The Ghan

One Map To Travel. Free Thoughts For Exploring.

The Ghan

July 11, 2020 Australia 0
Part 1: How the adventure ended

Between the temperate climate of its south, and the tropics of the north, Australia keeps a whole lot of nothing. This is not unduly surprising as the sixth largest country in the world contains only seven cities most non-nationals can name. Yet that abundance of space is exactly why crossing this massive island aboard its most famous train, The Ghan, feels epic. Vertically bisecting the country between Adelaide and Darwin, the 2979km route is the way to see Australia’s red centre at leisure.

Leisure is an appropriate word. As slow travel succeeds exoticism as aspirational decadence – it is not far one goes, but how long one takes – The Ghan’s itinerary is luxurious. The track, run twice weekly in either direction, requires three days and two nights, and its trains make only three stops in the whole interior, at Alice Springs, Katherine, and either Marla, Manguri or Coober Pedy. During these pauses, usually around four hours, passengers may either alight or join excursions.

For passengers wanting slower still there is ‘The Ghan Expedition’, which expands stops in order to extend the voyage to a fourth day. Alternatively, Journey Beyond Rail Expeditions (previously Great Southern Rail), which operates The Ghan as well as The Indian Pacific (east coast to west coast), Overland (Melbourne to Adelaide) and Great Southern (Brisbane to Adelaide), sells Ghan holiday packages ranging from 7 to 14 nights.

The marketing for these trips includes words such as ‘dream’ and ‘splendour’, and each journey is sold as a creator of memories. The ‘Red Centre Secrets’ option (AU$3,449) offers ‘a sacred and spiritual landscape unlike any other on the planet’. ‘Outback Beauty’ (AU$7,159) will ‘stay with you forever’. Passengers on The Ghan are not travelling by train, but having train experiences. The brochure does not hide that The Ghan is an item for bucket lists.

The Gunlom Falls in Kakadu National Park [Photo: Jamie Wills]

It could be argued that ever it was. When I travelled on The Ghan, the Indian Pacific and The Sunlander across six weeks in 2009, I did so as a tourist and it was certainly not cheap. However, one major change has occured since then, and it is a change that means I could not enjoy The Ghan now. In June and July 2016, Journey Beyond Rail pulled the ‘Red’ service from all trains, leaving only ‘Gold’ and ‘Platinum’. In real terms, it meant it was no longer possible to buy a seat on The Ghan, only a cabin. The cheapest tickets went from AU$939 to AU$2299, and a train across Australia became a very specific holiday catering to a niche clientele.

In cancelling the Red Service, Journey Beyond Rail cited a removal of government subsidies, while travel experts reasoned that low cost flights had culled the average tourist’s interest in an expensive train. It was easier, therefore, to convert their property into an exclusive toy for the wealthy, who would pony up the cash backpackers refused to part with, provided there were a few fancy frills. The losers of this move would be anyone who simply wanted to take a train ride across Australia. With no other services on the pan-Australia lines, adventure died in the constricting grip of ‘experience’.

Part 2: How the adventure began

Train enthusiasts know that one does not need a champagne breakfast to enjoy the expanses accompanying a railway, or a dining car to feel the wonder that exists in great engineering, where the spirit of adventure breathes in the very audacity of construction. Material touches are secondary to the train, the countryside in which it rolls, and the outrageous effort required to make the line. For these reasons, and despite the exclusion induced by present prices, The Ghan has always been a great railway journey.

Riding The Ghan has the intangible element that exists in the best trains: a troubled history. The building of the route was difficult, as exemplified by the northern half between Alice and Darwin only being completed in 2004, 75 years after the southern section. Additionally, the history is not clean. It is a track that symbolises the story of two Australias, in which European explorers entered into Aboriginal lands, and the very concept of The Ghan mirrors Australia’s heroic and detested pioneers. Construction of a north-south railway was a descendant of the original long expeditions, in which explorers trekked into unknown, unmapped territory.

