Today, when you cross the vast deserts of Central Australia aboard
The Ghan train, you do so seated in a soft armchair in air-conditioned
comfort. But in the early days of The Ghan, it was quite a different
story. This narrow-gauge line it first travelled on lay well over 100km
east of the current one, and was no pleasure trip. Rattling through
flood-prone country, sometimes at walking pace, travel could be delayed
for up to a week and – so the story goes – the crew
sometimes had to shoot game to feed the passengers.
John McDouall Stuart, an indefatigable Scot, completed the first
known north-south continental crossing back in 1862. Stuart’s
achievement enabled two major cross-country linkages, the Overland
Telegraph (1872) and the railway – although the latter took 126
years to go all the way. Construction of the original Ghan track
closely followed Stuart’s route, with the railhead reaching
Oodnadatta in 1891.
The Afghan Express is the name railwaymen gave to the first
passenger train that ran from Terowie to Oodnadatta, through Quorn, in
1923. This was the first time a sleeping carriage was included on the
train, and when an Afghan passenger began alighting at Quorn to recite
his evening prayers before continued the journey into the night, the
train was dubbed the Afghan Express by railwaymen. Some 400 camels were
stationed at Oodnadatta during the 1890s, tended by the Muslim
cameleers, known in Australia as Afghans, who played an intrinsic role
in pioneering the Red Centre. In time, the name was abbreviated to The
Ghan and eventually used by Commonwealth Railways officials.
Inside a lounge car on the original Ghan, now on display at the Ghan Preservation Society Museum, Alice Springs
The service started in 1879 when the first 40 kilometres of track
was laid between Port Augusta and Quorn. Over the next 50 years it was
built in stages through the Flinders Ranges, Marree, Oodnadatta and
finally Alice Springs in 1929. Building this iron strip through to the
centre was epic - and maintaining it on the edge of Lake Eyre with its
sandy soil and habit of flooding was a constant job. In 1980, The Old
Ghan rail track was abandoned in favour of a new standard gauge rail
line built with termite proof concrete sleepers further to the west in
order to avoid the potential flooding and other problems encountered
along the old route.
It is possible to follow the path of the old Ghan train along what
is known as the Old Ghan Railway Heritage Trail, but a 4-wheel drive
vehicle is recommended. It does get travelled in sedans but needs the
utmost care. It is best travelled netween April to September and will
take a week or more. The drive begins at Port Augusta, South Australia,
and finishes at Alice Springs, Northern Territory. Length: 1,050 km.
The Oodnadatta Track follows closely a similar route as the Old Ghan
Railway and is often used to follow the path taken by the old line
through South Australia. The route is an adventure of historical
interest with railway sidings, stone railway buildings, track remnants,
bridges and railway infrastructure. The route was also followed by the
Overland Telegraph in 1872 and that linked Australia with the rest of
the world for the first time with telegraph communication under the
sea. Telegraph Repeater Station ruins and settlements are also on
route. One of the main reasons the route evolved is it also follows the
natural artesian springs that surface from the Great Artesian Basin, so
providing water at regular intervals. You can visit the Bubbler and
Blanches Cup to name two.
The first section of the original Ghan line to be built winded its
way through Pichi Pass Pass to the Flinders Ranges town of Quorn. This
section of line, between Port Augusta and Quorn, is now used by the
Pichi Richi Tourist Railway. This historic railway is a working railway
museum which features restored steam trains, diesel rail-cars and
carriages from the original Ghan railway. The train operates a three
hour journey through the Pichi Pass to Wool Shed Flat on weekends
between March and November. Quorn Railway Station is now a Ghan railway
The railway station was built in 1884 after the original timber
building burnt down. The original Ghan train passed through Hawker
until 1956. Hawker then operated the local line until 1970 when the
station finally closed and fell into disrepair. In 1989 the station was
restored to become the Old Ghan Restaurant and Gallery. The station and
goods shed are heritage listed.
The original Merna Mora homestead was situated near the Ghan Railway
Line about 6 kms from the existing homestead in the Flinders Ranges.
Built entirely of local stone it was once home to a family of 15. It
would have been constructed in the early 1900's.
The lime kilns here were built to help with the construction of the
Railway line. Limestone bearing deposits were burnt in these kilns to
produce lime to aid in the construction of bridges and culverts. Cement
was not available and the Chinese were adept in procuring lime from the
local dolomite deposits. These are remnants of the Mern Merna Railway
Siding. As many as seven families lived here and part of the building
comprised the Mern Merna School.
Beltana boomed with the arrival of the railway in 1881, and with an
influx of mining families following the failure of the nearby Sliding
Rock copper mine. By the mid-1880s the town had its own brewery,
general store and a school. The railway station is one of a number of
historic buildings in the town.
The increased need for coal necessitated a new standard gauge
railway being built from Marree to Port Augusta via Leigh Creek (where
coal was being mined) in 1957. For a brief period, complete narrow
gauge trains were ‘piggy- backed’ on standard gauge flatbed
cars up to Marree and then rolled off to continue on the old line to
A former 'Ghan' railway town, Copley sits at the crossroads of the
Strzlecki and Oodnadatta Tracks in the midst of the spectacular
Northern Flinders Ranges, 6 kms north of Leigh Creek township.
For a time, Farina on the Oodnadatta Track was the end of the line.
It's a ghost town now but in it's heyday it had two pubs, a brewery, a
post office, bakery and plans for more than four hundred housing blocks.
The Overland Telegraph line reached Hergott Springs in 1872. The
railway arrived 11 years later and due to anti-German WWI feelings, the
town was renamed Marree. For 20 years until 1980 Marree was a major
break-of-guage station on the Ghan line. At Marree railway station, two
locomotives and some rolling stock sit opposite the platform. Railway
relics alongside the Oodnadatta Track between Marree and William Creek
are mostly sleepers scattered in piles amongst scrub and dust.
Surprisingly it is permissible to collect the sleepers for use as
firewood; most of the track was stripped and recycled for track in
Queensland after the line was closed.
At Stuart Creek a 6km. section of the original 'Ghan' line remains
at the old Curdimurka Siding. Three old settlers cottages, a water tank
and sheds have been retained by the Ghan Preservation Society
Association of SA. An artesian bore is adjacent to the siding.
Curdimurka hosts a biannual outback ball that raises money for the Ghan
Railway Preservation Society.
The old Beresford railway siding was one of the sites along the line
which had giant water softeners to prepare water for the steam
The ruins of the old railway siding at Coward Springs is an oasis in
the desert with warm water emerging and forming an extensive pond. Date
palms, remnants of an old plantation, provide a refuge for many birds
which frequent the area. A commercial campsite with limited facilities
operates from May to October.
The Bubbler Mound Springs and Blanche Cup Mound Springs are 6km.
South of the track adjacent to Coward Springs and are among the most
spectacular in the area. Interpretive signs inform the visitor of their
significance. Water for the Ghan was not extracted from the mound
springs but from deep underground bores. Visiting the sidings you can
see water softener tanks built to remove the harmful minerals from the
bore water that caused heavy scaling on the boilers of the steam-trains.