The Ghan, Part IV: Alice Springs and Katherine

We spent the eighth day of our Ghan train trip in Alice Springs, the geographic heart of Australia. “The centre of the centre.” We weren’t catching the Ghan north until dinnertime, so we had a full day to explore this spirited Outback town with a population of nearly 25,000. Even with our limited time, we managed to walk through the botanic gardens, see the Royal Flying Doctor Service and Telegraph Station Historical Reserve, take photos from the top of Anzac Hill, visit a pharmacy, and even eat a couple of sit-down meals.

[This post is the fourth in a five-part series about our Ghan voyage across Australia. If you’d like to read the first three posts, you can find them in order here, here, and here.]

In the morning, we ate breakfast at the hotel and after checking out, stored our luggage to retrieve later that day.

Photo: Handwritten Postcards

Alice Springs sits 525 meters (1,723 feet) above sea level and is very close to the geographic centre of Australia, about 955 miles north of Adelaide and 930 miles south of Darwin at either end.

Leave your grog at home

However, Alice Springs isn’t just isolated from capitals. The closest town to the north, Tennant Creek (pop: 3,000) is about 500 miles away and the major town of Port Augusta is over 760 miles to the south. Translation: there’s not a lot out there.

But there was plenty to see in Alice Springs, and thanks to a compact area, my research on things to do, and V’s resourceful discovery of an Australian rideshare app called “Hi Oscar” (No Uber in the Alice), we managed to do quite a bit before we had to go and fetch our bags to the railway terminal.

Photo: SBS

Olive Pink Botanic Garden

We headed out on foot to to Olive Pink Botanic Garden, about a 20 minute walk from our hotel. It was a warm day, and I could already feel temperatures climbing into the 80s. We spent probably 30 or 45 minutes just strolling through the park; even though it was really warm, it’s still winter and everything was really dry. I think a lot of plants may have been laying dormant. Nearby, the Todd River was completely dry, the bed desiccated and cracked. Here and there, Aboriginal people sat on the ground in the shade and talked amongst themselves.

Native flora in abundance

Royal Flying Doctor Service

The main activity that I was really set on visiting during our time in Alice Springs was the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS), a short walk from the gardens.

Established in 1928, RFDS is one of the world’s largest aeromedical organizations providing both preventative and emergency services to a population spread out across nearly 3 million square miles. Injuries and illness, even egregious and critical such as in the case of a traumatic accident, previously often stayed unresolved for days or even weeks until a doctor could travel to the area (or the patient simply died).

Medicine by numbers: rural patients would communicate with a doctor by radio, describing their symptoms and receiving instructions on which treatments to self-administer

Imagine using one of these bad boys to call for help

The RFDS slowly started to change that, and even the Queen took notice, using the radio to talk to rural patients during one of her visits. These days, RFDS still deals with Australia’s “remote,” and “very remote” patients, but with 23 bases, 140 doctors, and 61 airplanes that cost A$7 million (USD $4.87 million) each not counting onboard equipment. RFDS provides care to 278,000 rural patients per year.

Photo: RFDS

The base in Alice Springs specifically was founded in 1939, and they fly 12 planes out to a radius of 800 km (497 miles) around the town. The 2013 map below contains indicators for type and condition (paving, lights, etc.) of airstrips in different locations.

The work of RFDS continues to support the health and well-being of some of Australia’s most isolated communities.

Alice Springs Telegraph Station Historical Reserve

I knew that I wanted to go here, but I didn’t fully appreciate the historical significance of the place until we got there. As remote as Alice Springs is in 2019, it used to be an essential part of the infrastructure linking Australia to its own territory, and to the rest of the world.

I gave flies the Aussie salute, but V was done with waving and bought a net

The first Morse code message was between Baltimore and Washington in 1844, and the first successful transatlantic cable followed in 1866. So it’s not surprising that by the same period of time, especially due to its geographical isolation, Australia was itching to be connected and hear news from the rest of the world more quickly.

This tree has heard it all

Work began on the Overland Telegraph Line (OTL) in 1870, and incredibly, by 1872 the line was complete. Australia joined the global telegraph network, sending its first telegram to London; the message took a mere 24 hours to reach London via Indonesia, Singapore, India, Egypt, Malta, and Gibraltar. This probably felt extremely rapid compared to waiting for mail to travel three months by sea! The OTL required frequent maintenance, plus the work of operators at 12 repeater stations along the line to repeat, or “boost” the message as it went along.

They would have been stupefied by iPhones

The work was a major feat of engineering at that time, however quaint it seems today. The complex served other purposes, too: there was a blacksmith, a kitchen and home for the station master, cattle, and the post office, where people in Alice Springs (called Stuart between 1888-1933) picked up their mail.

For ten years after WWI and after the Telegraph Station closed, one of the precinct’s buildings called the “Bungalow” (which was removed in the 1960s) housed 130 children of mixed Aboriginal and European descent.

The government formed this institution to look after and educate in a European manner “half-caste” children it had by and large removed from their indigenous families (although some were abandoned by their white fathers who had come to the area to work, and later returned to Europe without providing anything for their offspring).

