinson, at fourteen the youngest member of an Adelaide gold prospecting syndicate, discovered opals while searching for water. Today, Coober Pedy produces more than 80 per cent of Australia’s opals, and Australia in turn accounts for more than 95 per cent of the world’s opals. But the place still has a frontier feel about it. Even today people come to Coober Pedy to stake a claim, sink a shaft and, hopefully, make their fortune.
Coober Pedy is an aboriginal expression meaning ‘white man in a hole’. ‘Hole’ is indeed the right expression: the surface of the land is riddled where shafts have been sunk. If you’re not careful you can fall 30 feet or more into some ancient working.
‘If you land on your feet from that height,’ Kenneally warned me, ‘your leg bones will be driven up through your shoulder blades.’
We spent two nights and one full day in Coober Pedy. The highlight for me was the visit we paid to the Umoona Opal Mine and Museum. Our host was an elegant silver-haired Greek, Yanni Athanasiadis. ‘I came here 42 years ago,’ he told us, ‘and I never left.’ The Romans, he continued, valued opals above all other gems, believing them to combine the beauty of all precious stones. When I looked at the magnificent stones Yanni had on display, I was inclined to agree that the Romans had a point.
Kangaroo Island, south of Adelaide, was the last stop on my Australia: North to South trip. Australia’s third largest island, it is 150km long and around 50km wide, and with a population of around 4,000 and a cool breeze coming in from the Antarctic, it couldn’t have been a greater contrast to Coober Pedy.
I spent two blissful days in an environment which is sometimes described as the Galapagos of the Southern Ocean. If you are a wildlife addict, as I am, Kangaroo Island has so much to offer. On the south coast, at the aptly named Seal Bay, is Australia’s most accessible colony of Australian sea lions. Further west, at Admiral’s Arch, there are colonies of both Australian and New Zealand fur seals. Koalas doze in lofty eucalyptus trees, pelicans glide across shimmering lagoons.
KI, as the locals call it, offers a sanctuary for large populations of native Australian mammals, including some that are extinct on the mainland. Kangaroo Island’s Ligurian bees are unique in the world. More than half the island is covered in ‘old growth’ bushland, much of it preserved and protected. More than 400 native species of plants and wildflowers have been found in Flinders Chase National Park.
Even if you are not a wildlife fan, Kangaroo Island is a spectacular place to visit. I stayed on my first night in great comfort at Seascape Lodge on Emu Bay, looking out over 5km of white sandy beaches.
On the second day I stayed at the Southern Ocean Lodge. Built on a secluded cliff on a rugged stretch of coast, the lodge looks out at the wild Southern Ocean and pristine Kangaroo Island wilderness. I walked down to the beach before dinner and plunged into the surf.
‘Watch out for the riptides,’ John Hird, the lodge’s manager warned. ‘We haven’t lost a guest yet.’
I caught an early flight next day from Kangaroo Island to Adelaide. John Kenneally, who had looked after me so well in Coober Pedy, met me at Adelaide airport. My plane back to the UK would leave at 3pm, so there was still time to visit Penfolds Magill Estate. We drove up into the foothills of Adelaide; from the vineyard you can look out over the city.
Our host, Jamie Sach, showed us round. ‘Christopher Rawson Penfold, who founded the vineyard in 1944, was a doctor. He brought the cuttings with him, originally for medicinal purposes.’ Kenneally and I nodded wisely. We were quite ready to endorse the medicinal importance of wine, particularly after Jamie Sach had produced a bottle of vintage Grange, the Shiraz for which Magill Estate is world-famous.
We drank a bottle of 1983 Grange Hermitage that day over lunch at Penfolds Magill Estate, and it was truly spectacular. ‘A bottle of Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1951 might cost you AU$50,000 (£23,000),’ Jamie said. ‘You might not be able to find one, mind you. There are only about twenty bottles left today.’ There may be twenty bottles of that left, but there’s only one Ghan train.
DOWN TO DARWIN
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- travelnt.com (Northern Territory)
- Adina Darwin Waterfront
- Desert Cave Hotel, Coober Pedy desertcave.com.au
- Kangaroo Island
- Penfolds Magill Estate
- Seascape Lodge, Emu Bay
- Southern Ocean Lodge
- Umoona Opal Mine
- InterContinental Hotel, Adelaide Intercontinental.com/