All aboard! Yasemen Kaner-White takes a once-in-a-lifetime train ride from Darwin to Adelaide on The Ghan.
Review: The Ghan, A Bucket List Train Trip From Darwin to Adelaide
‘Wow, you’ve been to the places on every Australian’s bucket list,’ one Australian told me on a recent trip, when I recounted my terrific train journey onboard The Ghan this year.
It is true: on the train I met Australians from all over the vast country while dining, drinking and dallying around, taking in the surreal scenery framed by the iconic train windows, as well as fellow foreigners who, like me, were in the know. The Ghan Expedition takes guests for three nights and four days from Darwin to Adelaide or vice versa, on an intrepid 1,846 mile journey, the most sustainable way – by train. The pre-chosen insightful excursions at Alice Springs, Katherine and Coober Pedy are far more accessible via The Ghan, which is often the only moving thing in the vast outback (other than wildlife, I didn’t even see a kangaroo!). The best part is the staff have it all planned out, so the itinerary was both seamless and structured in a way which enables passengers to enjoy the moment, without a care in the world. They also go above and beyond: for instance, the barlady, Loz, made sure oat milk was restocked for my flat whites at every stop, a little luxury which made a big difference; and the staff, most of whom have been on all excursions, could advise appropriate attire so we weren’t caught off guard on our outback outings. Luckily, as well as kangaroos, I didn’t come across any scary creepy crawlies either.
After a night in Darwin enjoying local barramundi by the waterfront, I headed to the hotel reception with a spring in my step, and The Ghan staff were waiting to greet us and take us and our luggage to the coach, train bound to start the journey. Before being shown to my cabin, I joined in taking a selfie in front of the legendary, lengthy tomato red train, touting The Ghan’s logo: a man camelback representing the pioneering cameleers who created a permanent trail into the Red Centre of Australia over 150 years ago.
My cabin, a gold twin, gave me the option of sleeping on the top bunk, up a cute ladder, or the bottom bunk, but wanting to re-enact my childhood days of climbing onto a top bunk, I slept up-top the whole journey. This gave me the bottom bed to lay my suitcase out on, though guests can also zip up their bags and tuck them away. Though the platinum level is the highest tier, where premium alcohol, handmade chocolates and other perks (notably more space) are on offer for a higher fee, I found I had enough space as I hardly spent time in my room, favouring being sociable in the friendly bar instead. The bar is equipped with games such as Scrabble, Jenga, fun books to read, a moving digital map showing the route on the wall and happily, it never felt overcrowded, with little tables to sit with snacks and a drink alone, or with company, overlooking the scenery outside.
For the first off-train experience, I chose the Katherine Outback Experience, where I saw a stockman demonstrate how he looks after livestock on the cattle station, interspersed with live country music, then horse, goat and dog tricks, before the best part: a meet and greet with the adorable animals. They even had a litter of puppies to play with before a plush afternoon tea for The Ghan guests, before heading back and getting ready for dinner onboard. The Ghan is a true gourmet experience, focusing on local products with a tale to tell in beautifully illustrated menus. Dinner comprised of crocodile dumplings with beach succulent paired with local myrtle dressing, which the menu explained was once a staple for indigenous people, followed by beautiful saltwater local barramundi. There was also dessert and cheese, not forgetting a plethora of local wines to choose from too.
After a surprisingly serene sleep (while a few struggled with the train motion, many, including me, enjoyed the train softly ‘rocking’ us to sleep) a hearty breakfast of grilled artisan chorizo, skillet potatoes, blistered tomatoes and tangy indigenous quandong relish was had before my second off-train experience in Alice Springs. I chose the Standley Chasm Cultural Walk, my favourite experience of them all; the Aboriginal-owned business is where I met Rayleen Brown, an indigenous lady passionate about teaching uses of the local flora and fauna in bush medicine and food. She pointed out plants for healing and even wasp larvae inside the bush coconut which everyone could try, explaining it is a precious protein for them. I painted my own boomerang, incorporating symbols with indigenous meanings I had been taught, as well as visiting a gallery selling indigenous art. I was even lucky enough to buy direct from one of the local artists, ensuring that I could bring a piece of colourful indigenous Australian culture home with me. That night, dinner was off-train at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station Historical Reserve, and it was a feast in more ways than one: fairy lights, a BBQ, live music, stargazing, camel rides, dancing, drinks flowing and even bonfires to toast your own marshmallows, along with free rein to explore the historical station to learn about its importance in creating the first communication between Australia’s north and south.
The next day was the final excursion, this time at Coober Pedy, the opal capital of the world. Before we visited the mines, a guide, Jaimes, took us through the majestic Mad Max landscape, (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was, in fact, filmed there), pointing out local edible plants such as saltbush used to add natural salt to lamb when cooking, as well as vitamin C-rich bush plums and even bush tucker in the shape of honey ants. Appetites whetted, we returned to the coach and to the mines, where a spectacular Greek inspired underground lunch was waiting for us. With a hearty lunch under our belts, it was time to pick up a hammer and have a go at mining some opals for ourselves. No-one had much luck, proving how difficult it can be, though I did find a piece of ‘potch’ on the ground – an opaque opal, purchased predominately by Asia to replace ivory, not worth much but certainly a fun memory. Walking through the mines we caught a glimpse of historical dug-outs, as well as a more modern, some may say glamorous home, certainly quirky, with a glass chandelier hanging from a natural rock ceiling. That evening, guests culminated to share their Ghan stories around a fire, drink in hand and in agreement that if you’re looking to experience Australia and see places even locals dream about, then you’ll never regret going on The Ghan.