Outback Tracks: a journey on the Ghan

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE DECEMBER 2015 EDITION OF LONELY PLANET TRAVELLER MAGAZINE (lonelyplanet.com/magazine)

DAY 1

ADELAIDE

What is the longest thing moving in the world at the precise moment you read this? A jumbo jet? An oil tanker? Disqualifying phenomena like glaciers and tectonic plates, the answer is likely to be a train, and quite likely an Australian train, crawling across the outback on the far side of the world.

Lonely Planet - The Ghan - Australia

The Ghan

Australia has the record for the world’s longest train (4.5 miles) and though the service on the platform of Adelaide Station one crisp autumn morning measures a comparatively measly half a mile, it is still in the tradition of truly whopping, postcode-straddling Australian trains.

This particular train is the Ghan, the luxury sleeper service renowned as the Orient Express of the Antipodes. The train readies for departure, and passengers potter along the platform with their luggage in tow – some board golf buggies to reach the remoter carriages. On board, uniformed staff shuttle guests to their quarters: those with cabins at the front end of the Ghan will have already travelled half a mile of the 1,851 miles between Adelaide and our final destination, Darwin, a three day journey north across the continent.

This trans-outback journey has a special place in Australian hearts. The vast majority of the passengers are (generally retired) Aussies: some sent clockwork Ghans puffing across the outback of their living room floors as kids. But, more importantly, some 85% of Australians live on or around the coast. For many of them, travelling on the Ghan is a way to grasp the immensity of their nation for the first time: to get some measure of the emptiness that extends into infinity beyond their garden fences.

There is a frisson of anticipation before departure. Passengers drum their fingers waiting for the screech of the wheels. There are questions for the staff: ‘How do you turn on the shower? Where is the dining car?’ But the question most often asked is: ‘Why is it called the Ghan?’

Lonely Planet - The Ghan - Australia

The Adelaide Mosque

THE ADELAIDE MOSQUE

The unlikely place to find the answer is the Adelaide Mosque, a short walk from the station in a quiet neighbourhood of fish and chip shops and injury claims lawyers. The little timber prayer hall is quiet but for the hum of suburban traffic, and the squawks of cockatoos perched on the minarets.

The story of this mosque is a strange one. By the 1880s, Britain had conquered the world and settled Australia’s coastline. All that remained was a giant, faintly embarrassing question mark over the middle of the colony. Some twirly-moustached Victorian explorers mistakenly believed this terra incognita contained an inland sea, and set off into the wilderness carrying boats on their backs. Not a small number became part of the ancient Australian tradition of ‘disappearing into the centre’, never to be seen again.

Britain enlisted the help of the Afghan cameleers – young nomads who grew up herding camels where the snows of the Hindu Kush sloped down to the green plains of the Punjab in modern-day India and Pakistan. They generally weren’t Afghans, but they were certainly experts with camels, driving caravans through the fierce midday heat, and supplying the little archipelago of outposts that reached far across the empty heart of Australia.

At the end of their day’s work, they would tether their camels to eucalypts, lay their prayer mats by the billabongs and sing ‘Allahu Akbar’ westward to the setting sun. Then they would drift asleep with lungs full of hookah smoke, under an unfamiliar sky painted with upside-down constellations.

When the travelling days of the ‘Ghans’ were over, they built this mosque; their good name was given to the railway they helped construct, and whose tracks followed their own, north from Adelaide into the outback.

Lonely Planet - The Ghan - Australia

Dawood Choudhury in the mosque

‘Every time I come here I think of the cameleers,’ says Dawood Choudhury, an Australian Muslim who made the same journey as the cameleers (albeit a century later), travelling from Pakistan to Adelaide as a teenager. ‘We are proud of them, and we still pray for their souls.’

Dawood shows me around the mosque, pulling out crinkly old Qurans, greeting the congregation members with a ‘Salaam Aleykum’ and a ‘G’day mate’. The cameleers are long gone, but the mosque they built stands today as one of the oldest in the southern hemisphere.

‘When the cameleers crossed the outback, they were far away from home,’ says Dawood, waving goodbye. ‘It could only ever be their faith that sustained them’.

Lonely Planet - The Ghan - Australia

Leaving Adelaide

PORT AUGUSTA

Departing Adelaide, the Ghan skirts the shores of the Spencer Gulf until it reaches Port Augusta. After this, the settlements thin out, and the outback proper begins.

Glancing at a map the Ghan’s route, the place names across the outback seem to fall into two distinct categories. Firstly, there are towns named by gentleman explorers daydreaming of delicate ladies in distant drawing rooms: Adelaide, Katherine, Alice Springs. And there are names hinting at the grim reality of outback exploration, Aboriginal names like Oodnadatta (rotten ground) and Bong Bong (mosquitoes buzzing), others like Broken Hill, Coffin Bay and Lake Disappointment.

Come nightfall, contours of hills rise to the east, and withered trees stand frail against a moonlit sky. Meanwhile, the bar carriage is noisy with anecdotes beloved of Australian retirees – cricket scores, quadruple heart bypasses, running over deadly snakes with ride-on lawnmowers.

But the best stories are always about ‘disappearing into the centre’. These have many variations, but a basic set of ingredients: a friend of a friend of a friend, a cheery outback roadtrip, a wrong turn down a dirt road – and, finally, a set of bones bleached by the sunshine. There follows a cautionary nod to the gloom outside the carriage window, as if anyone might be randomly seized by the outback’s strange gravitational pull, and suddenly swallowed by its vastness.