That history of exploration is visible in the name and the logo of The Ghan. The moniker is a shortened version of ‘The Afghan Express’, a term for nineteenth-century camel trains bound for the desert which utilised cameleers from central and southern Asia. Distinctions between discovery and conquering may be argued, but the importing of camels showed that getting across the desert was a major goal for wilder men of the time. The logo of the camel on The Ghan also embraces this lineage, albeit the story of the humped beasts in Australia is rife with tragedy, dating all the way back to a camel named Harry.

The Finke River, where water flows for only a few days a year [Photo: Jamie Wills]

Using camels to cross the desert made perfect sense in the nineteenth century, for they were less likely to drop dead than horses. Consequently, in 1840, a cargo was dispatched from Africa, via the port of Tenerife, to Adelaide. Alas, only one animal, Harry, survived the trip, making him the single example of his species on the entire continent. The definition of unique, Harry was nonetheless put to work, joining six men, six horses and twelve goats on John Horrock’s expedition around Lake Torrens and the Spencer Gulf.

Unfortunately, it turned out that Harry was a pain in the ass. He bit the goats and the men, and worse was to follow when he caused Horrocks to shoot himself in the face. A letter written by Horrocks in 1846 describes the incident thus:

Whilst Mr Gill was unfastening it I was screwing the ramrod into the wad over the slugs, standing close alongside of the camel. At this moment the camel gave a lurch to one side and caught his pack on the lock of my gun, which discharged the barrel I was unloading; the contents of which first took off the middle finger of my right hand between the second and third joints, and entered my left cheek by my lower jaw, knocking out a row of teeth from my upper jaw.

That the incident occurred when Horrocks was trying to shoot a ‘beautiful bird’ to ‘add to the collection’ may suggest cosmic karma, and could be amusing if Horrocks did not die of infections to his wounds, demanding before he expired that Harry be put down.

The trouble with Harry did not dissuade explorers from bringing further camels, now from the Indian subcontinent. However, the reign of camels was short-lived, and the Afghan Express routes became increasingly obsolete after the Pichi Richi railway began development in 1878. By 1929 the train, nicknamed The Ghan, had been extended to Stuart (renamed Alice Springs in 1933) and the first half of the great cross-continent railway was ready. Re-routing and re-gauging in the 1950s means today’s Pichi Richi and Ghan are separate entities – the former is now a steam engine novelty – but such modern history is not sexy when riding a train that links back to a belligerent camel.

Part 3: Why explore central Australia

That passengers will see kangaroos hopping gaily away from The Ghan as it rolls across the desert is marketing spin. Instead, if moving south to north, as most do, the landscape is farming and open scrub until it gets dark. It is easy to forget that much of the world’s great railway journeys are carried out at night, to be undertaken while sleeping to a constant rattle and an occasional horn. Still, it is 25 hours to Alice Springs, and these new train cruises are designed to offer everyone Outback time. The breakfast stop at Marla, described alliteratively as an ‘Outback outpost in the remote reaches of South Australia’, promises customers will:

enjoy a one of a kind experience, as you watch the desert come to life at sunrise

Naturally, back when the red service did run, economy passengers had to wait aboard while this ‘one of a kind experience’ was enjoyed.

That the most popular route on The Ghan is south to north (Adelaide to Darwin) is because tourists initially wish to be in Melbourne or Sydney. I was not any different, but for those chancing the other direction there is a slightly altered itinerary, as breakfast in Marla becomes stargazing in Manguri. Alice Springs and Katherine, however, are constants, with the former being a major selling point. Many maps imply Alice is the only town in the entire red centre, and arriving in the town after such a long ride definitely encourages a sense of isolation.

Scrubland makes up much of the early view between Adelaide and Alice Springs [Photo: Jamie Wills]

Like all the stops on The Ghan, Alice Springs offers an option of properly alighting or joining an excursion. The banishment of poor people means the tours have become increasingly elaborate, and now include the chance to fly to Uluru and still be back for dinner. This decadence seems a little pointless for tourists evidently not in a rush, and is overly dismissive of what else the town possesses. With the next train two or four days away, depending on the day of arrival, there is ample time to explore. Expensive planes, trains and helicopters can only appeal to people who want their luxury experiences completed in a hurry.

