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Following The Original Ghan Railway

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.

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. 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 Express, then The Ghan, by which time it had been officially adopted by Commonwealth Railways officials.

Over the years, this explanation has often been disputed, with suggestions that the name was coined by railwaymen on the line as a private staff joke at the expense of Commonwealth Railways Commissioner George Gahan, who was responsible for creating and running the iconic railway service. Commissioner Gahan, who was on the first train to Alice Springs in early August 1929, was not liked by his staff. They referred to Gahan’s pride and joy – behind his back – as the Gahan Express, putting the emphasis on the word ‘express’. The train was notorious for being slow, and was often anywhere up to a few days late. Whether the train was named after the Afghan camel drivers or the unloved Mr Gahan, probably no one will ever know.

The original Ghan steam train

The service started in 1879 when the first 40 kilometres of track was laid between Port Augusta and Quorn. It 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.

The line was built in stages through the Flinders Ranges, Marreeand Oodnadatta over a period of 50 years, finally reaching 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.

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. The Old Ghan was replaced by a new standard gauge rail line built with termite proof concrete sleepers further to the west of the original route, in order to avoid the potential flooding and other problems encountered along the way.

The drive

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 test travelled from April to September and takes 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.

Pichi Pass Railway

Quorn: 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 museum.

Hawker railway station

Hawker: 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.

Merna Mora: 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 railway station

Beltana: 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.

Leigh Creek: 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 Alice Springs.

Copley: 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.


Farina: Farina can be found on the edge of the desert in the far north of South Australia, Farina is situated on the aligmnent of the original Ghan railway, 26 km north of Lyndhurst and 55 km south of Marree where the Oodnadatta and Birdsville Tracks commence. The town was the railhead from Port Augusta from May 1882 until 1884 when the line was extended first to Marree and then Alice Springs. One of the more unusual cargoes embarked at Farina railway station was South Australia s biggest meteorite. The 1.2 tonne Murnpeowie iron Meteorite was dragged out of the desert north-east of here about a century ago; and can be seen today at the South Australian Museum in Adelaide. Farina is a ghost town now but in its heyday it had two pubs, a brewery, a post office, bakery and plans for more than four hundred housing blocks.

Two former Ghan locomotives as Marree

Marree: 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.

Remains of Curdimurka Siding

Curdimurka Siding: 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.

Beresford Siding

Beresford: The old Beresford railway siding was one of the sites along the line which had giant water softeners to prepare water for the steam locomotives.

Coward Springs: 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

Mound Springs: 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.

Strangways stockyard ruins

Strangways: Strangways Springs were named by explorer Warburton in 1858 while surveying the Overland Telegraph Line route. It was chosen as a site for a repeater station in 1870 and the ruins of this, and the early station are still visible.

Remnant from the Skylab space station, which crashed in the vicinity in July 1979. Alongside it is part of a rocket fired from Woomera Rocket Range.

William Creek: Between William Creek and Lake Eyre a section of line stands proud – not all the sleepers are here though, some are now part of the dining room extension of the William Creek Hotel. Some of the lines were ripped up and machinery taken for scrap but in other sections the sleepers lie in order, but with the track missing. The pub here features a dining room made completely out of the railway sleepers from the Old Ghan. Every square inch of wall and ceiling space of the bar area is covered with business cards, pictures, knickers and G strings.

Anna Creek Station: Anna Creek station is 30,027 sq. km. or nearly half the size of Tasmania. The boundary is north of William Creek.

Desalination (water softening) plant and water tower at Edwards Creek siding

Edwards Creek Siding: Another old Ghan railway siding near Bungadilla Creek where travellers can see the most southerly species of ‘Gidgee Tree’. Edward Creek Station was built in 1889 as one of the more significant maintenance centres along the Great Northern Railway and became a major stopping place between Marree and Oodnadatta during the Second World War.

The site is one of the largest and most intact complexes on the Old Ghan line and reflects two phases of accommodation  the original station buildings and the upgrading of facilities by the Commonwealth Railways during the wartime emergency of 1942- 44. It contains the only surviving station building on the railway, as well as one of only three Kennicott water softeners in South Australia, a variety of railway technology and the ruins of the largest housing complex on the line.

