There’s something mesmerising about watching the vast emptiness of the Australian outback glide by as you relax on board the Ghan.
You regularly find yourself lost in dreamy thought or meandering down seldom-visited memory lanes. Kilometre after kilometre of scorched red earth and hardy native vegetation passes by, and at times I wonder what foreign guests make of the landscape. You wouldn’t call it ‘jawdropping’ and yet, to an Aussie it’s incredibly beautiful in its simplicity. And I don’t think anyone, regardless of his or her origin, could fail to appreciate the ancientness of Australia’s heart.
The Ghan and I have a history. I first rode this rail service through the Red Centre as a kid, sometime in the late seventies. Back then, the train travelled from Port Augusta in South Australia (just over 300 kilometres north of Adelaide) to Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. A transcontinental rail service from Adelaide to Darwin had been proposed as far back as 1911, however it was yet to be realised. It was a wonderful experience, and the start of an ongoing love of rail travel. I remember the train being long, brown and slow (in those days, the Ghan travelled so slowly that at times you could jump off and walk beside it).
Fast-forward 40 years and the Ghan now travels the entire 2,979 kilometres between the capitals of South Australia and the Northern Territory. The journey, which takes three days and two nights, has lost none of its magic, and continues to embody the pioneering spirit of the colonial Afghan cameleers that opened up central Australia. It’s an experience that has found its way into Australian folklore, and rightly so.
There are two classes of service on board — Gold and Platinum. I’m travelling in Gold Service, and to be honest, boarding the train is something of an exercise in managing your own expectations, which will, understandably, be high. After all, this is not a cheap holiday option. While the Gold Service single cabins have recently been refurbished, the twin cabins do bear the scars of previous expeditions. The wood panelling is nicked here and there, and the fixtures could do with an update. Cabins feature an upholstered day seat, a picture window and side table, a small closet and a vanity mirror. The day seat becomes a bed for one guest at night and a second bunk bed folds down from the wall above.
Each twin cabin has a private ensuite bathroom. These were refurbished back in the early noughties. There’s a small vanity sink and mirror, a toilet and a shower with a wrap-around curtain that manages to keep the water reasonably contained. Space is certainly at a premium.
Despite a few initial misgivings, within a very short space of time you’re prepared to forgive the odd scuff mark or damp loo paper as you fall under the spell of this rugged icon of the railway world — and there are so many things that the Ghan gets spectacularly right.
Watch our video review of Gold Service on the Ghan:
Thinking about booking a journey on the Ghan railway service through Australia’s Red Centre? In this video, we give you a look inside Gold Service on the iconic train’s 2,979 kilometre trip from Adelaide to Darwin. Filmed in 2018, this video is a guide to what you can expect on board.
Let’s start with the staff. Faultless. Turned out in their spick and span Akubras and RM Williams attire, the Ghan’s cabin attendants and wait staff go about their business with a cheery disposition and a can-do attitude. I found them polite, engaging, and enthusiastic. Whatever Great Southern Rail (the operating company) is doing in terms of recruitment and training, they are doing it right. Special mention goes to our maître d’, Mario who managed meal times with great aplomb.
Your cabin is serviced daily and comes with fluffy white towels and Appelles Apothecary toiletries. Turn down happens during dinner and you’ll return to the cabin to find your beds set up for the night with white linen, and chocolates on the pillows. It’s all put away in the morning during breakfast.
Meals on board the Ghan are superb. They are served in the vintage surroundings of your Queen Adelaide Restaurant car, which services four guest carriages. The three sittings per meal are timed roughly 30-45 minutes apart. At the beginning of the trip, an attendant comes to your cabin and books in all your meal-times, so you know exactly when you’ll be chowing down. Each meal offers a range of two or three choices per course. The menu draws on regional specialties and the fare is impeccably presented, and framed by crisp white linen. Tables seat four, and in most cases you’ll be sharing with other guests. It’s a wonderful way to mix and mingle. If you’re up for a romantic dinner for two, nominate a later sitting.
