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Published January 28th 2013
Or how to beat the English at Scrabble
Note the road running beside the train
I've been fortunate enough to do two great train journeys in Australia the Indian Pacific which I reviewed here and the Ghan.
Of the two, the Ghan is perhaps the more iconic and tends to attract more overseas travellers.
There is something pioneer and gung-ho about travelling through Australia's red heartland, in the tracks of the Afghan cameleers who once led their camel trains through this desert. (Hence the name of the train)
Clay camels just outside Alice Springs Station
That said the Ghan is now a long way from the earlier train of decades past where the driver would shoot wild goats to feed the passengers, and travellers would alight to pick wild flowers or walk alongside their carriage when the train moved slowly.
Now it hurtles along (85 to 115km an hour) in airconditioned luxury, with ensuite cabins and silver service meals.
One of the joys of the Ghan is there is nothing to do except read a book or socialise.
There is no Internet and highly sporadic mobile phone coverage so work, family and friends with their problems and cares are all left behind.
You could have your meals in your cabin but it is a lot more fun to have pre dinner drinks in the luxurious lounge car and then move into the dining car. Think Orient Express style luxury here.
Photo by Harriet Dashnow - dining car
At meal times we often found ourselves seated with overseas visitors a and it was interesting to talk to the Canadian, South African and English couples as well as those intrepid individuals travelling solo around Australia.
Trouble is that there isn't enough time to really organise things yourself and you are a captive audience.
Apparently there is some thought of including these tours as part of the fare, given the relatively expensive train fare (more about that later) and the fact that overseas tourism is down, the company is looking for ways to attract more local travellers.
In Alice Springs we decided to hot foot it into town on our own rather than take an organised bus tour and it kind of backfired.
We didn't find the interesting area (tourist shops and Aboriginal art galleries) until quite late in the piece due to our own lack of knowledge. So really we might have done better buying a bus pass which stopped at the various sites in Alice Springs.
Part of the joy of travelling with Great Southern Rail are the crew. Many obviously employed because of their sense of humour.
One of the attendants who introduced himself as Sam the Ghan Man
Part of their role seems to be to socialise with travellers, buoy them up a little and answer the myriad of questions that arise about the surrounding country side.
The scenery of course is a joy, totally mesmerising. And looking out the window you can see the almost 1km of carriages behind you twisting through the desert like a snake.
A sunset from the train
The journey from Darwin to Adelaide takes three days and two night.
The first night a few people found it hard to sleep including myself. But once you think of it as being cocooned, almost like a baby in its mother's womb, being rocked and carried around then sleep comes a lot more easily.
The compact cabins are incredibly comfortable and wonders of design.
Cabin during the day
Meals have an Australian focus with items such as barramundi Australian lamb and unusual fruits. There are also some examples of native bush tucker, just little touches such as wattle seed damper and bush tomato chutney.
The cost is around $2000 but hang on a minute because there are lots of specials especially during summer which is the wet season in Darwin.
Our package for example included free flights to Darwin, three nights accommodation in Darwin at a four star hotel and then flights from Adelaide back to Melbourne.
Other people seemed to be on a two for one deal and I also found this when travelling on the Indian Pacific.
You also don't have to do the entire journey and could simply travel one day/night down to Alice Springs which for pensioners is as little as $899pp.
There are also a couple of classes. We travelled gold, but if you are in the money you could pay about a $1000 dollars a night more and travel in platinum. There is also red class, same scenery but you have to recline on seats rather than enjoying made up beds and there is a kiosk rather than upmarket dining.
But the thing is that from the moment the taxi drops you off at your carriage (there is a road rather than a platform next to the train because it is so long) you know this is going to be one hell of a journey.
Ah the old days of train travel. I remember I used to take the train between Townsville and Brisbane for uni holidays years before flights were affordable enough. Now the trains cost more. But this looks so fun, it could be worth it - especially to see the interior. I love that we have to rely on the 'old' social methods to pass the time.