One Ghan passenger confronted with the prospect of such an outback demise was Chad Vance, a 19-year-old Alaskan who, in 2009, disembarked the train during a short stop in Port Augusta to stretch his legs. Losing track of time, and seeing the train edging along the platform without him, he instinctively jumped onto a carriage stairwell. He spent the best part of two hours clinging on outside as the Ghan sped across the outback at 70 miles per hour, and he hammered on the door as passengers clinked glasses and ate succulent kangaroo steaks just inches away. By the time a train engineer heard him and pulled the emergency brake, his skin was pale and his lips had turned blue.

Lonely Planet - The Ghan - Australia

The outback

Chad survived, but his story exemplifies the strange paradox of the Ghan. It is the joy of inhabiting a tiny luxury world: eating gourmet food, listening to big band music on the stereo, going to bed to find a complimentary chocolate starting to melt on your crisp linen pillow. And, all the while, knowing that if you happened to be a few feet in either direction you’d find yourself lost in landscapes of lethal emptiness, disorientated and dumbstruck by the desert wind, not a soul around.

Lonely Planet - The Ghan - Australia

A vintage travel poster

DAY 2

ALICE SPRINGS

Not a soul that is, but the creatures that roam the outback. Roadkill is a recurring problem on the Ghan, and with a braking length of a mile, it is not unusual for the train to impact up to three kangaroos on a journey (the remains are removed using a high-powered hose).

Of more concern, however, is hitting one of the many feral camels that roam the outback, a collision that, in the words of one engine driver, will ‘sound like a bomb going off’ at the front of the train (and might dislodge false teeth further down).

One man who has lost camels to the Adelaide-Darwin railway is Marcus Williams. The proud owner of an Akubra-style hat and a squint honed by decades spent studying horizons, Marcus also owns a camel farm just outside Alice Springs, the outback capital of squat bungalows where everyone dismounts on the second day of the trip.

Lonely Planet - The Ghan - Australia

Marcus Williams

‘Camels are heroes in Australia,’ he explains, stroking the nose of one animal that belches happily in its paddock. ‘If you went off exploring on a horse you would die, but camels have taken me to places you wouldn’t believe exist.’

Australia has the world’s biggest wild camel population, estimated by some to number over 300,000. Marcus’s association with the animals began when, as a wayfaring backpacker, he awoke one morning on a sand dune to see a caravan silently ambling by. Ever since, he has made his living domesticating wild camels, and offering very short rides to the Ghan’s passengers during the train’s five-hour layover in Alice Springs.

‘The girls used to love it when I told them I was a camel man,’ he says, climbing atop one animal, and clip-clopping among the sandy trails and the grasses near the farm. ‘I mean, how many camel men have you met?’

Quite remarkably, all of Marcus’s camels are descendants of those brought over from Asia in the 19th century. Upon retirement in the 1920s, the cameleers could not bear to see their animals shot or performing in the circuses of Europe. Instead, they secretly freed them to new lives roving and multiplying under interminable Australian skies.

MIDDLE OF NOWHERE

The view from the Ghan is mostly featureless: big desert, big skies, everything sweating in furnace-hot temperatures.

Every so often, the train passes a cow standing in a remote, godforsaken spot. The cow invariably has a look of intense confusion, as if trying to remember how it came to be here in the first place. At other times we pass termite mounds in clusters, like an outback Stonehenge. But mostly the emptiness is total. You can take a nap and wake up hours later to precisely the same view. On certain stretches of the journey, passing a tree counts as a minor event.

Then, at around five o’clock each day, something miraculous and wonderful happens. With sunset, the cracked earth turns a deep red colour, and the landscape suddenly becomes wildly beautiful.

Lonely Planet - The Ghan - Australia

The outback

It is a transformation as pronounced as frog-to-Prince Charming, or Cinderella going to the ball. With each passing minute, the reds intensify. Ochre turns to vermillion, and blinding sun gives way to soft nectarine light. Look at a satellite image, and most land on Earth follows a muted colour scheme, tinted with the muddy green of a Barbour jacket or the beige of a Digestive biscuit, maybe. Only Australia is a different colour altogether: a deep terracotta red, a hue with almost no peer on the planet.

By the time guests are summoned to the dining car, the landscape is at its most magnificent. Tangerine streaks of cloud light the sky, kangaroos hop in and out of view, and shadows grow from the trunks of the acacias and the ghost gum trees.

Lonely Planet - The Ghan - Australia

The dining car

For a few minutes all eyes at the dinner table are transfixed – forks miss mouths, and steamed new potatoes roll onto the cushioned carpets below. The sun sinks below the horizon. By the time pudding is served, everything is grey.

DAY 3

DARWIN

On the final day on the Ghan, we awake to an altogether different, green landscape, of tropical fruit plantations, mangrove swamps and little rivers on their way to the Timor Sea.

Lonely Planet - The Ghan - Australia

En route to Darwin

One of the biggest problems the first Ghan railwaymen encountered were rivers like these; there are historical accounts of daredevil engine drivers racing over bridges seconds before the structures were washed away by flash floods. At other times, flooding would leave trains marooned for days in the bush, the staff shooting brush turkeys to feed passengers.

Our journey ends safely next to freight containers on the outskirts of Darwin, the Northern Territory capital of high-rise buildings and promenades by the Timor Sea. Passengers dismount – proud to have chatted, scoffed and snored their way across the empty core of Australia – and the train is prepared for its return journey.

Bed linen is changed. Kitchens are restocked. Squished kangaroos are hosed off the engine. Only then is the Ghan ready to perform the timeless Aussie ritual: disappearing into the centre, all over again.

Lonely Planet - The Ghan - Australia

The Ghan arrives in Darwin