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An epic rail journey

by Melanie Reid on 06 June 2014, 09:06AM

What’s true for people is true for places too – it’s what is on the inside that counts.

Blessed with beaches and balmy weather, Australia’s character only truly comes alive as you venture further inland into the rich heart of the Outback. For most Aussies, the Outback is just that – “out back”. More than 90 per cent of Australians live on the coast, leaving virtually untouched the mountains, plains, ranges, deserts and tropical rainforests that make up Australia’s stunning interior.
In fact, it wasn’t until the early to mid 1800s that camels, along with their Middle Eastern handlers, started to open up the vast and beautiful tracts of the Australian Outback, previously only accessed by indigenous people who have called this place their spiritual home for hundreds of thousands of years.

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These days, The Ghan – one of the world’s greatest rail journeys – is an ideal way to make the most of your exploring time in Australia. The train itself is named for those Afghan cameleers who assisted so ably in European exploration of the Outback). Since its inaugural journey in 1929, the train has inspired and captivated travellers from all walks of life – among them, explorers, pioneers, writers, migrants, jackaroos and royalty.

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A popular recommendation for travellers aboard The Ghan is “Go for Gold”. A Gold Service fare not only gets you access to comfortable accommodation in either private single or twin cabins, but it also includes all on-board meals, beverages and fascinating Off Train Excursions. The Gold Twin cabin features a comfortable day lounge that converts to bunk beds in the evening, a fully-equipped compact en suite and complimentary bathroom amenities. Popular with solo travellers wishing to avoid singles supplements, a Gold Single cabin has cosier accommodation and access to showers and toilets at the end of each carriage for shared use. While the wide windows in your cabin lend themselves to hours of wildlife spotting or sunset watching, many guests find themselves attracted to the social hub that is the Outback Explorer Lounge.

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For Gold Service guests, all standard wines, beers, spirits and non-alcoholic beverages are complimentary on-board and there’s no better place to enjoy a tipple and meet friends than in the Outback Explorer Lounge. The adjoining Queen Adelaide Restaurant offers the finest regional dining for breakfast, lunch and dinner – from South Australian lamb to Northern Territory barramundi, your taste buds will delight in the varied selection of Australian cuisine, all prepared fresh by on-board chefs.

To travel on The Ghan is to gain an appreciation of overwhelming size of Australia. It takes 2,979km and close to three days and two nights to cross the country on a silver train that itself can extend up to a kilometre in length. The glowing horizons seem endless from your window and the sheer expanse of landscape you cross is equivalent to the distance between London and Istanbul as the crow flies.

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Then, there are the destinations along the way. Travelling southbound, The Ghan starts its journey in the Top End city of Darwin – a city geographically closer to Jakarta than Sydney. It is well-known for its laid-back charm, beautiful waterways and neighbouring access to some of the world’s most remarkable national parks such as Kakadu.

Located 300km south of Darwin, Katherine is the first key stop on the journey and one of the most spectacular. The imposing Nitmiluk Gorge at Katherine is the gem of the Nitmiluk National Park. Comprising 13 separate gorges, Nitmiluk is a maze of waterways sculpted from the sandstone by the Katherine River over millions of years. Listen to the Dreamtime stories of the local Jawoyn people, witness traditional spear-throwing and cooking techniques explore the ancient rock art or simply sit back and take in this natural wonder as you cruise the river as part of your complimentary Off Train Excursion experience. Your guide may well point out a crocodile or two!

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Onwards, Alice Springs is next on the journey. Gateway to one of Australia’s best-known landmarks, Uluru (otherwise known as Ayers Rock), Alice Springs is where many travellers choose to break their journey to explore the Red Centre more comprehensively.  The town of Alice itself is a tribute to Aussie larrikinism and innovation. It is home to the infamous Finke River race (the only boat race in the world that takes place on dry land, the ever-parched Finke riverbed) and the intrepid Royal Flying Doctor Service, which provides fly-in medical services to some of the country’s most remote areas. A range of Off Train Excursions are available in Alice Springs for you to get acquainted with this colourful Australian outpost, including an opportunity to get up and personal with some of Australia’s most unique creatures at the local Desert Park.

If you’re looking to truly venture “Down Under”, The Ghan will take you to Manguri, the closest stop to Coober Pedy where many residents still live underground. The name ‘Coober Pedy’ comes from the local indigenous people who used words to this effect to describe the scenes they witnessed when European explorers first arrived in the area and built their homes underneath the scorched turf to escape the Outback heat. Take the time to have a beer at the underground hotel or explore the town’s rich opal mining culture.

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Alternatively, the train stops at Port Augusta where travellers can disembark to immerse themselves in the stunning Flinders Ranges or travel further to Eyre Peninsula for unforgettable wildlife experiences, such as undertaking a Great White Shark dive in Port Lincoln.

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Once The Ghan reaches the South Australian capital city of Adelaide, you have travelled almost 3,000km along the spine of a wide, ever-changing country; an astonishing transcontinental journey taking in the tropical Top End, the ancient Red Centre and the food and wine festivities of the south. For those wishing to do the journey south to north, The Ghan makes the epic trek in both directions.


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