By Keith Langston
Laden waiters seem to ricochet off each other once guests find seats. Space is restricted and the floor has a rhythmic sway. I have visions of cascading cream of pumpkin soup, but bowls swiftly find a safe landing. Wines arrive and the first course begins while the wide, brown land outside the picture windows rolls graciously by. From a very narrow and crowded kitchen, well-prepared meals have emerged — and all on a trundling carriage. Tables seat four and it’s likely you’ll have potential new friends from anywhere on earth as fellow diners.
It’s lunchtime and you have comfortable seating in the timber-paneled “Queen Adelaide” dining car on the only major train journey in the world that travels north-south across a continent. You boarded “The Ghan” in Darwin in the “Top End,” and two sleeps, 1,847 miles, and a few deserts later you’ll enter Adelaide on the Great Australian Bight.
Afghan cameleers who exploited this route had The Ghan named after them. This hotel on ribbons of steel easily snakes through an often searingly hot desert.
Don’t expect a train that glides serenely through bushland, deserts, and stations. This is Australia, and the carriages roll on a freight line. Freight trains of well over a hundred cars take precedence. The Ghan pulls aside to allow them to pass — which adds to the mystique of the journey. You see the day-to-day happenings in the outback as a fly on a wall watches events unfold in a kitchen. In the middle of the night, from the top bunk, you peer through the unshuttered window as a never-ending diesel train rumbles past, the silvery moon glinting on the metal as it careers on.
Outside it’s uninhabited and except for thousands of station and wild animals, you probably pass unnoticed. The Ghan is lost in the vastness of the outback, even when it could be forty-eight carriages long!
In your cabin, you pop into the shower, a tiny but adequate space shared with a “pull out of the wall” toilet and wash basin. Then you waddle the corridors to the lounge carriage where people spend hours chatting with fellow travelers. You are salivating for your choice of one of two dishes in each course in a three-course dinner. But first, armed with a drink, you watch the dusty, bronze-red sun sink over a sundrenched desert. On retiring you discover that the bunks are lowered and beds made. Falling out of the top bunk does not appear to be an option even when in the small hours the train traverses many “rocky” miles!
Most people choose the first sitting for meals but the second sitting is more relaxed. Lingering at table with new friends is then an option and it also means no rushing to breakfast with the first announcement.
On the last night you cement relationships over drinks and another superb meal.
In the morning you will find inhabited areas outside the window and cattle replaced by sheep. Adelaide, the City of Churches, beckons, and a genteel, artistic culture awaits your pleasure. Hopefully your new friends will tarry with you awhile.
- Single cabins with shared facilities are available on the train.
- Watch for special prices!
- A reservation from Darwin will secure accommodation for a night in the city. Transport is free to the station in the morning. Travelers from Adelaide will have accommodation secured for the first night in Darwin.
- Don’t miss the desert-stay whistle-stop tours to see Katherine Gorge, Uluru, Kata Tjuta, and Kings Canyon.
- May – October is the best travel time.
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