The Ghan, Part I: Adelaide and Kangaroo Island

For more than a year, I have been dreaming about a train trip across Australia on the Ghan. Now in its 90th year of service, the Ghan is a passenger train that traverses the “red centre” of Australia from south to north. Operated by Great Southern Rail, the 54-hour ride starts in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, and ends in Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory. If you aren’t familiar with the geography of Australia, you could be forgiven for not realizing that covers an astonishing nearly 3,000 km (1,880 miles), plus whatever stopovers and forays into the Outback you do along the way.

This isn’t a trip you do on the fly. Most people who do it are retired – Australians call them “grey nomads” – and have been thinking about it for a lifetime. Several months ago I finally bought the tickets as a special gift to my husband, and in mid-June we took this inspiring 12-day journey. Now that we have safely returned home and entered our last month at Post, I cannot imagine a more profound way for us to have begun our goodbyes to Australia than riding the Ghan.

Our Ghan trip. Twelve days. Four hotels. Three flights. Three national parks. A precise 2,979 kilometers of train track. More than 30 hours by bus across three bonus tours. Two river cruises and one ocean ferry crossing. Two bottles of Dramamine. Two nights sleeping on the train in gold class. One handful of native plant leaves an Aboriginal man plucked from a tree and gave to us to season fish. Almost a thousand pictures. Over 125K Fitbit steps. Zero instances of puking, getting hurt, or losing things. Countless phone chargings, animal sightings, hours staring at the near-empty desert, and memories made.

The Ghan, Australia’s most epic Outback train journey marked in red

But before all of that, we started off by flying from Canberra to Adelaide (about 720 miles). Since neither of us had been there before, we elected to arrive a couple of extra days before the Ghan departed Adelaide’s railway terminal to explore.

Oh Serbs of Adelaide, your kitchen rocks @ Kaffana

Although the weather was extremely cold, we had a great time and ate delicious food.

Having my beloved lagman for the first time since Uzbekistan @ Tangritah Uyghur

Around Adelaide we visited Australia’s first Reconciliation Room at City Hall, checked out a WWI Anzac monument, *and* walked out of Adelaide Hatters with the damned best and most authentic Akubra hat a man could buy, complete with a Coober Pedy opal.

G’day, mate!

Reconciliation Room

We also went to the Migration Museum.

Migration Museum, Adelaide

I’ve been to a similar museum in Melbourne and know quite a bit about the history of Australian immigration policy. However, this museum was kind of special because it had a unique exhibition about souvenirs and the things people bring with them to – or take home from – a foreign land. One particular quote resonated with me and as I reflected upon it, I realized that my tendency to view my blog posts as types of “souvenirs” is the main reason I now keep this blog going:

Souvenirs are often seen as insignificant trinkets, yet they play an important role in memory-making… many of us have keepsakes. They recall special moments in our lives, places we’ve visited or left behind, and heartfelt connections… How does a shell or a plastic Eiffel Tower become a precious souvenir? Once it is ours, it holds our memories of a particular time and place, one to which we can never return. Souvenirs work as vehicles of nostalgia, providing avenues for imaginary travel to mythologized pasts, and keeping those pasts alive. It is this which gives souvenirs their power.

I also loved the museum’s map showing Australia divided not by its current states and territories, but by Aboriginal land. I heard an Aboriginal tour guide telling a group of foreign tourists, “We’re not all the same!”

Cleland Wildlife Park in Adelaide, SA

We also took a trip about 30 minutes out of town to Cleland Wildlife Park, where we had a chance to love on a few of the usual suspects. One of the things I will miss so much about Australia is the reserves where the animals aren’t in cages, but freely roam around. We saw parrots, koalas, dingos, potoroos, rock wallabies, and of course, roos and wombats.

Friendly wombat

One big highlight of our time in Adelaide was taking a side trip to Kangaroo Island. It took a couple of hours by bus to get to the ferry crossing, and then we sailed across from Cape Jervis to Penneshaw.

Would have been better to stay overnight, but doable on a long day tour

The scenery on the way south was absolutely beautiful in the morning sun. We passed South Australia’s famed vineyards, watched cows meander through bucolic paddocks and kangaroos bounce near the roadside, and passed through a couple of little towns that looked as though a better time had stood still.

Somewhere near Wattle Flat, SA

The ship passage took approximately 45 minutes. V was cold, but luckily I had those pocket hand warmers that worked like a charm for him. I myself felt mildly seasick, so spent much of the voyage enjoying the windy top deck… just in case.

Cape Jervis, SA

We basically made four main stops on the island, not including lunch: the Seal Bay Conservation Park, the Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, and Flinders Chase National Park to see the Remarkable Rocks and Admirals Arch.

Seal Bay Conservation Park

For over 25 years, government and conservationists have worked to preserve and protect the Australia sea lion colony in the area. The sea lions frolicked on the sandy beach and lazed around on the dunes. From a safe distance they were great to see.

Not skeptical – the sun’s in my eyes

Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

Dozens of koalas live in this park, although they are not enclosed in any way. We were lucky enough to have a very close encounter with one who decided to shimmy down a gum tree and run almost right past us!

Remarkable Rocks

Over 500 million years, forces of nature shaped these oddly-placed granite boulders into the Remarkable Rocks they are today. Absolutely one of the most stunning places I’ve seen in all of Australia.

Admirals Arch

Complete with New Zealand fur seals, Admirals Arch can be hiked down to by a footpath followed by a series of stairs. We had about 30 minutes to go down and get back up, so despite hustling we managed to take some great photos.

Although it was kind of a long and tiring day, it was worth it for the journey.

Stay left in Australia, mate

Since I knew dark would be falling by the end of our tour, I elected in advance for us to fly back to Adelaide from Kingscote Airport on the island. It was a pricy option, but taking the 25 minute flight allowed us to return to Adelaide in time for a 19:30 dinner, whereas the 3+ hour ferry and bus return in the pitch dark would have had us home around 23:00. Nerves and rest won out!

Adelaide, you’re gorgeous

Our time in Adelaide was short, but a beautiful start to our journey on the Ghan. On day four of the trip, we awoke and prepared to board the train.

To be continued…!

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