An epic, 2979-km journey through the Australian Outback.
Australia’s most iconic train journey, The Ghan, stretches from coast to coast across the vast outback. Traveling through the heart of Australia, it follows the route taken 150 years ago by early Afghan cameleers.
The Australian Outback is one of the most unique and surreal places on Earth. Imagine a land of bright red earth as far as the eye can see, dotted with spindly eucalyptus and gum trees. You get a real sense of the sheer vastness at ground level by train which you simply don't get on a plane.
Considered one of the greatest rail journeys in the world, The Ghan crosses the country from cultured Adelaide to the croc-filled creeks of Darwin. There is no better way to see the remote outback than by enjoying the comforts of The Ghan to take you there. Legendary and luxurious, it’s Australia’s version of the Orient Express.
In November 2018, I traveled across Australia on The Ghan.
This is my trip in photos.
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Originally dubbed the Afghan Express, the train was named after the pioneering Afghanistan cameleers who explored the outback.
Australia is a huge country. It is comparable in size to the United States even though it has less than 10% the population.
So it's fitting that The Ghan is one of the longest passenger trains in the world at one kilometer long.
The railway made the camels superfluous, and thousands of them were let loose in the desert, where their descendants still run wild today.
It takes 54 hours to travel the 2,979 kilometers (1,851 miles). Along the way, you stop off and explore outback towns.
The two red locomotives have 4400-horsepower diesel engines which cost $100,000 to operate. Add that to $70,000 of fees to use the rail tracks and $40,000 in maintenance fees, all these mean one thing...
The Ghan is an expensive journey.
There's no roughing it on The Ghan. This is a luxury train that goes out of its way to spoil, with all meals and tours included in the price. Over the course of the 3-day journey, staff onboard will make 1,300 beds, serve 100 kg of barramundi and cook more than 3,000 eggs.
Darwin to Katherine
My journey began from Darwin, Australia's northernmost city.
All passengers travel in private cabins that are designed to be a sofa by day and bed by night. Bathrooms are en suite.
The Outback Explorer Lounge has the best view and the perfect place to meet with other transcontinental travelers.
But the best thing is the all-inclusive wine and beer.
Yep, you read that right. Word got around pretty quick.
Just outside Darwin, there were towers of termite mounds — cleverly built on a north-south axis to avoid the sun's rays.
Soon, it was time for lunch in the Queen Adelaide restaurant car.
The train is a social experience where you sit with different guests every meal.
The food served are local delicacies of the region you're traveling through. As we were in the tropical Northern Territory, I had buffalo curry.
The menus are excellent 3-course meals, with wine included.
The train arrives in the early afternoon at Katherine.
Known as the place where the tropics meet the outback, guests are given a choice of tours, all included with the train.
I went with a cruise down the Nitmiluk Gorge. Other options include seeing ancient indigenous rock art or a helicopter flight (with extra costs).
Nitmiluk Gorge is known for its towering sandstone cliffs and saltwater crocodiles. These are the largest reptiles in the world.
The outback can become unbearably hot — it was about 40°C / 104°F when I visited. Train travel is a good way to beat the heat if you’re traveling in summer.
You'll be back on board in the late afternoon to replenish the alcoholic fluids in your system.
Soon, it was time for dinner. I chose a sumptuous barramundi, a fish famously caught in the Northern Territory.
I was treated to a sunset so sublime, I started to wonder if the 15 glasses of wine I had was too much.
While at dinner, the cabin is miraculously converted into comfortable beds. My head barely hit the pillow before the rhythm and movement of the train rocked me to sleep. Or maybe it was the wine.
Katherine to Alice Springs to Manguri
When I woke up in the morning, it seemed like someone had flipped the TV channel in the window.
I was greeted by a spectacular view — parched red desert as far as the eye can see.
I discovered that we've entered the Australia of my imagination: the Outback.
As a breakfast of Eggs Benedict and Barramundi is served, your bed is converted back to a sofa by the hospitality staff.
We arrived at Alice Springs.
At the heart of Australia and 1,500 kilometers from the nearest major city, it's the definitive outback town.
The town lies behind the MacDonnell Ranges. From a distance, it looks as though a giant angle-grinder went through the mountain.
I took a tour to visit the Simpsons Gap, an incredible gorge carved out of the rock by water flowing... in the desert.
I wanted to visit Uluru, the largest monolith in the world. But it's some 400 kilometers southwest of Alice Springs—the outback is a big place—and requires a one-hour flight with extra cost.
Back on board for lunch, I decided to adopt an organic, desert-to-table, locally-sourced diet. So I went with the Kangaroo steak.
While guests sit back in the lounge, sipping glasses of chilled wine, the sun-scorched desert whizzes by outside.
Anyone unfortunate enough to be stranded out here would have grim prospects — but most travelers on The Ghan never give the matter a second thought.
On 6 June 2009, a 19-year-old American tourist clung to the outside of The Ghan for two hours and 200 kilometers (120 miles) when he was locked out of the train following a stop. A technician heard his screams and stopped the train.
After you’ve been aboard the Ghan for a while, you start to feel as if the train is stationary, and it’s the landscape in windows that’s on the move.
If you've ever wondered what the Middle of Nowhere looks like, this is it. It's very dry in this vastness—better have another beer...
It looks extraterrestrial—blue sky and orange earth—like taking a train across the surface of Mars.
A few hours later, we crossed into South Australia, the driest state in the driest continent in the world.
Another unexpected feature of this vast landscape is the Dingo Fence, a 5,614 km long fence erected in the 1880s (the distance from London to New York). It's the longest fence in the world–despite objections from the Great Wall of China—and built to keep dingoes out.
Traveling through some of the most remote locations in the world, phone signal is intermittent. While you will generally receive signal at least once a day, guests are encouraged to unplug from their devices and fully relax.
The train makes for a good time to reflect and write.
That evening, we went through a sandstorm and followed by a thunderstorm.
On some trips, the train will stop at the remote outpost of Manguri. Far away from any city lights, you will witness the Milky Way as you've never seen before.
Manguri to Adelaide
In the morning I was greeted with views of the Flinders Ranges over breakfast, on time for a late-morning arrival in Adelaide.
The train chugs past sheep farms and vineyards, eventually rolling into the suburbs. We've arrived in civilization!
The train finally pulls into the pleasant and modern city of Adelaide, capital of South Australia.
I've just crossed a continent!
Over 3 days, I've fallen in love with the rhythm of the train and the endlessness of the desert, speeding across Australia on one of the world’s great train journeys.
There's no better way to celebrate the journey than to see the ocean along the Great Ocean Road.
In 1862, explorer John McDouall Stuart took 14 months to complete the journey that The Ghan covers in 3 days. By the end, he was half-blind, suffering from scurvy and barely capable of walking. The Ghan's passengers, by contrast, emerge at Adelaide rested and well-fed.
The Australian Outback is one of the most spectacular wildernesses in the world, and The Ghan is the most comfortable way to see it. It isn't cheap or fast, but the journey through the vast, flat expanse of the red center is unforgettable.
Traversing the full length of Australia by rail captures the diversity of landscapes, climates, wildlife, and flavors that define the world's largest island. To truly experience and fully appreciate the essence of Australia, you need to visit its red heart. You'll get a comprehension of the profound size of Australia that you simply can’t fathom while sitting on Bondi Beach.