The Ghan Expedition: A journey into The Red

We are sitting down to a divine three-course meal accompanied by fine wines and served on crisp, white linen tablecloths in an elegant dining room with impeccable service provided by friendly and smiling wait staff. Nothing special about that right? Wrong. We are not in a capital city, or even a regional centre. Nor in a fancy lodge or far flung resort. In fact, we are in the middle of outback Australia, rolling down the twin silver threads of railway track that link Darwin and Adelaide. Outside the big picture windows, the unmistakable red ochre sand dotted with hardy shrubs and the occasional camel drifts past; a mesmerising landscape that is a worthy partner to this excellent meal of grilled haloumi, South Rock lamb from Kangaroo Island and a dessert of Chocolate Obsession ice cream that is ridiculously good. We are on The Ghan.

And not just any Ghan service. We are on the Ghan Expedition, a four-day, three-night tour of some of the best sights you can see in Australia’s heart. Think of it like a cruise ship, cruising between ports with passengers getting off to see the sights and attractions of each place. But with no big seas.

We pull out of Darwin on time, the two locomotives taking a bit of time to pull the 902-metre-long metallic serpent with 36 carriages carrying 292 guests, up to speed. We fall in love with our Gold Cabin, with its lounge by day and upper and lower berths with a comfy doona by night. It is compact but clever, with the little bathroom with toilet and shower really easy to use. The water pressure is even better than some hotels we have stayed in and it has Appelles toiletries. Our cabin attendant is so attentive, making sure we know all about the tours we are doing, what time we need to be where and changing our lounge into beds and vice versa, as if by magic. We spend a lot of time staring out the window, leaving the blind up all day and all night, so we don’t miss any of the entertainment outside – the landscape changing like a Broadway set.

For even better views, we also hang out with our new friends in the bar off the Queen Adelaide Restaurant car, indulging in a beer here and there and maybe even an Espresso Martini or three.

The third martini and fun goings on in the lounge with people from all around the world does not seem like such a good idea the next morning, but any headaches soon disappear with the spectacular scenery of Katherine to explore.

We are cruising through the ancient gorges in Nitmiluk National Park, carved out of the sandstone over a billion years by the Katherine River. Its ancient rock cliffs and swirling water whisper the secrets of its past and we hear some of the legends of the indigenous Jawoyn people. This is our first visit to Katherine and we find the gorges entrancing and beautiful, and we even see rock art on the short walk between the First and Second gorges.

We heard all about the other tours in the lounge that night, after a delectable dinner of crocodile sausage followed by grilled saltwater barramundi and a chocolate fondant with mandarin salsa, hearing great things about the rock art cruise and the visit to a working cattle station with the singing cowboy Tom Curtain, who is something of a horse whisperer as well as a singer. This outback visit was clearly a hit with international visitors and locals alike.

Sleeping is surprisingly easy, with the slight rocking motion and clickety-clack of steel on the rails sending us off into our own dreamtimes. The next day, we rise early to a wonderful two-course breakfast of bircher muesli and quandong and hazelnut pancakes, before heading to the airport for our tour to Uluru. This tour isn’t included in the package but we figure we might not get another chance to fly over Uluru and Kata Tjuta. We are in a fixed-wing plane and pilot Rhys acts as a tour guide on the one-hour flight, pointing out Pine Gap, the McDonnell Ranges, the timeless Finke River and the other-worldly Lake Amadeus, which stretches for 100 kilometres.

The unmistakable Uluru emerges from the horizon and we all grab our cameras or phones and click away like mad contortionists pointing this way and that. From above, we see its cracks and crevices, and marvel again at its beautiful red colour, caused by oxidising iron. After a textbook landing, we are whisked off on a tour, driving around the 9.4 kilometre circumference of this spiritual icon, our knowledgeable guide full of information about the rock, and the Anangu people who call this land home. We stop at Mutitjula Waterhole, and walk in on the Koonya Track to see some incredible rock art, gorgeous purple parakeelias in flower, the waterhole itself and to hear about the legend of Kuniya Tjukurpa – the battle between the python and the poisonous snake man. We marvel at the textures of the rock and feel as if touching it could instil magical powers.

Back on the train we do a quick change before heading out for a special dinner at the historic Alice Springs Telegraph Station. And special it is. This place played a vital role in connecting Darwin to Adelaide, and more importantly, Australia to London, when it began transmissions in 1871. Situated on the Todd River, the various buildings are all open to us and we browse through all of them, seeing what life was like in the fledgling Alice Springs over 150 years ago. The whole setting is magical, with delicious canapes and drinks happily devoured before we take our seats at the beautifully set, pristine white tables. The meal is incredible – the tenderloin steak is one of the best I have ever had – and the individual pavlovas and other sweet treats are divine.

Just as good is the astronomy tour which has us craning our necks to look at Scorpio, the Southern Cross and other astral features far, far away. The entertainment – a brilliant trio called the Expeditioners – immediately launch into Starry, Starry Night when the lights come back on, and keep us all grooving on the sandy dancefloor under the stars to classics by the likes of Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and Paul Kelly. It is so good, that many guests have to be rounded up to get back to the train ready for the onward journey into the night, towards what looks like it too could be on another planet – Coober Pedy.

We don’t pull into this weird and wonderful place on the train. We stop at the Manguri siding in the middle of nowhere, and bus it on a dusty road into town. Our mouths hang agape as we see the mounds popping up all around, all mines that have been dug by fortune seekers. Over half a million mines have been dug here. This isolated place is the world’s biggest producer of opal, and because of the 50ºC temperatures in summer, most people live underground. We visit the Umoona Opal Mine and learn a lot about the history of the area, have lunch underground in the Quest mine and see how it is done with a demonstration by a local character called George. He entertains with talk of ‘mullakeep’ and ‘sausages’ – the name the locals use for dynamite – and says you can stake a claim for $29. Ah, no thanks. We also visit the unusual Saint Elijah Serbian church before heading back towards our home on wheels by way of the Dog Fence and the pretty Breakaways.

We have a campfire by the train before another spectacular dinner, more martinis and one last night rumbling through the dark. We wake to the totally different landscape of South Australia, its greens and yellows flashing past the windows all too quickly as we motor towards Adelaide.

It is over all too soon, and the human cargo spills out onto the station before heading back to work, back home or for overseas guests, onward on an Australian adventure long in the planning.

Everyone walks away leaving a little bit of their heart on the train, and with a new found love for the beauty and diversity of Australia’s centre. And possibly, an extra kilo or two. I blame the martinis.

Photography by Great Southern Rail & Helen Hayes.

TRAVEL FACTS

Getting there
Qantas and Virgin fly to Darwin. qantas.com.au; virginaustralia.com.au

The Train
Gold Service includes all-inclusive dining in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant – three meals a day with two course lunches and three-course dinners and three choices for each course, all-inclusive Australian wines, beers, base spirits and non-alcoholic beverages, off train excursions. Even better than Gold Service, is Platinum.

Where to stay
Darwin – The Vibe Hotel Darwin Waterfront is a vibrant place with great rooms and a wonderful location: tfehotels.com
Adelaide – The Mayfair is a fabulous place to stay once you arrive in Adelaide. Make sure you check out the Hennessy Rooftop Bar. mayfairhotel.com.au

The train
• The four-day, three-night Ghan Expeditions will run from May to October, 2017.
• As some of the optional tours like the Uluru flight are in high demand, it is advisable to book early.

Further information
• Great Southern Rail: greatsouthernrail.com.au

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