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QUEEN OF THE DESERT

A Journey On The Ghan Railway Across Outback Australia


Published in Time Out's Great Train Journeys of The World

In 1846, Harry, the first camel to set hoof in Australia, shot his owner. John Horrocks brought the beast from the Canary Islands to help explore the Outback, but Harry was clearly unhappy in his new pioneering role. He regularly bit local Aborigines and animals, taking particular exception to goats, but, because he could carry large loads and clomp about for days in the desert without water, Horrocks kept him on. Then, one day, while Horrocks was out hunting, Harry lurched into the explorer, setting off his gun, blowing half his master’s face off. Harry was swiftly put down.

The Ghan railway owes much to Harry and the hapless Horrocks, who died soon after the accident from gangrene. Subsequent Victorian explorers, having learned from their bungling predecessor’s mistake, drafted in a series of professional Afghan camel herders to handle the temperamental animals. These men enabled the exploration of Australia’s Outback and the laying of foundations for a transcontinental, north–south railway. It is after these Afghan herders that the Ghan is named.

Nowadays, passengers can travel top to bottom through Australia without coming into contact with any dangerous dromedaries, or indeed any other of the country’s murderous wildlife. Running 1,850 miles from the sweltering tropics of Darwin in the north, straight through the Never Never, into the searing Tanami desert and down into Adelaide where Antarctic waves roll in, the Ghan train whisks its passengers in hermetically-sealed comfort through one of the most desolate and desiccated lands on earth.

The two-night, three-day journey begins at Palmerston, a desolate freight station a few miles south of Darwin, unless there are flash floods, in which case passengers are decanted into cars to skip the Darwin section and start at Katherine instead.

With its steel-clad carriages, the Ghan is a sleek, shiny tube of retro chic, and glints so painfully in the morning sun that passengers are forced to don dark sunglasses when they arrive, making the platform look like a Blues Brothers’ convention.At over half a mile long, with 45 carriages, it is one of the world’s longest diesel trains. Once onboard, it takes 35 minutes to walk its entire length.

The carriages date from the 1960s, and the interior has a deliciously old-world feel: all wood veneer, stainless steel and hand-cranked Venetian blinds. There are three classes, covering a range of budgets, from the new luxury Platinum service, to ‘sit-up’ backpacker class. Cabins, although small, are an ergonomic marvel, squeezing the facilities of a first-class hotel into a space no bigger than a minibus, with twin berths, a wardrobe, table, armchairs and an ensuite bathroom.

It’s been said that the Ghan is scenically boring, unless you value monumental emptiness and the colour red. But the first day’s vistas through the fertile ‘Top End’ to Katherine are the stuff of a tourism marketer's dreams: lush emerald forests, ancient gorges and crocodile-strewn billabongs. If you want to see the Never Never, this is as close as it gets. Aborigines are a visible presence, ancient fossil sites abound and wildlife is colourful and extraordinary, which is saying something in the land of colourful and extraordinary wildlife.

For such a stylish train, the Ghan has a unique lack of pomp. As you’d expect with Australians, staff are relaxed, affable and unfailingly obliging, where small courtesies such as wake-up coffee and morning newsletter delivered by suited stewards evoke an earlier age. Almost all passengers are holidaymakers: retirees and backpackers heading for the red centre, plane phobics, train enthusiasts and the ‘holiday-of-a lifetime’ set. The food is as delicious as it is plentiful. Our first evening, we are served great bowls of Aborigine-inspired dishes such as bunya nut soup, kangaroo steak and barramundi.

The following morning, after a series of unexplained stops in the night, there is a very different view through the widescreen windows: the soggy green tropics have given way to a vista of rust-red ground, punctuated by spiky spinifex grass, weary-looking eucalyptus trees and the occasional kangaroo bounding around in the distance. It’s so vast and empty I wonder if I can see the curvature of the earth. I think back to the explorers who, a century and a half ago, were being baked alive out there, hallucinating from heatstroke and deciding whether they should drink their own urine. What a contrast it is to be seeing it now with a glass of chilled chardonnay in hand and a casual eye on the Neighbours episode being played on a lounge’s television. It’s all wonderfully meditative and I spend the day marvelling at the monumental emptiness and uselessness of the place. That evening, as the sun splits into a hundred layers of red, it becomes impossible to tell where the earth stops and the heavens begin. It could inspire a woman to poetry, if only she hadn’t left her notepad at the other end of the train.

Stretching my legs later that evening, I come across a train enthusiast wielding a stopwatch and notepad. ‘I’m counting the bends,’ he tells me. ‘So, how many have there been?’ I ask. ‘One in the last four hours,’ he replies. So the Ghan is not only one of the most epic transcontinental journeys in the world, it’s also one of the straightest.

The next morning, the train pulls in for a four-hour stop in Alice Springs, and there’s a chance to get some desert between the toes. It’s 34°C in the shade - and it has rained only four times in the past years. Stepping off the train I felt a blast of heat not unlike opening an oven door to check a roast.. It’s at Alice that many passengers choose to leave the train and ‘go bush’, rejoining a few days later on the next journey south.

The most compelling side trip is that to Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), a 275-mile, bumpy road trip west. I opt for the short bus excursion to Alice Springs Desert Park, where I learn all about Australia’s vast array of toothy and tentacled inhabitants.

As the train continues south of Alice Springs, landmarks are few and far between. There are glimpses of the Flinders Ranges, the Southern Territory’s largest mountain range, before the line veers off past Coober Pedy, home to 50 per cent of the world’s opal production and the film location for Mad Max. It's a region so hot that most residents live underground in the cool air of refurbished mines.

The railway line crosses the dry bed of the Finke, said to be the oldest river in the world, but which runs only about twice every 100 years. At daybreak the following morning, the train slips into its third climate zone, where the reds and pinks of Alice are replaced by the deep yellows and golds of grain-growing southern Australia. As the first signs of civilisation begin to appear, everything looks suddenly European.

First come green, rolling hills, pleasant meadows, vineyards and rickety wooden cottage. As we roll into Adelaide’s suburbs, there are snooker-green golf courses dotted with be-Pringled golfers, then office blocks, then cafés. After three days in the outback, it’s a surreal sight, too clinical and clean-looking. I miss the grit of the desert.

As the train sighs into its final stop, I seize a chance to ask the driver about the unexplained nightly stops. ‘That’ll be the kangaroos,’ he tells me. ‘Messy buggers. They get caught in the headlights and end up all over the windscreen. You have to stop the train to pick them out of the grill. The camels are worse, though. They really do some damage.’ Probably still getting their revenge for Harry, I shouldn’t wonder.