Many of the photos and captions there showed the children as happy and having strong relationships with their carers; however, there were also heartbreaking stories about Aboriginal women coming to the Bungalow at night and tapping on the windows to make contact with their children, many of whom they would never see again.

The government relocated the children in 1942 as the property was needed for the war effort. According to Telegraph Station materials, many of these children as adults identified as part of the Stolen Generations.

This was a sobering part of the experience after marveling at the technology that supported better communication and development in rural Australia, and realizing what the place had become afterwards. However, I was pleased to see the history exhibited and discussed openly. To me it is all part of Reconciliation: making peace with a difficult past and regrettable choices, and moving forward with respect and dignity for all Australians.

Anzac Hill

The only reason we made it up to the top of Anzac Hill was because our awesome Hi Oscar driver offered to take us. She literally took us from lunch to the Telegraph Station, then from there to Anzac Hill, to our hotel to get our bags, and finally to the railway station to catch the Ghan. She was the best!

WWI Memorial

So we said goodbye to Alice Springs and after a cold drink of lemon lime and bitters, we boarded the Ghan once more to head to Katherine.

All aboard!

We had another terrific dinner and tucked ourselves into our cool bunks, as the Ghan rocked north, up the tracks.

Thank you, Ghan chefs!


On the morning of day nine, we awoke and noticed our surrounds had become decidedly more subtropical. Indeed, Katherine is where the Outback meets the tropics.

Katherine, NT

After a leisurely breakfast, we arrived at the town of Katherine. Katherine is the fourth largest settlement in the Northern Territory. We had a choice of activities for an off-train excursion, and we’d elected to do a river cruise of the Nitmiluk Gorge. The gorge is located in the 1,127 acre Nitmiluk National Park, jointly managed with the Jawoyn people, traditional owners of the land.

Photo: Great Southern Rail

We took a bus 25 minutes to the gorge and boarded a small river boat.

We visited in June, outside Katherine’s April to November wet season in which the gorge’s average 6 meter depth rises to 8-25 meters, depending on location.

Sometimes an influx of rain, most likely during January or February, can connect the river to the sea, leading to more aggressive saltwater crocs coming into the freshwater croc breeding areas along the river. “Two types a’croc in Australia,” our guide drawled. “Salties, and freshies.” Park rangers have caught and relocated 13 salties over the last decade, so it didn’t sound like too big a problem.

The thing that really struck me was the age of the gorge – at 1.6 billion years, these rocks saw us get here, and they’re probably gonna see us leave. It’s humbling.

Between the first and second gorge there were too many rocks for the boats to pass, so we crossed several hundred meters on foot to the next set of boats. Our guide said that during the wet season you can sometimes travel the whole way by boat.

The landscape was just spectacular, and it was good to move around a bit too, after so much train/bus/boat sitting. On the next boat, we were lucky enough to sit in the front so our views were great. Our guide told me he had been bringing tours on the river for 14 years and had never seen a rock fall. At first I was surprised, and then I remembered that these rocks play the long game.

Behind us is the sacred resting space of the rainbow serpent – the deepest part of the river at 40 meters deep

The guide pointed out the two holes in the rock (below photo).

The lower, larger hole usually fills halfway up during the wet season. During the flood in 1998, the water rose 1.5 meters above the higher, smaller hole. The flood apparently could have filled the entire Sydney Harbour basin in nine hours. That was kind of terrifying – I couldn’t even have imagined that much water in there!

Below is a time-lapse V took of our boat gently motoring up Nitmiluk Gorge. Lots of kayakers, but obviously no swimmers due to the crocodiles.

After the boat ride, the whole group sat down to a wonderful luncheon of local bush tucker. Although the food was terrific, I wasn’t thrilled that it was served family-style (and with no serving utensils) and the servers only provided one platter every eight people or so. It wasn’t really enough food and there was this awkward dance of who was going to eat what and some people couldn’t even reach the food at all. At an outdoor lunch with cloth napkins, real china, and formally dressed servers, this didn’t seem commensurate with the occasion but we did get the opportunity to try at least a little of everything. I did take a minute afterwards to approach and compliment the wait staff who did a really tremendous job keeping everyone watered, as it were.

In any case, we wrapped the tour with a cultural talk (in which I embarrassingly tried to buy a woven basket that was not for sale, oops!) and by happening upon a large colony of fruit bats, and then we reboarded the Ghan for our final few hours of train journey to Darwin.

Through our cabin window we saw a bushfire – one of many on this trip, with the difference this time being that there was not only smoke but flames, and the flames were less than 20 yards or so from the tracks! We passed by it so quickly I didn’t get a good photo, but it was a little surprising all the same.

Through our trip, and particularly in the far north of the NT (which people call “the top end,”) we frequently heard how closely state and local authorities work with Aboriginal people to conduct control burns, and keep the rugged Australian underbrush from turning into an uncontrollable wildfire. We saw many, many fires, and some still smoldering, throughout the trip. Although I was confident they knew what they were doing, especially leveraging the know-how of indigenous people who had managed the land for tens of thousands of years, it was still startling to go rollicking right through it.

Sunset in the bush near Coomalie Creek, NT

We had one final dinner, and a couple of hours after dark fell we arrived in Darwin for days 10, 11, and 12 of our voyage.

To be continued…!

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