The Ghan, Part II: Marla and Alice Springs

On day four of our trip, we headed to the Adelaide railway terminal to catch the midday Ghan train north to the Australian Outback. We were greeted with champagne and juice, our luggage quickly checked, and then we were off with our overnight bags to snap some photos of the train before boarding the first leg of 2,979 km (1,851 miles).

[This post is part two in a five-part series about our Ghan voyage across Australia. If you missed the first post, you can find it here.]

Photo: Great Southern Rail

In the mid-1850s, the first Afghan cameleers opened up inland Australia to European settlers by ferrying their ships and supplies across the Outback by camel. The Ghan train is named for these pioneer men, who migrated from all parts of the Middle East (whether they were Afghan or not), desperate for work. Not only was their work foundational to support the colonies’ emerging economies, the cameleers also carried essential food and equipment for builders and surveyors during the construction of the track from Port Augusta (located nearly 200 miles north of Adelaide) to Alice Springs, and later to the new settlements that sprung up along the train line.

The modern-day Ghan line – Photo: Great Southern Rail

Parts of the track were under construction by the 1870s, but it wasn’t until 1911 that the Commonwealth committed to an ambitious construction project to connect all 2,979 km between Adelaide and Darwin by rail. In 1929, 90 years ago, the inaugural trip between Adelaide and Alice Springs commenced. The Ghan was also used during WWII to transport servicemen for training and deployment; in fact, the Ghan’s busiest year in history was 1944, in which 247 trains ran weekly. (Almost unbelievable considering now there are only three or four per week, with some areas relying on what the Aussies call “siding,” to allow for what we would call “single-tracking.”)

Getting ready to board!

In the 1980s, part of the Ghan route changed to avoid flood-prone areas, and in 2001, work to connect the 1,420 km gap between the Alice Springs and Darwin portion of the tracks began in earnest. Slightly ahead of schedule, in 2004, a team of 1,500 completed the work and the tracks connected all the way from Adelaide to Darwin and vice versa without interruption.

It is also interesting to note that descendants from these camels that helped build the rails now live across the Outback, with their numbers estimated between 300,000 and more than one million. The first group of six camels came over in 1839 from the Canary Islands, but didn’t fare well. It wasn’t until the 1860s that camels were imported in large numbers as beasts of burden. Although camels are not native to Australia, their broad, leathery foot pads protect them from the scorching, uneven ground, and their ability to go for long periods in the heat without water makes them well-suited to Outback conditions.

On the Ghan platform

However, if able, camels will drink up to 70 liters of water per day, and can carry 400 lbs – twice as much as a horse. Of the 400 different types of Outback flora, camels eat 325 varieties, including, sadly, quandong plants on which picky native emus rely, leading to a drastic decline in their wild desert population in recent years.


Don’t try this at home – but the conductor took this picture and said it was safe!

These days, the Ghan holiday packages are a pretty well-oiled machine. The famous continental journey is also quite expensive, hailed as a “national experience.” Although you could do the whole thing in three days and two nights, a variety of off-train excursions compliment the experience nicely, offering opportunities to get out and experience the desert, small towns, landmarks, and subtropics beyond the revolving landscapes the train’s panoramic windows show.

V ready to live out his childhood wish – sleeping on a top bunk!

But why is it so expensive? Besides the fact that the cost is all-inclusive of food and drinks on the train, it also includes all your excursions, staff costs, two nights’ accommodation, and hotels throughout. Not to mention the cost of operating a train *almost a kilometer long* in such a desolate environment – something I hadn’t a clue about.

Ghan Journey By Numbers (courtesy of GSR):

– Two nights, three days spanning 54 hours and 2,979 km (1,851 miles)

– Average train speed 85 km/h (53 mph) with a maximum speed of 115 km/h (72 mph)

– Average train length: 902 meters (2,959 ft, or 0.56 miles)

– Average train weight: 1,768 tonnes (a whopping 3.9 million lbs)

– 40,000 liters (10,567 gallons) of diesel

– 3,000 liters (793 gallons) of water per carriage

– 49 onboard crew

– 36 carriages

– 25 Platinum Service beds and 258 Gold Service beds

– A$100K (USD $70.4K) per trip to operate two locomotives

– A$70K (USD $49.3K) in rail fees

– A$40K (USD $28.1K) in maintenance costs

So, that adds up!

Not for the claustrophobic

By the time I stopped dithering around about dates and time off, all the Platinum Service cabins were sold out. However, Gold Service was a great choice for us and allowed me to spend more on off-train activities.

Just enough space for us

I showered in here a couple times while the train was moving and found it surprisingly easy

Cheers!

Bush tucker… I mean, FOOD was to die for

There is a lounge area where you can sit and enjoy the panoramic views with other passengers, not to mention snacks and drinks from the bar.

The dining cars, in the carriages adjacent to the lounge, are designed for foursomes to sit together. There are always more passengers than seats, so when you board the train you get a choice of dining time assignments so there isn’t a long wait. Although there were times when I wanted to eat just with V, we were fortunate to have a fascinating blend of meal companions whose careers, travels, and interests provided for so much smart conversation I was a little sorry each time the meal ended.

Aside from some initial confusion after we got settled in our cabin about our excursion booking in Alice Springs the following day, which the lovely GSR staff quickly sorted out, we had a great several hours on the train before bedtime.

Hour after hour, we trundled through the bush

And when we awoke, it was very early in the morning to experience a desert sunrise in the tiny Outback town of Marla, population: 100 (according to the 2016 census).

It went from darkness…

06:38

… to the first hints of the sun…

07:09

07:12

07:14

Such a beautiful and memorable experience, even if very cold! And there may also have been an incident of me spilling my breakfast on my vest, but hey – it was dark!

Not quite ready to get up yet

A few hours later, we crossed the border between South Australia and the Northern Territory.

Later that afternoon, the surrounds started to look even drier.

Then we arrived at our second stop: Alice Springs.

Photo: Great Southern Rail

Dry riverbeds can flood dangerously and with little notice

Our chosen excursion for the afternoon was to the Alice Springs Desert Park, a beautiful and harsh botanical environment featuring 200 desert animals and 400 types of native plants.

We saw the animals in the nocturnal house as well as a free flight bird show, featuring falcons, an eastern barred owl, a Major Mitchell’s cockatoo, a bush stone curler, a willy wagtail, and some kind of awesome raptor that used a rock to smash a dummy emu egg and get the treat inside.

I love the pink cockies, too!

At the end, our guide turned the floor over to an Aboriginal man who talked candidly about the local Arrernte people and Aboriginal customs around marriage and “skin” groups, an intimate and unexpected gift of sharing culture that deeply touched me.

Days four and five of our trip were amazing, and we enjoyed a delicious dinner in Alice Springs so that we could be up bright and early the next day for our onward tour to Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park!

To be continued…!

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