Your passage on the Ghan is all-inclusive of Australian beers and wines, base spirits and soft drinks, and barista-made coffees. The Ghan’s Outback Explorer Lounges are its social hubs, and the bar in each is open from mid morning to late evening. Again, each lounge services four guest carriages. The lounges have a small library of books and board games, but most guests choose just to chat — and it’s not difficult to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger over a latte (exceptionally good, I have to say) or chilled Crosser sparking wine. It’s this social aspect of travelling on the Ghan that’s one of its greatest assets. And before you ask — there’s no Wi-Fi. There’s talk of the Ghan introducing it, but I sincerely hope they don’t. This trip is one of the few places on earth where you actually can disconnect — at least until you reach the next major stop and your phone starts pinging frantically to make up for lost time.
It’s not all about life on board the train. The Ghan offers a choice of immersive off-train activities, which are included in the cost of your ticket. We stop at remote Marla, Alice Springs and Katherine, and the excursions run like clockwork. The transfer coaches are clean and comfortable and local guides add their own unique flavour to the proceedings. The sunrise stop at Marla, complete with open campfires and bacon and egg sliders, is spellbinding as the rising sun strikes the red earth and glints off the steel carriages. Our river cruise with an Indigenous guide between the soaring red escarpments of Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge will stay with me forever.
Time passes with exquisite slowness as the Ghan — up to a kilometre in length — snakes its way across the landscape. Yet all too soon, the trip draws to a close. Yes, there are scrapes and scratches here and there, but you don’t conquer the mighty Australian outback without them.
If you are starting your adventure with a couple of days in cosmopolitan Adelaide, Peppers Waymouth Hotel is the perfect base for exploring everything the city has to offer. Located just a short eight-minute Uber ride from Adelaide Parklands Terminal (the Ghan’s departure point) and within easy walking distance of the Adelaide Central Market and many other top attractions, the hotel offers an Art Deco-inspired elegance and sophisticated charm, characterised by rich chocolate tones.
Accommodation options include standard guest rooms, deluxe rooms, deluxe suites, and penthouse suites. Rooms feature luxurious king or twin beds, large well-appointed marble bathrooms and all the mod cons the discerning traveller could ask for. A buffet breakfast is served daily in Essay Kitchen, which also offers dinner from Monday to Saturday.
If you are looking to venture out for dinner, the hotel is literally across the road from celebrated Press* Food & Wine, a two-minute walk from Georges on Waymouth (for superb Modern Mediterranean), and Delicatessen, which serves up French-inspired fare with flair. Proof rooftop bar is a great spot to enjoy a pre-dinner drink.
A coach transfer to selected Darwin CBD hotels is included for Gold Service passengers on the Ghan, and a post trip stay at the charming DoubleTree By Hilton Hotel Esplanade Darwin will make your transition back to normal life as gentle as possible.
DoubleTree’s signature complimentary cookie on arrival is a simple but sweet treat that will set the tone for the rest of your stay. The hotel’s 197 guest rooms and suites have recently undergone a refurbishment and are finished in neutral tones. Our suite featured stylish furnishings, great views and the irresistible Sweet Dreams by DoubleTree bed. The Nespresso coffee machine is a nice touch, and you can enjoy a morning brew before venturing out to explore.
DoubleTree by Hilton Esplanade Darwin is centrally located on the picturesque Esplanade. Everything that the city centre has to offer is within walking distance. Highlights include the Mitchell Street restaurant and bar precinct, Crocosaurus Cove, various heritage landmarks including Government House, and the Waterfront precinct with its popular wave pool. For another opportunity to cool off, head back to the hotel’s resort style in-ground pool — the largest in the CBD.
End your day at DoubleTree by Hilton Esplanade Darwin’s Aqua Restaurant and choose from a menu of local specialities. There are regular dining specials offered.
Adam travelled as a guest of Peppers Waymouth Hotel and DoubleTree By Hilton Hotel Esplanade Darwin. He travelled as a paying guest on the Ghan.
Cover image courtesy of Tourism NT. Image: Steve Strike. Additional images: Bigstock
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.