Uluru and Kata Tjuta are the most famous draws in the area, and a trip to these big red rocks will take a long day – long enough to require two drivers. I visited with a local company who provided a jolly barbecue, but Journey Beyond Rail supplies similar outings for lazier booking. Goodness knows which organisations best support the area’s economy, but these are undoubtedly must visit destinations, even with the drive and resident merciless flies.

Uluru [Photo: Jamie Wills]

Three other attractions fit nicely into a couple of days in Alice: the telegraph station; the flying doctors museum; and the desert park. The first of these is exactly how one imagines an Outback ranch, consisting of a few huts in a plot of red land and wallabies indulging in shade beneath a single tree. However, its modesty belies its colonial importance, because this communications relay point, completed in 1871, was the first European settlement in the entire area and vital for moving messages to Darwin and subsequently the British Empire. Instead of a posted messages taking three months, morse code via Alice Springs and Darwin could have words in London within 5 hours.

Self-reliance was paramount for anyone positioned here, as supplies were only sent once a year, and coping in isolation is a theme at the Flying Doctors Museum too. Since my visit, the museum has added a hologram of founder Rev. John Flynn, his image addressing visitors like John Hammond’s in Jurassic Park, but this museum is very much more about the memorabilia. And even if this does not equate to much in a person’s eyes, the appreciation of trained medical personnel being selfless will get you in the gut every time.

On a patch of grass outside the central supermarket, many visitors to Alice have witnessed a less wholesome situation. The problem of drunk aboriginees in Alice is infamous and much discussed by people who have better insights and interviews than myself. Whilst reasons and solutions are debated – including whether imposed ‘solutions’ are appropriate at all – the visibility of the issue is, in itself, an element within the tragedy. There are over 4000 Aboriginees living in Alice Springs, but what happens in open public spaces is sadly memorable. Worse, in a typical Ghan trip like mine, the only other encounter with aboriginal culture is the chance to buy some overpriced dreamtime art. Train holidays are great, but not productive mediums for understanding social issues.

The Flying Doctors Museum in Alice Springs [Photo: Jamie Wills]

That the Aboriginees have lived in central Austrlia for at least 30 000 years is staggering, especially considering how little initially appears in the Alice Springs area. Vegetation is scrappy and the Todd River is an ephemeral river, spending much of the year as a dusty empty furrow on the outskirts of town. Yet walking around between train rides, visiting said supermarket and restaurants that sell unusual meats, often feels like visiting a Californian mining town that was built by frontier pushers but now caters to 1849-curious tourists. It is fun, but everything still feels temporary. The town befits a stop on a longer journey.

Part 4: The Other Wills

In the heart of Alice Springs is a street called Wills Terrace. I had never seen a street with my name on it, which made such a discovery rather exciting. Furthermore, this isn’t a casual coincidence, but a commemoration to a man who fulfilled the early Afghan Express dream in reaching the very north. However, walking a tangent back into Australian history finds good reason to disassociate one’s self from this particular namesake.

The Burke and Wills expedition of 1861, the second Australian expedition involving camels, was staggeringly worse than the first and ultimately made the name Wills synonymous with tragic failure in Australia. Run by Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills, its shambolic end was sufficiently grim to warrant the Royal Society to hold an inquest, with evidence supplied by those who had not died. Rather than a camel called Harry, the culprit on this occassion was human idiocy.

Mr Wills, to be fair, had not been an original leader. Instead, the plan to trek the 3250km from Melborne, on the south coast, to the Gulf of Carpentaria, on the north, was given to Burke and George Landells. In earnest preparation, Landells first ventured to India and what we now know as Pakistan, where he procured 24 camels and an Irish soldier named John King. By the time all was ready, the group had 26 or 27 camels (the records are a bit confused), alongside 23 horses, 19 men and six wagons, three of which were filled with dry meat. To add to the weight, they also brought 60 gallons of rum to feed the camels as Landells fought it might fend off scurvy.