Warrina siding cairn

Warrina Siding: A cairn and commemorative plaque at Warrina recalls the Elder Scientific Expedition which left the spot in 1891 on a 6,886 km. journey to Western Australia.

Peake Hill: Just north of Warrina near the turn-off to the abandoned Peake Telegraph Station is a plaque recording the arrival of explorer Ernest Giles in 1876 from a crossing of the continent from Geraldton in Western Australia. Giles may well be the most under-rated explorer in Australia’s brief history and his achievements in remote areas are outstanding. Some 20km. north is the old Peak Hill repeater station and a gold and copper mine. The track in is very rough and recommended for 4WD vehicles only. The whole area is of great historical significance and you are requested to respect its historical importance to Australia’s Heritage.

Algebuckina bridge

Algebuckina: A siding ruin near the Neales River with a permanent waterhole east of the track. One of the most impressive bridges (1889) on the old line is across the river. It is 12 metres above the river and at 578m in length, is the longest bridge ever built in South Australia. Small quantities of gold were mined here in the 1880’s.

Oodnadatta: (1054km. from Adelaide) An historic town retaining much of its character from when it was an important rail-head between 1891 and 1929 when the rail was extended to Alice Springs. The sandstone railway station remains as a reminder of the heady days when all freight north was disembarked here for transportation by camel to Alice Springs. It contains a collection of historical photographs, memorabilia and Aboriginal artefacts and a preserved portion of the Ghan Railway. There is an hotel, caravan park, general stores, medical services and an airstrip.

Abminga Spring siding

Abminga Spring: Here one can see the remains of this sidings’ coal loading facilities as well as what was probably a comprehensive workshop. The trackside is littered with bits of rusty steel and old rail spikes etc.

Deep Well Siding: A major railway siding on the Old Ghan Railway. Old six bedroom railway quarters built in 1938 remain, as does a trolley shed, bore shed, water tower and yards. On the east side, there is an elevated concrete water tank from the early steam train days.

Aptula (Finke): Relics include the remains of the Railway Station and fettler’s cottages. The track to Alice Springs follows the old Ghan. The track to Rodinga Siding runs mainly on top of the rail easement. In many places the sleepers are still visible under the road surface which is littered with rail spikes and other extraneous lumps of rail associated steel. The old sidings north of Aptula now have signage placed for the Ghan Railway Heritage trail, which tells of conditions experienced by those who lived and worked on the Ghan. Unfortunately, most of the railway relics here have been vandalised or souvenired by past visitors.

Rodinga siding

Rodinga Siding: About 140km north of Finke and 90 km south of Alice Springs. One of the original fettlers camps established during the construction of the Old Ghan Railway. The fettlers quarters consisting of nine rooms plus a kitchen are of the Ewaninga style of prefabricated concrete. Only the slab shell of the dining area remains.

Bundooma Siding: A siding and base for maintenance gang that came into operation with the completion of the Alice Springs rail in 1929. The six room bungalow built in 1943 was still listed as a station in 1961. Maintenance gangs were still active here until closure of the rail in 1980. Concrete stumps and foundations are all that remain of the camp. A large elevated water tank for quick-filling of tanks on the trains is the distinctive feature. Water was pumped from Alice Well located a few kilometres over the sand dunes to the west.

Engoordina siding

Engoordina Siding: The siding buildings consist of two and three bedroom quarters with kitchen and dining area in the middle. The siding was the base for maintenance gang No. 22. An increase in military traffic in World War II instigated the establishment of a large passing loop in 1941. The Engoordina Siding was listed as a station in 1951 but was closed in March 1959.

Ewaninga Siding: One of the original fettler camps established during the construction of the Old Ghan Railway. Ewaninga Siding was listed as a station in 1930. The old railway line from Macdonnell Siding finishes at this siding. The Ghan Preservation Society runs tours to the site.

The Old Ghan Museum, Alice Springs

Alice Springs: The Old Ghan Museum, Tea Rooms and Heritage Railway is run by the Ghan Preservation Society. The Museum is housed in the original Macdonnell Siding buildings in Norris Bell Avenue, 8 kilometres south of Alice Springs. Every Sunday the museum operates a tourist railway journey in a train hauled by an old Ghan locomotive along 30km of the original Ghan line to Ewaninga siding.

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