Wednesday 17th December
Today we start our longest train trip in Australia: The Ghan from Darwin to Adelaide, a journey of 2979 km taking about 50 hours. Check in must be completed by 9am, with departure scheduled for 10am. We arrive in good time to take photos outside the train and say goodbye to Robynann – it has been great to catch up with her again after many years. Our large bags are checked in and we just have our small bags with us - our Gold class cabin has a bunk berth with its own bathroom – including shower. The train has three classes: Red class seating carriages, with a cafe; Gold class carriages (one carriage with single berths only) with a lounge and dining carriage; and the top grade is Platinum Class, where some compartments have double beds and they have their own lounge and dining carriage. There are two locomotives (one with The Ghan symbol, the other just has Pacific National painted on the side) to pull the train, three carriages with cars, one generator carriage and a carriage for personale. There aren't many people in the waiting lounge when we arrive, but many of the passengers arrive after 9am by bus or personal limousine (included in the Platinum class) with their luggage having been sent ahead. At 9.40am we can board the train, so we make our way to Carriage L. Our compartment has a 3 seater sofa to the right, on the left is the bathroom and wardrobe, complete with a safe for valuables. We leave on time and head slowly out of town, passing through the industrial area and shunting yards before we pick up speed. The carriage attendant comes around to explain the compartment's features.
We have been allotted the 11am time slot for lunch, a bit early but all passengers have to eat before we get to Katherine. As we head down to the dining carriage we pass through the single compartment carriage, which usilises all the space by having a curved passageway with compartments on both sides. Next to the dining car is the lounge, where one can enjoy a pre meal drink. We share a table with an English couple, and are presented with the menu – we can choose from four different entrees and mains. Next is the wine menu with a choice of four to five white and red wines and two different champagnes.
Katherine is just 307km south of Darwin, and we arrive at 1.40pm. Excursions are included in our tour, and we have chosen the Nitmiluk Gorge cruise. Nitmiluk is the Aboriginal name for Katherine Gorge, and is about 40 minutes by bus from the train station. We have had around 32 degrees in Darwin each day with constant humidity and we are told it is 37 degrees in Katherine, but not so humid. We cruise up the first gorge, then have a short walk past Aboriginal rock paintings to the second gorge where another vessel awaits us. Magnificent scenery all the way. A short heavy rain shower brings some relief from the heat, but as we walk between the two gorges the rocks are quickly dry and you can feel the heat radiating out from them. More thunder clouds are looming as we finish our cruise, but we arrive back at the train without getting wet.
We depart Katherine at 6.20pm, the
landscape becomes more red as we head south. We can relax and enjoy
the lovely sunset before we make our way to the lounge to sip a glass
of champagne before dinner at 8pm. There are three courses, with the
same wine menu as at lunchtime. This evening we are dining with
John, a well travelled professor from London. We have choosen the
latest dining session so that we can take our time without being
hurried out to make room for waiting passengers. Whilst dining, our
compartment has been converted into beds, with a chocolate on the
doona. One could get very used to this style of travel!
Thursday 18th December
Our train stopped in Tennant Creek at 3.30am, probably to allow a freight train to pass. We receive a pre breakfast coffee served in our cabin, then get dressed and head down for our two course breakfast, where we share with a German couple who are on their 10th visit to Australia. Alice Springs is the next stop, we arrive at 9.10am. As we have both been here before we don't want to do the tourist sites around town, so have chosen the tour to the Alice Springs Desert Park. As we are driven the short distance to the park, the chauffeur tells us that it was 46 degrees yesterday, but after rain during the night it is now a comfortable 22 degrees. The Park is a National Park, but differs in that many plants have been planted around walkways and all the animals are housed in cages. At the dingo enclosure we are informed that the pair of young dingos are brother and sister, but are now being kept apart after a fight which lead to the male requiring a vet to put a few stitches in his head. Next stop on our guided tour is the Freeflying Bird Show, where we get to see a magpie, kite, hawk and barn owl fly freely around the ampitheater. They are trained to show off their natural behaviour – unlike the bird show in Kuala Lumpa where they were trained to uncharactisist acts). Onto the Nocturnal Hall, where the marsupials, insects, lizards and snakes are housed in natural environments with ”moonlight” lighting. Our visit ends in the cafeteria where a bird handler presents a young six month old Wedgetailed Eagle, who they are in the process of training. At six months it is full size and weighs around 3kg, but also likes to be patted by the trainer. She and her brother were rescued by the rangers, who had noticed that the parents had spent so much time defending the nest from predators that they didn't have time to feed the young pair, who were close to starvation when they were rescued.
We depart Alice at 12.45pm. At the southern edge of town the road and railway pass through a small opening (locally known as The Gap) in the MacDonell Ranges. After lunch we spend the afternoon enjoying the scenery out of the window and writing. There are small bushes and some grass, enough to feed the small herds of cattle. Just before 4pm we pass the Iron Man monument – a man with a sleeper on his shoulder. It was built to commerate the laying of the millionth sleeper during the rebuilding of the railway between Tarcoola (in SA) and Alice Springs in 1980. Shortly after that we head into a siding and wait for half an hour to allow a freight train to pass. At 5.30pm we cross the border between the Northern Territory and South Australia. To the west there is a huge thunderstorm developing, which generates some amazing cloud formations just before sunset.
We have again chosen to dine at 8pm,
tonight we are dining with a couple from the north of England on
their first trip to Australia to visit family. As we linger over a
glass of wine the train manager informs us that our clocks need to be
turned forward an hour – there go our hopes of an early night!
Friday 19th December
It has been a clear night – at one stage I can see stars and the lights of road trains on a distant road.
At around 6am we pass through Port Augusta. Soon after the Flinders Ranges is visible on the left, on the right is Spencer Gulf. The landscape is now more fertile, and there are wheat fields on both sides of the train. We are due into Adelaide at 11.30am, so breakfast and lunch are combined into brunch from 9 to 10.30am. Choices range from full English breakfast to steak to salmon fillet. We both think it is a bit early for a steak so opt for a full breakfast.
Adelaide is not our final destination but the train to Melbourne only runs once a week and it does not connect with either the train from Darwin or the one from Perth. So we have three nights here.
We arrive on time, and spend some time checking out the gift shop before collecting our baggage. Unfortunately by this time the hotel shuttle has only one seat and there are no taxis, so we have a 20 minute walk to our hotel. Adelaide's central business district is totally surrounded by gardens, so we cross one of these before finding Currie Street. We see a sign for the Grand Chancellor hotel on a building, but then can't find the entrance on street level, so Claus sits with the baggage whilst I head off to investigate. The building we have seen is the same hotel chain – just in the next street, but at least I am given a map – we are only about 50 metres from our hotel. After checking in we head out and drop in at the Tourist Info, then the Metro info then wander down Rundel Mall, where everyone is busy with their Christmas shopping. There are street musicians on every corner, and one gentleman is giving out brochures saying ”Jesus is the answer”. It is up to us to find the question?