The Ghan

The Ghan and the Indian Pacific are Australia's two iconic long distance railways, famous as much as anything because they cross the vast continent from one side to the other. Whereas the Indian Pacific travels from east to west, The Ghan travels north to south, providing a rail link between Darwin and Adelaide. Today's Ghan is not the first train to carry that name, however the original Ghan took a different route.

The Ghan is a great way to see Australia's Red centre. The two-day trip allows travellers to get a real feel for the scale of the Australian outback, which you simply don't on a plane.

That having been said, you may be aware that some people who have made the journey believe it to be overrated and question the claim that The Ghan is one of the world's great train journeys. As with the Indian Pacific, what must be remembered here is that it is an epic journey across a desert, therefore one must not be surprised or disappointed that for most of the journey, the view out of the windows is of an arid landscape.

Therein is the beauty of the Australian outback, and if you do not see it as beautiful or appreciate the vastness of it all, then you might be well advised to make your journey by air. It's much quicker, often cheaper but gives you no time to read a good book, or the opportunity to stroll around and chat or have a game of cards with your fellow passengers, not to mention the opportunity to see Australia's heart at such close range.

Alice Springs Stopover

Doing the journey from Adelaide to Darwin in two sectors, with a stopover in Alice Springs, is highly recommended. You do the Adelaide-Alice Springs leg on one train, get off at The Alice and spend a few days there, then continue your journey to Darwin on the next train. In northern Australia's dry season there are two service every week in both directions, so you have the choice of a three-day, four-day or seven day stopover at Alice Springs.

The same can be done at Katherine if you want to spend a bit of time exploring the various natural attractions in the region. Katherine is on the Alice Springs to Darwin leg, so if you are travelling by train in both directions, there is wisdom in doing an Alice Springs stopover in one direction and Katherine in the other.

Like the Indian Pacific, The Ghan is run by Great Southern Rail, and has the same classes of accommodation & facilities:  Gold Class sleepers, lounge & restaurant, Red Class sleepers, reclining 'day-nighter' seats, lounge & self-service restaurant, see the section above.  Most departures of the Ghan now have an additional class of accommodation, the new super-deluxe 'Platinum Class' complete with double (or twin lower) beds.

Two services per week operate in each direction during peak season. At other times there is one service per week in each direction.

The Journey

Trains leave Adelaide for Darwin at 12.20pm on Sundays and Wednesdays and arrive in Port Augusta for a short stop at Port Augusta. Late that night, The Ghan reaches Tarcoola, where the line splits - The Ghan turns north and heads towards Alice Springs; the Indian Pacific, which shares the line with The Ghan between Adelaide and Tarcoola, continues west onto the Nullarbor Plain. The Ghan passes Woomera and Coober Pedy (25 km east of the line) during the night, but unfortunately it stops at neither place. Alice Springs is reached at 1.45pm during the second day of travel.

A stopover of around five hours at The Alice allows passengers travelling to and from Alice Springs to leave or board the train. It also gives other passengers time to take a Whistle Stop Tour of Alice Springs should they so desire.

At 6pm, The Ghan continues on its journey north. Through the night it passes Tennant Creek and Newcastle Waters. At 9am The Ghan pulls in to Katherine where passengers have the opportunity to take one of a number of Whistle Stop Tours on offer. These include cruises of Katherine Gorge, canoeing the Gorge and a tour of the town. The train pulls out at 1pm and arrives in Darwin 4 hours 30 minutes later. The return journey follows a similar schedule, leaving Darwin at 9am or 10am and arriving in Adelaide at 1.10pm two days later.

History of the old Ghan

The idea of a railway from Adelaide into the far north was suggested in the 1860s when railway building in Australia was at its peak. Up until that time, Australia's outback telegraph and pastoral stations relied on camel trains to bring their supplies, no matter how isolated or far away they were. These camel trains worked the Queensland road, which later became known as the Birdsville Track, as well as the Oodnadatta and Strzelecki Tracks.

Afghan camel drivers went as far as Wyndham and Newcastle Waters to cart supplies to stations which had no other means of fast and efficient transport. Their camels plodded down the many tracks, bringing supplies on their outward journey and returning with wool or any other product. It was the Afghan cameleers who did so much to open up Central Australia. The camels brought everything -pianos, motors, furniture and supplies. The arrival of these beasts of burden was a time of high excitement. Mail, newspapers and long-awaited clothes and cosmetics orders also came this way.