This ridiculous parade was famously slow. After the first day it had not even exited Melbourne, and when it finally did three wagons had already broken down. Tempers began to fray, and at the town of Balranald the foreman, Charles Ferguson, was dismissed for arguing with Burke, for which he allegedly challenged Burke to a duel and certainly later successfully sued the expedition for unfair dismissal. An overburdened camel then fell, dislocating its shoulder. In Wills’s diary, he questions the extent of the camel’s injury for

‘the poor brute hobbled nearly twenty miles after us on Thursday last, and I think that is rather a good pull for one with a dislocation of the shoulder joint’

Successful Exploration through the Interior of Australia, from the journal and letters of William John Wills (1863)

Wills wrote fondly of his leader Robert Burke. Unfortunately not everyone in the group was so enamoured. Upon reaching Bilbarka, local shearers got into the camels’ rum, leading to Burke to propose jettisoning the booze. Landells, tired of Burke meddling with his animals, quit. Again according to Wills’s diary, Landells’s summation upon leaving for the station – for they had still not explored further than a train ticket – was:

‘Mr. B. was a rash, mad man; that he did not know what he was doing; that he would make a mess of the whole thing, and ruin all of us’

Successful Exploration through the Interior of Australia, from the journal and letters of William John Wills (1863)

Worse news for Burke was that fellow explorer John McDouall Stuart, who undoubtedly did know what he was doing, had begun sniffing around the same south-north challenge. At Menidee, still only 750km from the start, Burke blew up the group. Seven fit souls were chosen to accompany him in a lead group, including now second-in-command William Wills. But as comical calamities morphed into far more serious matters, he might have wished he had been fired too.

It was Cooper’s Creek where things fell apart and infamy gained. With rations dwindling it was decided a gang of four would make a dash for the gulf, taking six camels and a horse, while the others would await the slower travellers still navigating their way from Menidee. Burke, Wills, John King and Charles Grey set off, and to their credit they reached the gulf, or as close as this farce deserved: mangrove swamps blocked the coast, and they arrived in the middle of a monsoon. Turning back their problems mounted, starting with Grey believing he had caught dysentery.

Evidently a hard man to convince, Wills poked around Grey’s stool and doubted the claims as much as he had scorned the camel’s limp. Nevertheless, Grey decided to help himself to the team’s porridge, for which Burke beat him (although King described it as ‘not a sound thrashing’). That Grey had a point and was wasting food were both proven correct when a few days later he was dead. Soon enough so was a horse, killed for sustainence. It was a motley crew of 3 men, 2 camels, a spade, a shovel, a billy can, and a few camel pads that arrived back at Cooper Creek.

The site was empty. At an agreed tree were some supplies and a date, that very day’s date, April 21st. In what the Royal Society described as a ‘most remarkable and deplorable accident’, their companions had given up hope and left only hours earlier. Convinced they did not have the energy to catch their rested colleagues, Burke, Wills and King buried a letter at the tree stating they were setting a new course for a settlement at the aptly named Mount Hopeless. When a two-man search party arrived days later, they found nothing: Burke’s team had forgotten to advertise a letter was beneath the soil.

And thus the tragic end. After 85 kilometres of what the horrified Royal Society decreed ‘a mortifying series of disasters’, Burke’s team turned back to Cooper’s Creek having failed to find Mount Hopeless. In a final pitiful moment the local aboriginees, the Yandruwandha, tried to help. Burke shot at them. In June 1861, Burke and Wills both died.

John King, the soldier from Moy, Ireland whom Landells had recruited with the camels, was the last man left. It was King’s willingness to communicate with locals that had persuaded Landells that King was an asset, and now King sought out other locals, joining with the Yandruwandha. Eventually a search party found him. He never truly recovered from his exertions, although it was a little over ten years until TB took him in 1872. A remarkable life, he had survived the potato famine, fought in a foreign war, and trekked across Australia and back. He died aged only 33, to be largely forgotten in history.

Part 5: The north

The Ghan heads north without the drama of the Burke and Wills expedition. It has, nonetheless, managed to achieve its own curiously chequered safety record, despite often being the only moving object in the middle of nowhere. Most incidents have occurred in the suburbs of Adelaide and, to be fair, arise from vehicles sitting in its path rather than its own failings. The most deadly case was in 2002 when four people were killed in the Salisbury area after traffic congestion kept a bus and car prone on the track. The accident investigation said:

‘the backing up of westbound traffic across some part of the level crossing was not unusual and had become an accepted factor of driving in Park Terrace.’

