Finally completed in 2004, the Ghan runs 1851 miles from Adelaide to Darwin, bisecting the country from South to North. Composed of 44 carriages, the train was over a kilometre in length and had over 50 staff and more than 350 passengers on board. For the first leg of the journey I left at 1:00pm on Sunday, and would arrive just over 24 hours later in Alice Springs.
While the Overland was elderly in age range, the Ghan was more middle aged, mostly made up of couples in their 50s and early 60s; primarily Australian empty nesters and recent retirees taking some time to explore their extensive backyard. In the Red Class carriage (that’s the cheap seats) at the back of the train we had large, sturdy seats with lots of leg room, two toilets and a shower. Although it was fully booked, it was comfortable and civilised with plenty of space. The next carriage was the cafe, and beyond that the forbidden domain of Gold and Premium classes, the ones who got beds.
Sitting in the cafe car I gazed out of the window and eavesdropped on the two couples at the table opposite. In their fifties, all moustaches, beer bellies and bad dye jobs, they were playing a ‘true or false’ travel game, one of the women reading out a possible fact for the rest to ruminate on, and veering off on wild tangents. I drank my tea and looked at the scenery, listening to them raucously discussing the difference between raisins and sultanas, whether dolphins sleep with one eye open, and whether the toilet flushes in the opposite direction in the northern hemisphere. After a question about Einstein they moved on to films;
“What was that one about the janitor at the University, who gets all clever…”
“Yeah, with that Matt Damon and Robin Williams is the psychologist. Keith, what was it called…?”
“The Dead Poets Society”
“Yes, that’s the one, the Dead Poets Society. Great movie.”
Coming out of Adelaide we quickly passed through the city fringes and into farmland dotted with a few small vineyards. It was green but quite thirsty looking, very flat and crisscrossed with sandy tracks. The landscape stayed the same until sunset came not long after we left Port Augusta. After a few hours eating and reading I settled down to get some sleep, and was just dozing off at 11:30pm when there was a huge crash and I felt one side of the train come off the tracks before skidding to a halt. After a few minutes the train manager came in to explain; “Don’t worry folks. We’ve just hit a kangaroo, that’s all!” There was no serious damage to the train (although the same cannot be said for the kangaroo) and before long we were moving again and I tried again to get to sleep. When overnight train journeys are written about, going to sleep is usually described in terms of being lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking motion, or something like that, and I think it’s fair to say that these descriptions invariably come from a writer who is travelling in a compartment with, crucially, a bed. Getting to sleep in the cheap seats is less about being lulled or rocked and more about wriggling around until you find a mildly comfortable position and trying your best not to move out of it. But, the seats were bigger and better than some I’ve been in, and I managed to sleep.
Central Australia, as I would soon find out, is a land of sunrises and I experience my first at Marla, about a hundred miles south of the Northern Territory border. The train had stopped a few hours before dawn and when I stumbled outside there was a cosy fire burning on the platform to keep us warm as we watched the sun rise over the cattle station. The sky continued to lighten as we got back on the train and started moving again, revealing a new, more colourful landscape; during the night we had reached the Red Centre.
The ground in this part of the country is, as you’d expect, a rusty terracotta orange, but I was surprised to find that I couldn’t see as much of it as I had expected. This was because most of it was covered with a scattering of low shrubs and dry trees, so the view was much greener than what I had in my mind. I was expecting a desert, with no life at all, which really makes no sense when I thought about it, as this land has been supporting the lives of animals and people (albeit not that many of them) for thousands of years. It was also lumpier than I had imagined. Not hilly exactly, but not mirror flat like the Canadian plains, where you can almost see the curvature of the earth. There were slopes, low rock formations, the odd road and crossing; for an empty land of nothingness, there was plenty to look at .
We approached Alice Springs at about 2:00pm, passing through the dramatic Heavitree Gap in the steep and rocky MacDonnell Ranges. As we approached the station my trivia-loving friends were discussing the acting achievements of Mel Gibson. “Apocalypto was good but the one about the Scottish fella’s my favourite. What a story, all about freedom and that. Who was it he played? That’s right, that Bruce Wallace, what a character”.