The new railway commenced at Port Augusta by the South Australian Government and headed north-east via the Pichi Richi Pass via Quorn, Hawker and Parachilna. By 1881 it had reached Beltana. Within two years it passed through Copley and reached Farina. As the line to Farina was completed, work was beginning on a southern line from Palmerston (Darwin) that was intended to join up with the southern line when they both reached Alice Springs.

By 1888, Pine Creek was reached, but no further work was carried out on the extension of this line until 1926. By 1884 Hergott Springs (Marree) had become the railhead of the southern line. After some years the line was pushed further north past Callanna, Alberrie Creek, Curdimurka, Coward Springs, Strangways Springs, William Creek, Anna Creek, Box Creek, Edwards Creek, Warrina, Algebuckina and Mount Dutton until it finally reached Oodnadatta in 1891. Oodnadatta remained the railhead for the next forty years.

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In an effort to advance the line and get construction going once again, in 1895 activists began singing the praises of outback Australia, stating that the interior was not all desert, but had extensive areas of good land fit for cultivation and a variety of tropical products. Despite regular attempts to speed up its progress, the laying of the line through some of Australia's most desolate and flood prone country was painfully slow.

The first promise to complete the line came in the Acceptance Act of 1910, though no date given and the promise was not followed through. In 1926, the line was acquired by Commonwealth Railways, which began immediate extension of the line south from Darwin. Katherine was reached in 1926, Birdum was reached in 1929 but the line was never extended beyond a terminus at Larrimah.

Construction finally came to a halt in 1929 when the Commonwealth Government completed the section from Rumbalara to Alice Springs, but the line would never be extended to link up with the northern line. By that time, the camel and its driver had lost it economic value and became a nuisance and a pest. In 1925 the South Australian Government passed the Camel Destruction Act, giving police the right to shoot any camel found trespassing or without a registration disk. On many occasions they were just shot as vermin. In 1935 the Marree police shot 153 camels in one day.

The rail service began as a limited mixed train which was given the official title of "The Oodnadatta night train". When the route was extended beyond Oodnadatta, it became known as the "limited mixed" once more. The legendary train we now know as The Ghan actually came into existence on 4th August 1929 when the first passengers arrived at Stuart (yet to be named Alice Springs). It was two and a half hours late.

According to legend, The Ghan name is believed to have originated in Quorn in 1923 when the Great Northern Express was dubbed The Afghan Express by railwaymen. Whether the train was named after the Afghan camel drivers or was a private staff joke at the expense of Commonwealth Railways Commissioner George Gahan, as has also been suggested, probably no one will ever know. Commissioner Gahan was on the first train to Alice Springs in early August 1929.

From 1926 the Commonwealth Railways had assumed management and maintenance of the Great Northern Railway and without its input, the line would probably have never reached Alice Springs. From the outset, the service was equally as popular with tourists as it was with outback residents travelling to and from the big city. A new set of carriages were built in Port Augusta that included nine sit-up cars, one sleeping car, a special service car, a small buffet car and five relay brake vans.

The sleeping, buffet and special service cars were all elaborately decorated vehicles modelled on designs perviously used by Commonwealth Railways for their Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie standard gauge railway service. Many of these cars are now in possession of Pichi Richi Railway. Each car has the unusual feature of having horizontally slatted outside louvres based on "Sudan Government Railway" practice which kept the hot summer sun off the window glass, but managed to obscure most of the view from the windows.

It was expected that the railway would assist the development of the pastoral and mining potential of the inland, but the Central Australian Railway never lived up to the many promises made, or the financial success which had been envisaged. Unfortunately, the flash floods and the extreme climate of the outback made the line anything but reliable. It was not uncommon for passengers to be marooned for several days waiting for flood waters to recede or for trackside workers to arrive to repair a section of track that had been washed away. Legend has it that the driver would then have to shoot wild animals to keep the passengers fed. In the 1970's the train was not sighted for three months and essential supplies like milk were flown in daily until it meandered through the gap one day to a community reception and breakfast in Alice Springs which astounded the passengers.

The last narrow gauge Ghan pulled out of Marree at 1:16 am on 25th November, 1980 upon completion of the new standard gauge line to Tarcoola, marking the end of an era and a significant chapter in South Australia's and the Northern Territory's railway history.

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