An inevitable tragedy with unlucky victims.

The Northern Territory did have a smash in 2006 when a double-trailer road train – that is to say, a bloody big truck – was struck while traversing the Fountain Head Road crossing at Ban Ban Springs, 170km south of Darwin. The investigation into how two mighty objects collided in a void revealed very human causes, starting with the boredom of shuffling a lorry between sites fifteen times a day. Drivers had long abandoned stopping for trains they rarely saw, and when one with bilateral hearing loss did not hear a locomotive pressing its horn for four seconds 488m away, inertia took over. The 101km/h collision derailed two locomotives, a motorail wagon, and nine passenger carriages, but miraculously the worst injury was a woman’s delayed concussion after hitting her head in the Gold Kangaroo dining car.

Paranoia about train crashes is rightly rare for tourists heading to northern Australia. Fear of being eaten by a crocodile, however, passes through most people’s minds at least once. In all honesty, such attacks are also highly unlikely, and approximately 95% in Northern Australia involve locals, but they make for bloody stories. In a piece entitled ‘Being Prey’, philosopher Val Plumwood recounts surviving three death rolls in an attack in Kakadu National Park in 1985. But before the gore comes the lack of threat.

As I pulled the canoe out into the main current, the rain and wind started up again. I had not gone more than five or ten minutes down the channel when, rounding a bend, I saw in midstream what looked like a floating stick, one I did not recall passing on my way up. As the current moved me toward it, the stick developed eyes. A crocodile! It did not look like a large one. I was close to it now but was not especially afraid; an encounter would add interest to the day.

Being Prey, Val Plumwood (1996)

Plumwood’s essay describes how the attack made her re-evaluate humans’ self-absorbed master above monsters view of nature. That she believed a crocodile would add spice to her day, and her initial response to being attacked was to instruct the crocodile to ‘go away’, suggests this philosophic epiphany really ought to have arrived earlier.

Termite hills in Kakadu National Park [Photo: Jamie Wills]

A more pleasant way to be digested by a croc can be found at the Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel. It is a decent stay, but the real attraction is its novelty design. Shaped like a giant, rather sunbaked crocodile, guests enter through its mouth, encounter reception in its head, and stay in rooms that comprise its body. While the immediate surrounding area is rather sparse in vegetation due to the heat, it is a childishly joyful base for the wider Kakadu area.

Reaching Kakadu means doubling back from Darwin, whether by one’s own steam or in a package. Where The Ghan does stop, however, is Katherine, where passengers take a river tour along the nearby gorge. The scenery at the two is not entirely different, for both sit at the edge of tropical Australia. Technically, the Tropic of Capricorn rests just north of Alice Springs, but it is nearer the north that the vegetation grows. Geographically, when the trees and waterfalls appear, the track is nearly at Darwin.

Katherine Gorge [Photo: Jamie Wills]

The ‘nearly there’ moment on a long train journey comes with ninety minutes left. Time is not counted in hours, but how many activities can be managed before arrival. Reading for thirty minutes, fifteen of faffing with luggage, and the final ten inevitably staring out the window leaves enough for one streamed show, a few stupid games on a phone, or perhaps a conversation about what to do in Darwin. The city is small, with a population of 150 000, and generally used as a pause before exploring national parks. However, the Japanese air raids of 1942 and 1943 – instigated by the same crew that did Pearl Harbor – have left numerous scars that can be openly seen.

Australians say Darwinians are nuts, as mad as a cut snake, and the more regal customers descending from the gold and platinum service may need to steel themselves for that eccentricity. The truth to this may be exaggerated, yet even if the residents are Kurtz at the end of river, this is not really the end of all civilization. Darwin has been a port for hundreds of years, and the home of Aboriginees for longer. Papua New Guinea and Indonesia are twice as close as Adelaide. Our voyage on The Ghan feels like an achievement, but is just one portion of a proper adventure. With the packaged ‘experience’ now complete, it is easy to merely get on a plane and exit, but that truly reduces great railway journeys to a disposable product. The Ghan may no longer be affordable to most, but whether the wealthy come for slow travel or luxury travel, the thrill of travel itself deserves to live on.